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Josefina, environmental leader
Amazon, Ecuador

Jungle Mothers: Josefina Tunki, President of a People That Resists the Destruction of the Amazon

The special report Jungle Mothers concludes with this fourth installment. The protagonist is Josefina Tunki, the first woman to reach the presidency of the Pueblo Shuar Arutam (2019-2023), in Morona Santiago. At the edge of the map in Ecuador, between mining concessions that continuously grow in number, threatened by pollution and the state's indifference, lives one of the many peoples that still resist the destruction of the Amazon forest. Josefina tells her history. 

Josefina Tunki was about 11 years old when she found out that she lived in a place called Ecuador. And that this place had a ruler whose portrait hung in the house of one of her uncles. From her small stature, she looked intrigued at the image of that uniformed man without ceasing to feel alien to him.

"My uncle explained to me in the Shuar language: 'This is Guillermo Rodríguez Lara, president of Ecuador.' But I didn't understand. What could that be? I wondered. I didn't even speak Spanish well, yet."

The little girl studied at the boarding school of the Salesian Mission of Santiago, today Tiwintza, in the province of Morona Santiago. But they had not yet explained to her that Rodríguez Lara was, in reality, a dictator. An army general who was nicknamed “Bombita” (Little Bomb). During his government (1972-1976), the first barrel of oil from the Ecuadorian Amazon was extracted. It was the beginning of a long ordeal that continues to this day, presented as an economic and social "boom."

"Since strange people stepped on our Indigenous lands, they never came with good intentions. They came to usurp our resources from the subsoil, from the forests and to tell us that we no longer have rights. Our lands are now on loan," she protests, with a rough accent that seems to give her words more firmness.

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The map shows the way in which mining concessions surround the lands of the Shuar Arutam people (PSHA), which are now "as if borrowed," according to Josefina Tunki / Credit: Fundación EcoCiencia and PSHA.

A territory

Uwí and Naitiak, the spirits that embody the natural cycles of abundance and scarcity, have been in dialogue with the Shuar Arutam People (PSHA, by its Spanish acronym) since long before their territory received outsiders. When the season of Uwí (the chonta palm) ends and Naitiak appears, storms break out with thunder and hurricane winds. It is the way in which both discuss the supremacy of one over the other. Thus, its people distinguish the periods of planting, harvesting and cleaning of the soil.

"All these phases, since the highways and the currency intervened, have changed a lot," Josefina warns, while we tour the headquarters of the Tsank Amazonian Association, a tourist-cultural venture in the Centro Shuar Chichis, where Josefina was born and lives.

Throughout the walk, she stops frequently. Plants, animals and insects hold no secrets for her: As a Shuar, she knows where to find food, medicine or fertilizer just by looking around her. She knows  the age of the forest by its height and the ideal cassava to make chicha by its color. She knows that the visions of tobacco, ayahuasca and floripondio help to understand and guide. That the territory is much more than a place.

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The jungle has no secrets for Josefina Tunki / Credit: Leonardo Moreno.

"A space where there are no living beings cannot be governed by anyone and it will be a failure for the state," she predicts.

Hemmed in by growing mining concessions, life in Chichis tries to run its course. It is not an easy job. Respecting the conservation rules, while extractive companies and government ministries move in the opposite direction, makes it even more complex. Large portions of two important biodiverse and protected areas have even been concessioned: the Biological Reserve El Cóndor (in the homonymous mountain range) and the Protective Forest Kutukú Shaimi.

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Poster that shows the incessant advance of mining in PSHA territory, despite the opposition of the Shuar people to extractivism / Credit: PSHA Facebook page.

"In several headwaters of the rivers that make up the Amazon, some companies have already completed prospecting studies and others have agreements for exploitation. My Shuar people themselves, Indigenous, are sometimes naive. They give money to a few and, with that, they already convince them," she complaints.

On the banks of the Pitiu River, Josefina observes the jumping and transparent current with concern. It is difficult to predict how long this will remain this way: Several nearby waterways have already lost part of their fauna, due to mining pollution and harmful fishing methods such as the use of chemicals and dynamite. For some years now, the locals have barely fished or hunted, so as not to further affect the ecosystem. Raising fish and animals solves part of their food needs.

In the most fertile plots, organic crops typical of the region such as banana, cassava and taro grow. The decision not to use fertilizers helps maintain the purity of the soil and water. And when the crops are abundant, they sell a portion to generate income. Intermediaries avoid paying them a fair price, but they do not have many options to negotiate.

