Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Sapara live on a 365,000-hectare territory in Pastaza province in the middle of Ecuador. Due to their relative isolation in a difficult-to-access region of the Amazon, Sapara have maintained a strong connection with their traditional culture which places a strong emphasis on dreams and the spiritual world. Estimates of the Sapara population vary between 300 and 600 people.
The first writings about Sapara are from the mid-19th century, however descriptions of them are unreliable. The Sapara population was greatly reduced following the Ecuadorian rubber boom in the early twentieth century. In addition, the late 1890s saw increased colonization of the Amazon sponsored by the Ecuadorian government. It was at this point that Sapara ended their nomadic lifestyle. The border war with Peru, which ended in 1942, disrupted Sapara life and ceded much of their land to the Peruvian state.
This tumultuous history caused many Sapara to integrate into other indigenous communities as well as the wider population, leading many in the 1990s to believe that there were no Sapara left. Since then, they have been able to revitalize their culture, and in 2001, UNESCO recognised Sapara as part of the ‘intangible heritage of humanity,’ in recognition of their unique cultural traditions, including oral history, arts, and social and spiritual practices. Only a few Sapara elders are able to speak the traditional Sapara language.
Sapara have proposed that the Ecuadorian government fully recognise and implement the constitutional rights of nature by incorporating a plan they devised, called Naku (‘forest’). Naku recognises not only the rights of indigenous peoples but also the rights of other beings in the forest.
In November 2012, the Ecuadorian government allowed exploration and exploitation that would affect all of Sapara land. This was done without adequate free, prior and informed consent of Sapara communities. There has been an increase in violence between Sapara and authorities, the most serious of which occurred in February 2013 when a 13-year old Sapara boy was murdered three days after a protest by Sapara that resulted in threats. Since 2009, Sapara women have organized under the Association of Sapara Women of Ecuador (Asociación de Mujeres Saparas de Ecuador, ASHIÑWAKA), in order to resist resource extraction activities on their land and document evidence of the killings of Sapara.
In January 2016, the Ecuadorian government sold oil exploration rights to Andes Petroleum Ecuador – a consortium of two Chinese firms, Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) and SINOPEC (China Petrochemical Corporation) – in a deal said to be worth US$80 million. The rights cover a 500,000-acre expanse that overlaps Sapara territory and borders upon the Yasuní National Park. Later in 2016, Sapara community groups turned to the UN for urgent assistance, citing intimidation and harassment by police as well as security linked to the Chinese oil presence. On 2 May 2017 Sapara leaders delivered a letter to the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China at the UN asking them to abandon extraction efforts on their land.