Ecuador’s Sápara people are developing strategies to fend off the dual threats of oil development and climate change.
On a gray February day in 2013, the slender and languorous Conambo River, snaking through the lush rainforest at the western edge of the Ecuador’s Oriente region, carried something that hadn’t stained its turbid waters for decades – the spilled blood of an Indigenous Sápara youth. At the water’s edge, several yards from the verge of the forest, lay the lifeless body of 13-year-old Emerson Ushigua Ruiz. The boy’s neck was broken with a heavy blow from a thick tree branch discarded nearby. A set of heavy footprints descended from the forest down the sandy riverbank toward the motionless body. Crimson blood, oozing into the sand from the dead youth’s mouth, mixed with the tan-colored waters of the Conambo River.
Just a few miles downstream from Emerson’s body, the river passed another crime scene – an old oil well. During the peak of oil exploration in the region in the 1980s, crude oil – known to the Sápara as the blood of Pachamama, or Mother Earth – spilled into the river from the well. For years, the area remained devoid of fish and wildlife, and was unfit for crops. After polluting the stretch of river, the oil company decided that the oil reserves were too small, the crude too heavy, and the place too remote to invest in. It capped the well and left the region.
Four decades later, the bioculturally rich Sápara territory is back on the chopping block of the fossil fuel industry. Once again, the simmering conflict between two opposing worldviews is flaring up. On the one hand, the Indigenous Sápara people see their rainforest as a living and breathing, conscious being that must be cherished and cared for – the sacred Naku, who is a source of precious life, and a foundation of their well-being. The Ecuadorian government views the forest as a resource to be exploited in order to generate revenue to pay off its debts. The government’s view resonates with some of the settler communities in the region that, for years, have been encroaching on the Sápara territory and looking to cash in on resource extraction. This clash of worldviews escalated into violence, leading to the murder of Emerson Ushigua Ruiz.
I learn all of this from Alcides Ushigua Armas – the grieving father of Emerson – when I come to the Ecuadorian Amazon to learn about the Sápara’s efforts to address climate change under the escalating threat of oil development on their traditional territory.
The Sápara worry that should Pachamama’s blood spill again, their Naku may not recover, putting their own future in jeopardy.
The Sápara’s Naku is located in the northeastern corner of the Napo Moist Tropical Forests ecoregion of the Amazon rainforest – a globally recognized hotspot of biological diversity that is widely known for the Yasuní National Park and Biosphere Reserve, a protected area the size of New Hampshire, in the northeastern corner of Ecuador.
“It’s estimated that Yasuní is home to a million living species, most of them yet to be identified,” explains Dr. Kelly Swing, the director of the Yasuní Tiputini Biodiversity Station. “That’s compared to the total of about 1.5 million species inhabiting our planet that have been described to date.” There are over 600 documented species of birds, about 200 species of mammals, 400 species of fish, and about 150 species of frogs. A single hectare of Yasuní forest may contain up to 600 tree species and over 100,000 species of insects. “Such high levels of biological diversity,” Swing explains, “are found along the equator, within one or two degrees latitude – a 70 to 140 mile-wide strip.” Both the Yasuní Park and Sápara territories are within this band.
“For millennia, [the Indigenous people of the Amazon] co-evolved with the land, the rivers, and the rainforest in ways that didn’t destroy the environment and, in doing so, ensured their own survival,” Swing says. “The Indigenous groups that managed to achieve this, such as Sápara, have endured and even thrived. That is, until the ‘civilized’ world blundered in, with all its missionaries, military, and an unquenchable thirst for resources, like oil.”
Out of the seven Indigenous nationalities that have historically inhabited the Western Amazon in Ecuador, the Sápara is one of the smallest. The first notes on the Sápara date back to the seventeenth century, when missionaries and early explorers described a strong Sápara nation of about 30,000, comprised of over 200 peaceful tribes differing in name, but sharing a common language. They lived in temporary settlements made up of malocas – round leaf-roofed houses, surrounded by small chacras – fields cleared in the rainforest. They carved dugout canoes, wove hammocks and nets from plant fibers, and hunted with bows and arrows and pucunas (blowguns). Like the rest of the Indigenous groups in the Amazon, the Sápara were devastated by European contact. Today, just over two hundred Sápara live in Ecuador, and even fewer remain across the border in Peru.