"Our products are valued because we grow without chemicals and we do not fumigate. For fertilizer, we plant balsa or guabo, which provide a layer of humus to the earth. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock comes to control, but only to justify itself: We already know how it is done," Josefina says.

Elsa Cerda, Kichwa leader from the province of Napo, agrees with Josefina Tunki on the importance of taking care of the Amazonian natural wealth.

Their neighbors have also learned to be responsible promoters and tour operators of local natural attractions. They show their culture and their landscape with the same generosity that they share chicha or therapeutic tobacco inhalation. But the visitors are still few. For those who do not travel by private vehicle, the journey — almost 500 kilometers from Quito — takes too long due to the poor condition of the roads and the infrequency of transportation. There is also no hotel infrastructure, nor budget to build it.

Chichis, like other remote Amazonian communities, is part of Ecuador due to those whims of cartography. After several border conflicts, it almost ended up on the other side of the border, in Peru. And judging by the attention that its inhabitants receive from the Ecuadorian authorities, there would not be many differences if that were the case. Josefina says:

"We are ancient, autonomous peoples, but the states have divided and have violated our rights. Without consulting, they evict us, they militarize the territories, the police shoot at our houses… It is a crime that we are experiencing throughout Ecuador."

A country

The Santiak (Santiago) Association brings together Chichis and 16 other Shuar centers. Its population is around 3,000 people. None of them have access to a drinking water network, internet signal or cell phone service. A curve in the road, a short distance from Tiwintza, marks the precise point where Ecuador ends for telecommunications companies. Josefina usually pauses briefly on that site to send or receive one last message before being silenced.

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Map of the Santiak (Santiago) Association and the Shuar centers that are part of it / Credit: Life Plan, Santiak Association, 2021.

"When I was president of the PSHA, we signed an agreement with the Morona Santiago Provincial Council and the organization Nature & Culture International for internet installations. We have to insist for it to be fulfilled. Connectivity is very necessary for conservation issues," she reveals.

Where state presence is deficient or non-existent, the extractive arm finds no limits. Josefina has seen how her representatives spread inaccurate news and material temptations among leaders and entire communities. How they appeal to their political contacts to approve parallel community leaders that promote their businesses. They buy wills like candy. This is how they proceeded at Warints y Yawi, since then at odds with the PSHA, which has voted against any mining presence in its territory.

Eduardo Rojas reveals that the approval of "double" community leaders is frequent in Indigenous territories attractive to extractive companies.

Negatives never discourage companies. They remain on the lookout and advance at every favorable opportunity. The government's silence or consent only accentuates the process. Josefina immediately identifies this toxic persistence: It has been applied for years by firms such as the Chinese EXSA, the Canadian Solaris Resources and EcuaSolidus, and the Australian SolGold. She calls them “infiltrated” and names them in quick succession, along with the HidroSantiago project, announced as the largest dam in Ecuador.

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Facsimiles of the public letter issued by the PSHA against the HidroSantiago project / Credit: PSHA Facebook page. 

"It is a lie that the Ministry of the Environment works to reduce pollution. The authorities hide the reality that they are dirtying the rivers; they pretend because they already negotiated these lands, they concessioned everything to the large mining companies. For us, there is no development."

She shows it to me on a short walk along the left bank of the Santiago River. At different points there are removed rocks and old mineral washing pools. Within them, several colored puddles denounce an ancient presence of copper and sulfur. The rest has been taken by the river, which repays the favor with the agony of its waters. Josefina, who used to drink from them as a child, suffers because not even the fish frequent them as they once did.

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Advance of mining activity in Warints, between 2020 and 2023 / Credit: Fundación EcoCiencia and PSHA. See the dynamic image here. 

On a smaller scale than large multinationals, illegal mining also takes advantage of the lack of government control and uses divisive tactics to achieve its goals. The community members are tempted individually, with money: Almost any figure is attractive, in a province where two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line. Once entry is granted, they dig until they find what they are looking for and leave without ever remedying the damage.

"In the assemblies we warn them, but they do not listen: They say that it is out of necessity, due to lack of employment or because they are the owners and they decide. But then they remain silent, with empty saddlebags, because they spend the money and mining produces only one harvest: It leaves the land sterile," Josefina remarks.

Some of these men realize their mistake late, and make mistakes again when trying to correct it. Unable to plant or produce on their exhausted plots, they usurp their neighbors' land. PSHA authorities observe the phenomenon with a certain helplessness, because the solution exceeds the isolated will of a person or an organization.

