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Indigenous women against Chinese oil companies in Ecuador

It’s noon in Puerto Canelos, in the southern Amazon of Ecuador. While the heat is on, dozens of women with their babies on their backs are disembarking from the canoes with which they have navigated the Bobonaza River. They come from Sarayaku, an indigenous Kichwa community that has been resisting attempts to extract the oil that lies beneath the roots of its majestic trees for decades. Despite the fact that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights pulled the Ecuadorian state’s strings in 2012 by ruling in favor of the Sarayaku people in their anti-oil dispute, the government of Rafael Correa remains committed to continuing the extractivist legacy of its predecessors.

On 25 January, the Ecuadorian government granted the Andes Petroleum consortium, made up of two Chinese companies (Sinopec and CNPC), the exploration rights for blocks 79 and 83 in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon, which affects part of the Sarayaku territory. After the Argentine oil company CGC’s aspirations to drill the jungle floor for crude oil were dashed in the 1990s, the community is preparing to resist the new threat

The women of Sarayaku travelled for several hours upriver to Puyo, the capital of Pastaza province, where the International Women’s Day march was held. Hundreds of indigenous women from different Amazonian peoples such as the Sapara, the Huaorani or the Kichwa of Sarayaku met to express their rejection of the agreement of the Government of Rafael Correa and the Chinese oil consortium. Only the Sapara people, who only have a few hundred members, will see 40% of their territory affected by the concession to the Chinese company, putting their very survival at risk. “If they take out the oil it will be the end of all the Sapara”, assured one of their leaders, Gloria Ushigua.

This is another example of the already established presence of women in the defence of the territory. Their role in the indigenous communities has been changing over the last few years. From being relegated to the private sphere and having no role in community political decisions, women have been gaining ground to become a key actor in indigenous resistance processes.

In Mexico, for example, the role played by women in the construction of Zapatista self-government in Chiapas has been well known. In Central America, the recent assassination of the Honduran Berta Cáceres has highlighted the important work of indigenous women in struggles in defence of territory against governments and transnational corporations.

In the case of Ecuador, the step forward taken by women has been relatively recent. In 2013, one of the first mobilizations carried out directly by indigenous women took place during the march from Puyo to the capital Quito to protest against the exploitation of the Yasuni National Park.

“We women are the defenders of our mother earth. We produce food for our children and our husbands. We are the caretakers of the living forest that exists in the Amazon. We are the mothers who fight day and night carrying our babies to defend our culture, our language and our customs”, defends Ena Santi, representative of the Association of Women of the Kichwa Native People of Sarayaku.

An entire people threatened

The leader of the Sapara Women’s Association, Gloria Ushinga, explains that there are only about 400 members of this indigenous nationality left. Their language, although it was declared by UNESCO as Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, is practically extinct. For this reason, according to Ushigua, the oil project calls into question the very survival of the Sapara as a people.

The Sapara people, which are spread out between Ecuador and Peru, reached about 20,000 inhabitants in the mid-19th century, but the arrival of the rubber-heavy logging companies decimated their population, which was subjected to slavery. Later, the Sapara used interethnic marriages as a survival strategy, which led to cultural crossbreeding and the abandonment of their own language. Today, the few members of this people who survive are again threatened by the arrival of companies looking for raw materials, in this case oil.

“Our territory is threatened by Chinese oil transnationals. Our nation and families see our rights violated in the loss and contamination of our territory. We are willing to protect, defend and die for our forest, families and nation,” explain the Sapara Women’s Association.

Another of the indigenous nationalities affected is the Ecuadorian Huaorani, who has already suffered the consequences of oil extraction. That is why Alicia Cahuiya, the Huaorani leader, began to fight at a very young age. “I was born in Yasuní and I am from the province of Orellana, I started to fight because we saw that the oil companies entered our house without respect, without consulting us. My house is totally destroyed and the river is contaminated”.

Wearing a crown of multicolored feathers, her face painted red as a mask and several necklaces forged from Amazon seeds, the Huaorani representative laments: “There are big roads where our grandparents used to live. They have not even respected our cemetery”.

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