In 1992, the Ecuadorian government set aside 251,503 hectares of the rainforest as the Traditional Sápara Settlement Area, later increasing it to 322,029 hectares, or about 8 percent of their historical range. In 2001, unesco recognized the Sápara language as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” But the decades of persecution and assimilation have taken their toll, and today there are more non-Sápara settlers living in the Sápara territory than those who consider themselves “true” Sápara. The former are descendants of various Indigenous groups of the Western Amazon – Kichwas, Andoas, and Cofáns, among others – whose traditional worldviews were subverted by the Christian tradition that arrived with missionaries, rubber barons, and traders.
The largest village on Sápara territory is Conambo, with about 300 people, most of whom are settlers from different Indigenous groups who were brought here by missionaries in the middle of the twentieth century. Making up less than a quarter of the territory’s population, the “true” Sápara live in smaller communities of approximately 30 to 40 people. I am heading to one such Sápara community – Torimbo.
“Relax and rest to get over the shock of the crash!” advises a laminated sheet of emergency landing instructions the pilot hands to me as I squeeze into a seat next to him and strap myself in. Briefly inclining his graying head, he waves a cross over his chest and mouths a short prayer, inaudible above the din of the roaring motor of the single-engine, five-seat Cessna. We wait for the flight control tower to approve our takeoff from the Río Amazonas Airport – a single airstrip at the edge of a town called Shell. As the name suggests, the settlement was established by the Royal Dutch Shell company during its early days of oil exploration in the region.
In the back of the plane – jammed in between backpacks, camping gear, and boxes of gifts for Torimbo villagers – are my Sápara guides: Gloria Ushigua, the coordinator of Ashiñwaka, the Association of Sápara Women of Ecuador; her colleague Rosa Dahua; and, Juan Carlos Ruiz, one of the elected Sápara leaders from Torimbo, which is a 45-minute flight east of Shell. All three have been working on a Sápara climate change adaptation project in the region. I am hoping to learn about the Sápara people’s work and the challenges they face, including oil development, at a time when Ecuador’s government is rolling back the progressive reforms it launched a decade ago during former President Rafael Correa’s tenure.
In 2007, Ecuador endorsed the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A year later it adopted a new constitution that recognized the Rights of Nature, the collective rights of Indigenous peoples, and their right to be consulted on development projects. Over the past few years, however, the cash-strapped government has been desperately pushing for oil development in the Amazon rainforest in order to pay off its considerable $15.2 billion dollar debt to the Chinese government. In doing so, it has reversed its own pro-Indigenous and pro-environmental constitutional obligations. In 2016, the Ecuadorian government signed a contract with Andes Petroleum, a consortium of two state-run Chinese oil firms – Sinopec (China Petrochemical Corporation) and cnpc (Chinese National Petroleum Company) – for oil exploration in Block 79 and Block 83, which overlap more than 50 percent of the Sápara traditional territory, including the village of Torimbo.
Debt-ridden Ecuador is pushing for oil development in the Amazon forest.
The Cessna’s windows are covered with yolky smears of squashed insects and smudges of brick-red mud from an earlier flight to one of the communities in the vast selva, the lowland Amazon rainforest. The engine revs up and we lurch forward, gathering speed along the potholed tarmac towards the trees, looming ahead. Gaining in elevation, our Cessna veers eastward. We leave the roads, scattered farms, and clearings behind until there is nothing beneath us but the giant waves of the emerald-green rainforest, rolling toward the horizon in every direction.
