The Indigenous Women of Mujeres Amazónicas Put Their Bodies on the Line to Protect the Land

·5 min read

In Ecuador, Mujeres Amazónicas has become a name synonymous with resistance. For nearly a decade, the group of about 100 women has fought to protect Indigenous land from extractive oil companies and against gender violence. In their fight for land and bodily freedom, they’ve faced threats from industries and governments alike.

“We’ve sent a clear message that we won’t allow entry into our Indigenous territories and let them destroy the land and manipulate us. These are the consequences, ” Patricia Gualinga, co-founder of the collective and leader of the Kichwa People of Sarayaku, tells Refinery29 Somos over the phone.

Mujeres Amazónicas was born out of a 2013 demonstration where dozens of Indigenous women marched to the capital city of Quito to protest government plans to expand oil concessions to protected forest land in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

“The Ecuadorian people saw us as a light of hope because a group of women, most of them with a basic education and had never been to a city, had lost all fear,” Gualinga says.

Beyond curbing oil concessions, Mujeres Amazónicas seeks to change the values of a country economically reliant on crude oil. Exports of the fossil fuel, found in large reserves underneath the Amazon rainforest, make up nearly 30% of the country’s revenues. Ecuadorian presidents, on both sides of the political spectrum, have pledged to jolt production in a bid to boost the economy, even as communities express concerns over Indigenous rights and environmental degradation. In July, President Guillermo Lasso announced plans to double oil production to 1 million barrels a day to revive an economy lagging as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The oil industry has been developing since the 1970s for the economic development of the country, but this has yet to come to fruition, despite the fact that we’ve had at least three oil booms,” Carlos Mazabanda, a researcher for the nonprofit Amazon Watch, tells Refinery29 Somos.

“We’ve sent a clear message that we won’t allow entry into our Indigenous territories and let them destroy the land and manipulate us.

For Mujeres Amazónicas, continued oil extraction on protected lands also goes against their belief that nature is a living being that’s conscious and subject to rights in the same way that humans are. This concept is encapsulated in the Sarayaku phrase “Kawsak Sacha” (“Living Forest”) in the Kichwa language.

“We consider that the invisible threads of equilibrium on this planet have been broken because ecosystems that are vital to humanity are being destroyed,” Gualinga says. “The Sarayaku propose reconnecting with and understanding nature.”

Mujeres Amazónicas is composed of women from six Indigenous nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Kichwa, Shuar, Achua, Shiwiar, Sapara, and Waorani. Many of them have faced personal battles with the oil industry. Gualinga’s work with the Sarayaku community, for instance, started in 2002. At the time, she left her job at the Ministry of Tourism to join the Sarayaku people in their fight against the Compania General de Combustibles (CGC), an Argentine oil company that planned to drill on their sacred land. The group brought their case to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, alleging the Ecuadorian government had granted CGC oil concessions without obtaining their consent as prescribed by law. A decade later, the international court sided with the Sarayaku, condemning the Ecuadorian government for violating their rights and setting a precedent for proper consultation procedure in the Andean country. Gualinga, 52, rose to international fame as a leader of her people and of a victorious campaign to stop oil extraction on Sarayaku land.

“What has curbed [the extractivist industry]?” Mazabanda ponders. “In cases where these struggles have been successful, it’s been the result of Indigenous organisations resisting and demanding their rights.”

Indigenous communities have historically stood in the way of oil exploration in their territories and the environmental devastation it causes. Research indicates that the presence of the oil industry in the Amazon, combined with poor environmental protection policies, threatens the rich diversity of species and ecosystems located in the jungles. It paves a pathway for deforestation and results in frequent pipeline spills. A recent investigation by a local publication shows at least 93 spills were recorded in 2020 alone.

But environmental violence also has dire consequences for women. “In places where there has been oil extraction, many women have reported sexual abuse perpetrated by oil workers,” Gualinga says. “These cases are never investigated and go underreported because of fear of reprisals.”

In the face of these abuses, Mujeres Amazónicas has advocated for prompt investigations into gender-based violence cases, a study into the scope of the problem, appropriate public policies, and sanctions for those responsible. They have also worked within communities to empower women with human rights workshops and healing circles, particularly in places where leadership by women receives little support from men.

“They tried to silence us, scare us, and force us into hiding, but they haven’t achieved this. We continue to be at the forefront of resistance.”

This focus on solidarity has played an important role in keeping women secure as they face threats in connection to their activism. In 2018, four activists belonging to Mujeres Amazónicas received death threats. One woman lost her home in an arson attack.

On January 5, 2018, Gualinga was also targeted. That morning, she heard glass break in her home. A stranger hurled rocks at her windows and, before they fled, yelled out to her, “Next time, we’ll kill you!” An investigation by the Attorney General’s Office has yet to identify the culprit, according to Gualinga.

While it remains unclear who is behind the attacks, the women of Mujeres Amazónicas are certain that the threats aim to scare them from carrying on their work to protect the land and their bodies—but it hasn’t been successful.

“They tried to silence us, scare us, and force us into hiding,” Gualinga says. “But they haven’t achieved this. We continue to be at the forefront of resistance.”

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