"We already know that no government, in Ecuador or in other countries, looks in favor on its Indigenous people. We are not well regarded. They always go against the principles of collective struggle," she says.

Stubborn, she is still willing to fight that battle. Like every indigenous Amazonian woman, she knows no other way to guarantee her own rights.

A woman

"In the Civil Registry they registered me with only two Castilian names: Josefina Antonieta. But I also have an Indigenous name, Nakaimp, which means 'righteousness,' “frontality,'" she explains.

Orphaned by her father at the age of 2, she was raised by her mother and grandmother. With the loss of her first baby tooth, she was sent to the Tiwintza boarding school. She preserves bittersweet memories of the place, between the wonder of her initial learning, the religious contradictions and the physical punishments to prevent her from speaking her native language. Something similar happens to her with the Christian faith: She believes in God as she speaks Spanish, with strange echoes that beat within.

She completed her secondary education at the Salesian Boarding School in Sevilla Don Bosco. There were no roads then, between that town and Tiwintza. Thanks to the support of the religious people, she traveled on the small plane that her mother could not afford. But she alternated class periods with long returns to her community.

"I began to participate in the leadership of Chichis at that time. When I returned, I helped in the secretariat or the treasury. I had to lose the shame of speaking in public," Josefina says.

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Josefina Tunki leads a sit-in of Amazonian peoples and nationalities in front of the headquarters of the Ministry of the Environment, in the city of Quito / Credit: PSHA Facebook page.

After five years dedicated to teaching, she returned to community work. She was soon nominated to lead the Women and Health area of ​​the Great Shuar Federation (predecessor of PSHA). Later, she was appointed Education Executive of the CTI-PSHA (Indigenous Territorial District-Shuar Arutam People, by its Spanish acronym, today known as the Santiago Association), to take advantage of her experience. In 2003 she joined the newly created PSHA: four presidents and many years of thinking and working in a minority later came the next step:

"I was the first woman elected to the presidency of the organization, in 2019. It is difficult to take an organizational position. There was a lot of machismo that called for my dismissal, but I had a very good team of camaraderie, which helped me work for the collective good."

Her first measure was to annul the agreement that her predecessor, Vicente Tsakimp, had signed with Solaris Resources. That decision intensified the conflict with Warints y Yawi, who were already cooperating on the project Warintza with the Canadian company. Accusations went back and forth, including threats of rape to a group of women from Maikiuants, and death threats to Josefina an another PSHA collaborator, Tania Laurini, by an executive of Solaris.

Nathaly Yépez analyzes the weaknesses of the Ecuadorian legal system to protect human rights and nature defenders.

The tensions reached absurd extremes, but which common in attacks on environmental defenders. In the midst of June 2022 national strike, unidentified people set fire to a Solaris Resources camp. Tsakimp and Yawi's trustee, Marcelo Wachapá, judicially denounced Josefina as one of those responsible for the attack, although she was stranded in Mexico due to the airport blockade. The inconsistency of the accusation led to a verbal agreement to withdraw the lawsuit, although the complainants never carried out the procedure.

"Because of that confrontation there is no longer trust between us. We are in a critical situation because of the companies and because of the fragile government, a seller and violator of the rights of life," she accuses.

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Activity in Mexico with the presence of Josefina Tunki, almost simultaneous with the start
of the national strike in June 2022 / Credit: PSHA Facebook page. 

Her term as president of the PSHA ended in April 2023. She was left with some international recognition, contacts with organizations and activists from all over the world, and a vice presidency in the Amazonian TICCA network. As in her school days, she returned to Chichis:

"I am from right here, where else am I going to go?" she says.

The current trustee entrusted her with the area of Security and Territorial Control. She plans to train five people to address recent challenges in the community, such as wildlife predation, drug trafficking and missing people. Unlike those who hold that position with the expectation of wearing special uniforms and weapons, she maintains that the responsibilities go much further. She says that it is as necessary to know the new problems in depth as it is to recover the discipline of the ancestors.

"Women's leadership is very different. I'm not saying that we are transparent, because some are also corrupt. But we have already seen men's weakness for bribes. That is why I speak of defense, of struggle for territories, of a territorial agreement for waters, forests, biodiversity and human life."

Before saying goodbye, she gathers several rocks of different sizes and colors on the bank of the Santiago River. She gives them to me with a hug: “So you remember what it's like here,” she says. Or so that the map, finally, becomes a country.


This story was produced with support from Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in La Línea de Fuego on September 1, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Josefina / Credit: Gía Román.