Perched on a high bank over the Conambo River, Torimbo consists of several clusters of leaf-roofed huts scattered around a grassy airstrip along the riverbank. As we set up our tents on a tennis court-sized square of packed soil under a gable roof of the recently constructed community meeting place, a gaggle of kids gather around us to rummage happily through bags of candies and cookies that Dahua passes around. In the evening, we take a 15-minute walk along a muddy trail through the rainforest to Ruiz’s place – a traditional maloca built on a high bank overlooking a lazy branch of the Conambo River. The daylight fades and we sit around the fire, savoring a briny fish soup with starchy boiled yuca as Ruiz and Ushigua talk about their climate change work.
The Ecuadorian Amazon is warm and humid, with abundant rains. Over the last three decades the climate has been changing. The average annual temperature in the Amazon is expected to increase by 3.6 to 5.4°F by 2050. Rainfall is predicted to decline during the dry season, leading to droughts, but is anticipated to become more intense during the wet season, causing flooding.
As river dwellers, Sápara know how the water currents change depending on the season and rainfall. They can predict extreme weather like thunderstorms and lightning by looking at the color of the clouds and noting the direction of the wind. Ushigua and Ruiz say increased flooding in Sápara territory in recent years has triggered landslides that have destroyed hunting areas, like the sandbanks where the charapas, river turtles, lay hundreds of eggs, an important food item and a delicacy that Sápara relish.
The frequency and intensity of forest fires is also predicted to go up, transforming the Amazon from a tropical moist forest to a fire-driven savannah-like landscape covered with drought-tolerant vegetation, and left with depleted biodiversity. It is against this backdrop that Ashiñwaka and its partner, a US-based nonprofit called Land is Life, have been working with the Sápara people to develop responses to the challenges of climate change.
“Because of changes in the weather, our yuca plants were growing smaller and their flesh was covered in black spots, like some sort of sickness,” Ushigua says. “With Land is Life’s help, we connected with an Indigenous, community-based, climate change assessment initiative, run by our Quechua neighbors in Peru.”
Ushigua is referring to the Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment (ipcca), a global partnership of several Indigenous communities from Ecuador, Peru, India, Thailand, Finland, Philippines, and Panama, developing culturally appropriate strategies to cope with climate change and inject local voices into the global climate change discourse. Currently on hold because of a shortage of funds, ipcca was conceived of, and coordinated by, the Association for Nature and Sustainable Livelihoods (andes), a nonprofit created by Indigenous Quechua communities living near Cusco, Peru, who were working on, among other things, exchanging disease-free potato varieties between local communities experiencing the impacts of climate change on their food systems.
“Following the andes example, we brought together the Sápara people to share different varieties of yuca to see which one was doing better under what conditions,” Ushigua says. The healthy and robust varieties that continued to produce large and healthy tubers were shared among different Sápara communities to help them keep their yuca harvest strong.
“They’re pretty good now,” Ushigua says, spooning up the boiled chunks of a white yuca tuber from her fish soup, and taking a satisfied bite.
“We’ve also observed that there are more snakes now in the forest, compared to the old days,” Ushigua continues. “To deal with this, we need anti-venom medicine, but it’s hard to get Western drugs here. Luckily, Naku is our best pharmacy.” Traditional medicines abundant in the rainforest have kept Indigenous peoples healthy for generations, but the medicinal plants are getting hard to find near their settlements. “As part of our climate change adaptation work, we collected some medicinal plants from the rainforest and planted them in medicinal gardens near our communities,” Ushiga says. “This way we do not have to wander all over Naku looking for them, especially when there is flooding.”
Sitting on a log by the fire, Ruiz rocks his baby son – who is all smiles while gumming his father’s thumb – and joins the conversation. “Another part of our work has been to restore our traditional trails to reconnect with Naku,” he says.
