Ecuador: Indigenous communities lead the fight against climate change and oil extraction on their land

In the centre of Ecuador’s Amazon forests, the Kichwa people of the Pastaza River watershed village of Sarayaku have worked to document how climate change affects their community and their livelihood. In June 2012, two generations of Sarayaku’s indigenous leaders – José Gualinga and Marlon Santi – travelled to Quito to meet with scientists at the Ponti cia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE).

Seeking greater ties between some of Ecuador’s leading Earth scientists and indigenous communities, Sarayaku’s leaders wanted to measure climate change on the ground to improve Kichwa environmental stewardship and ensure their adaptability.

As a belief system, indigenous cosmovision regards nature as an essential component of humanity. Yet unlike many Western belief systems – including some religions and political ideologies – it is compatible with and complemented by the philosophy of science. In Ecuador, indigenous peoples are harnessing their knowledge of Pachamama – Mother Nature – and finding scientific support for ancestral traditions, all in an effort to protect their lands from a changing climate.

Furthermore, indigenous communities in Ecuador recognize the role that global capitalism plays in creating climate change. Some indigenous leaders argue that the rejection of capitalist production and consumption are necessary not only to protect indigenous traditions, but also to sustain the Earth for future generations. As Sapara leader Ricardo Ushigua explained, ‘For us there is no capitalism. Everything is collectivism. Anyone can harvest what they want, and the land belongs to everyone.’ He further added that money was not important to his people. Rather, what mattered was ‘living well with the richness of the Earth’. Indeed, to Ushigua, the pursuit of monetary wealth and living in harmony with the environment were almost incompatible. Other indigenous communities regard globalization as an opportunity to pursue sustainable development. Pasqual Callera, Economic Development Director for the Achuar People of Ecuador’s southern Amazon, observed that the self-sufficiency of his community in the era of climate change depends on finding environmentally sound ways to engage with global markets. For example, the Achuar community have pursued ecotourism through the Hotel Kapawi, a rainforest lodge they have operated for over a decade. ‘Our plan,’ Callera explained, ‘is to develop alternative technologies which do not pollute, to show it can be done that way.’ In addition, Achuar leaders agreed that international allies were necessary to pursue their mission of ecotourism and sustainable development. For example, with help from Norwegian engineers, Callera hopes to develop solar-powered canoes that facilitate transportation through Amazonian tributaries without the pollution produced by petroleum-powered motors.

In 2008, Ecuador seemed poised to be a leader in establishing environmental protections as a way to prevent climate change. Under the leadership of then- President Rafael Correa, Ecuador rati ed the rst Constitution in the world that gave Mother Nature rights. Then, Correa publicly agreed to protect the biodiverse rainforest of Yasuní National Park from imminent oil drilling, recognizing that the Amazonian region contains the ‘lungs of the world’ and is essential to stop global warming. However, his agreement came with one crucial caveat: international donors would have to pay Ecuador to offset the oil revenues the country would forgo by leaving the oil in the ground. After collecting a few million US dollars – only a fraction of the funds sought – the Correa administration decided in the summer of 2013 to discontinue the campaign and drill for oil in the National Park.

Correa’s policies had devastating consequences for many indigenous peoples in Ecuador. Oil extraction was pursued not only in Yasuní – where several Waorani communities live in isolation from the Ecuadorian state – but deeper into indigenous territory throughout the Amazonian region. Ironically, Correa justi ed his policies by co-opting an element of Kichwa cosmovision known as Sumak Kawsay – which in Kichwa means ‘harmonious living’. What was once a phrase that the Kichwa people and other indigenous communities had used to represent the bond between humanity, nature, spirituality and responsibility for future generations was instead subsumed into the contradictory agenda of the Correa administration. By 2014, many indigenous and environmental groups were distancing themselves from the philosophy of Sumak Kawsay as a vision for preventing climate change or trying to make the distinction between the government’s attempt to coopt it and its original intent.

Sarayaku Kichwa continue to be leaders in promoting the rights of indigenous peoples in the face of climate change, not just in Ecuador, but around the world. Winning a case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2012, the Sarayaku Kichwa not only successfully prevented the Ecuadorian government from extracting oil on their lands, but they also reinforced the international norm of ‘free, prior, and informed consent’, which requires states to consult meaningfully with indigenous communities regarding any policy or activity that directly affects them.

Recognizing the direct relationship between the pursuit of oil and worsening climate change, in 2015, Sarayaku leaders brought their ‘Canoe of Life’ 6,000 miles from the Amazon to Paris to demand international climate action as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Three years later, in August 2018, Sarayaku launched their Kawsak Sacha – or Living Forest – proposal, which, among other things, argues that 13 million hectares of living forest are destroyed annually, that fossil fuels are the primary factor destroying the environment and that the most affected communities are the world’s indigenous peoples. Their project demands that the Ecuadorian government preserve and protect the territories that provide for the material and spiritual wellbeing of the Living Forest – the home of indigenous peoples.

Karleen Jones West and Todd A. Eisenstadt

Photo: Portrait of Patricia Gualinga, an indigenous rights defender of the Pueblo Kichwa de Sarayaku, an indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. © Amazon Watch