Until about 30 years ago, the Sápara maintained their traditional annual purina cycle of movement throughout their ancestral territory, traveling from one seasonal shelter, or tambo, to the next along a network of established trails. Along the way, they hunted, fished, gathered wild fruit and medicinal plants, dispersed seeds, and planted small kitchen and medicinal gardens. As such, the purina system supported a mosaic of diverse sources of food and traditional medicines through the Sápara traditional territory, helping them adapt to changes when some areas became inaccessible because of heavy rains, droughts, or settler encroachment. As the Sápara began settling into permanent hamlets – with schools, airstrips, radios, and other trappings of civilization – the purina system withered. Recognizing that without trails they would not have as many options available to them to deal with changes, the Sápara began restoring the purina system as a climate change adaptation strategy. Several miles of trails – most of them around Torimbo and along the western boundary with the traditional territory of their neighbors, the Sarayaku people – have now been restored.
“We want to make it crystal clear to the government and oil companies that this is our land.”
“The trails are also important for monitoring our territory for intruders who might want to harm our Naku,” Ruiz says, turning the conversation to oil development. The Sápara are convinced that the first point of entry for the Andes Petroleum will be the old capped oil well on their territory, a day’s walk from Torimbo. To keep an eye on the site, they cut a trail to it, cleared a patch of rainforest around the well, and built a “peace camp” with a tambo in the middle. Every few days, a couple of Torimbo Sápara walk the trail to spend the night at the camp, making sure that the oil companies have not sent their crews to uncap the well, and that Pachamama is not “bleeding” again.
“We built the trail and the ‘peace camp’ for a very simple reason,” concludes Ruiz, “We want to make it crystal clear to the government and the oil companies that this is our land, and they cannot enter, unless we give them permission.”
“It was a nice day when six of us went fishing,” recalls Alcides Ushigua Armas, the father of Emerson Ushigua Ruiz. After a day of hunting and fishing, we are sitting around a campfire at the southern boundary of the Sápara territory. It is dinnertime and we are relishing boiled yuca and maito fish – fish wrapped in broad leaves of either the bijao or banana plant and baked over hot coals – prepared by Ushigua and Dahua. Armas is describing what happened on the fateful day he lost his son.
“My boy, Emerson, wandered off, looking for a better fishing spot,” says Armas, whose jet-black hair makes it difficult to guess his age. Only his poor teeth and deeply furrowed face, the color of the Conambo river, betray his 56 years, all of them spent here, in the Sápara’s Naku. “We lost sight of him behind the river bend, and called after him. When he did not reply, I went looking for him.” Armas pauses, picking at his fish but forgetting to eat it. “I found him sprawled at the water’s edge,” he continues gazing into space. “Motionless. Blood gushed from his nose and mouth when I tried to pick him up…” Armas’ voice catches slightly. “He was dead.” He rubs his twitching cheek with the back of his calloused hand. We sit in silence, as the static of the cicadas in the forest around us grows louder. A lifetime passes.
Eventually, Armas finishes his heart-wrenching tale. He brought his son’s lifeless body back to Torimbo and for several days tried to radio to Puyo – the capital of Pastaza province where the Sápara territory is situated – but nobody responded. A couple of weeks went by before Armas could catch a flight to Puyo and make an official statement to the police. A few more days passed before a police officer and a medic flew in to Torimbo to examine Emerson’s remains. Without visiting the murder scene, and based only on the examination of a decaying body, they wrote up a report concluding that the boy’s death was accidental, when he fell from a tree and broke his neck.
“There are no trees near the water there,” Armas says shaking his head incredulously. “My son was murdered, end of story! And I know who did it – the Conambo people.”
Just a couple of days before his son’s death, Armas, Emerson, and a couple of other Sápara families from Torimbo had travelled by boat to the village of Conambo to attend a community assembly about oil development on their territory. Ushigua and Ruiz allege that the true intention of Conambo’s leadership has always been to take control over the Sápara territory for their own benefit. Conambo leader Basilio Mucushigua is the president of the nasape, the local organization recognized by the Ecuadorian government as a representative of Sápara interests, though most of its members are non-Sápara Indigenous people. Ushigua and Ruiz allege that Mucushigua, who is not Sápara, is in bed with the Ecuadorian government, signing contracts for the promise of oil money. He signed the recent agreement for the oil development in Blocks 79 and 83 with the Ministry of Petroleum, allegedly without the required consultation with the Sápara people. (The nasape did not respond to an interview request.)
At the community meeting, Armas stood up and declared that the village of Torimbo would never have anything to do with oil development, because they know it would destroy their rivers and their Naku, just as it had done in other parts of Ecuador, and just as they remember it did when the company drilled the first oil well on their territory in the 1980s.
“Basilio and his thugs got angry, they had their shotguns in full view,” Armas recalls. “They told us that if we continue to interfere, we’ll be brushed aside one way or another, whether with shamans or shotguns. This is how I know what happened to my boy and who did it,” he concludes.
Before I left for Eucador, I talked to Brian Kean, an advisor on Indigenous peoples’ issues for usaid and rapporteur of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Kean, who spent years supporting the Sápara people in his former role as the director of Land is Life, praised the Sápara’s resolve to preserve the integrity of their sacred Naku in the face of formidable odds. “It has been scientifically demonstrated that Indigenous territories are key to maintaining the integrity of rainforests, conserving biodiversity, and [sustaining the] ecosystem services they depend on, Kean says. “These are important elements of the Indigenous peoples’ ability to cope with a changing climate. The best way to mitigate climate change is to strengthen Indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral territories, because, among other things, the rainforest absorbs a lot of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, contributing to climate change resilience.” But, Kean stresses, “territories like Sápara’s also hold the promise of big money from oil, gas, and other resource development, pushed by the national governments. This has divided local communities and attracted fortune hunters from outside the Indigenous territories. Inevitably, this leads to violence.”
According to Kean, in addition to Emerson, several Sápara have been killed or seriously hurt over the last few years. As is the case with most Indigenous leaders struggling to defend their lands against the onslaught of development projects across the world, the lives of activists like Ushigua, Dahua, and Armas – who have been threatened and beaten up in the past – are in constant danger, he says.
Oil exploration and development activities are yet to begin on Sápara territory. But since the government signed the agreement with the Andes Petroleum in 2016, there have been reported sightings of abandoned encampments and tracks of rubber boots in the mud, left by outsiders. These are signs of oil companies probing the region, says Juan Auz, cofounder of the environmental group Terra Mater, formerly Pachamama Alliance, which has been supporting the Sápara’s fight to stop extractive industry from returning to their territory.
Using this lull before the storm to their advantage, Terra Mater is considering filing a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government for its failure to properly consult with the Sápara people regarding oil development on their traditional territory. Auz is certain that, even if they lose the case, it will bring greater attention to the Sápara’s plight. Terra Mater is also planning to organize a massive public awareness campaign against oil development on Sápara land.
“The problem with such campaigns in Ecuador, however, is that we see environmental defenders get killed, and Indigenous peoples evicted, every day,” Auz says. “Our media is bored with all these stories, while the communities are so remote that it takes a long time to get any information. [And] as always, the government will start its own counter-campaign to push their own narrative [and] buy some leaders, all to create division among the Sápara communities. So, it’s not going to be an easy fight.”
Still, Auz says, the law is on the Sápara’s side. Their case is not without precedent, he points out: Their neighbors, the Sarayaku people, won a similar case against the Ecuadorian government a few years ago.
The Sápara are determined to protect their sacred forest. “The government and the oil companies are trying to intimidate us,” Armas says. “But we are not scared. Without our sacred Naku, we cannot survive. We must keep it healthy, and no amount of money can do that. I am prepared to die protecting it, so that my grandchildren always know their Naku as well as we do. So that Pachamama’s blood is never spilled again and my boy’s blood wasn’t spilled in vain.”
Dr. Gleb Raygorodetsky is a Research Affiliate with the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the University of Victoria, with over two decades of experience working for, collaborating with, and writing about the world’s Indigenous peoples. His book The Archipelago of Hope: Wisdom and Resilience from the Edge of Climate Change is being published by Pegasus Books in November.You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.