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Ecuador: Last chance to save the Amazon?

Expansion of road-building threatens Indigenous peoples and the Amazon

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Linda Etchart interviews José Gualinga of the Sarayaku Kichwa of Pastaza

In April 2024, José (Angún) Gualinga came to New York at the invitation of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN) to represent the Sarayaku Kichwa people at the inaugural GARN Indigenous Council meeting, during the first week of the annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

In an exclusive interview with Linda Etchart of LAB, José outlined the challenges facing the Sarayaku people who live on the Bobonaza River, a tributary of the Amazon in the heart of the Ecuadorian rainforest in Pastaza province.

Main image: José Gualinga of the Sarayaku Kichwa, Photo: Samai Gualinga


The Sarayaku Kichwa have successfully defended their territories against oil drilling since the 1990s. In 2002, with the support of their lawyer, Mario Melo Cevallos of the Catholic University of Quito, they launched a case against the Ecuadorian government at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), for failure to comply with a Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) Ecuadorian court order, achieving victory in 2012. As the president and elder of the community, José led the delegation from Sarayaku to the court hearing in Costa Rica.

Bobonaza River, Ecuador
Bobonaza River, Pastaza, Ecuador, 2016. Photo: Linda Etchart

The 330,000-acre territory of the Sarayaku Kichwa, 95 per cent of which is old-growth forest, is one of the few remaining areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon that is not traversed by roads. The extension of roads into forest areas is of the most serious threats to local environments and to the cultural survival of forest-dwelling Indigenous peoples. Their construction is often associated with the expansion of the extractive frontier and it has a fishbone effect, leading to small paths opening up to facilitate illegal logging, bushmeat hunting, and the capture of live endangered species that are trafficked outside the country. Even in Sarayaku territory, the numbers of larger mammals have dwindled. The Sarayaku Kichwa are committed to protecting local mammals, in particular the local white-lipped pecarí (peccary), an Indigenous wild boar that is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as vulnerable to extinction.

Sarayaku
Sarayaku, 2016. Photo: Linda Etchart

In his conversation with LAB, José makes the case that only the continued use of small planes, using renewable or non-renewable fuel, will ensure the protection of the biodiversity of the forest and the survival of the last of the rural Indigenous peoples. The Sarayaku already have an airline with two small planes that have been operating for 8 years.

Many of the most remote Indigenous communities, often with little in the way of river communication and absolutely no roads, rely on air transport to enable them to travel to the local town to buy modern staples such as salt and detergent, that they regard as essential goods.

The Sarayaku, like many Indigenous communities in Latin America, have come to terms with the prospect of ecotourism as a partial solution to ensure their independence and self-determination in the short term. It is often not a community’s preferred choice, but does provide an alternative source of income and means of survival that avoids the consumption of scarce game animals.

For those Indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation, the fewer (or zero) means of communication the better; but for those who wish to engage with the world outside, and for the world outside to visit them, when invited, the use of light aircraft is a solution. For the purposes of ecotourism, it is the only way to transport tourists when there are no roads.

LAB: What is the greatest danger to the rainforest?

José Gualinga (JG): It is a threat which is not recognised by many of our allies – be they foundations, NGOs, or human rights organisations. [It is ignored by] all those who work on the defence of the environment, the protection of Indigenous territories, the living forest, all activities against the extractive industries like oil drilling, mining, logging. They do not see the real problem that the Amazon rainforest and its people are facing, which is the expansion of road building, and particularly the planned road from Manaus in Brazil, to Peru and Ecuador. This, in the long term, will mean the end of Indigenous peoples, the end of Amazonia.

LAB: Why are the roads being built?

JG: Because our allies are not aware of the activities of the political campaign managers when there are local government elections. If someone wishes to be the prefect of the province, or a provincial governor, or the mayor of a canton [the subdivision of provinces in Ecuador], the best way to win an election is to build a road.

The politicians who engage in these election campaigns advance their careers building roads.

And the local Indigenous communities say, ‘Yes, we would like a road.’ And the most controversial word, the word you always hear, is ‘development’. ‘We want development’, they say, and development means a road. When the election comes around, the votes go to the guys who offer to build the highways. If I am a candidate trying to become the provincial governor –and I can be the candidate as a Kichwa person— and I offer the protection and the restoration of the living forest, a future for all, life, I will lose the election, people will not vote for me.

LAB: How does building a road affect the Indigenous communities?

JG: What is the impact of the road? First, migration of the communities. Second, illegal logging, and the illegal sale of forest land. Then there is also the risk of the narco-traffickers, and the traffic of animal species.

The road is a hidden threat, as when the roads are extended, the oil and mining companies arrive, and that completes the destruction.

What has happened to the communities where the road has been built? Everyone is exploiting the timber: the Indigenous people are left without trees, without biodiversity, without their own history. They no longer have the connection with the living forest; the relationship has changed.

The Indigenous communities receive no support for their own projects: they do not receive any support from that same local government to protect the forest. There is no finance for them, so that when the road comes, they themselves take part in the logging. The tallest trees like the ceiba, which until now were not cut down by the communities, are now being cut down by them, as they have lost their livelihoods. They cannot grow crops, there are no fish, no game to hunt, there is hunger and poverty. They cut down the trees to sell the wood, which the intermediaries buy cheaply, and then sell for a high price in Quito and Guayaquil. We have never had a road, but it is coming our way.

LAB: Has the Sarayaku community been able to conserve the forest so far?

JG: The key factor in terms of conservation is that in Sarayaku, there has never been a road, nor in the Sápara territory of Gloria Ushigua 1)Gloria Ushigua has been a pivotal figure in the recent history of her people, the Sápara, whose territory has been reduced to 400,000 hectares of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Lives and territory were lost as a result of depredations of the rubber industry from the 1890s. The Sapara were recognised as a cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2001, with only three individuals remaining who speak the Sápara language. Gloria has been a leader in contesting the incursion of the extractive industries into Sápara territory, despite threats against her life and physical attacks, and is the president of Ashiniawka, the Association of Sápara Women of Ecuador, founded in 2009. She has led resistance to the operations of logging companies who have been extracting balsa wood from Sápara territory, and continues to represent her people at the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples, UNPFII. further north.

Gloria Ushigua of the Sápara community with Casey Camp Horinek of the Ponca Nation, and Sarayaku and Kichwa friends, at an Indigenous women’s demonstration against oil extraction in the Amazon. Puyo, Ecuador, 8 April 2016. Photo: Michael Reich

A road is advancing closer to us from other communities who have accepted the construction, but, as we are the agents of our collective territory, they cannot continue any further; work on it has stopped, but is very close, it is a threat.

The new road was proposed by the local government, the people who have an interest in this. They speak on the radio about how they are going to achieve development, integration into the economy, how they will build a city, a developed town, and the majority of the people applaud them.

It is the same in Sápara territory, near to Llanchama, where there is no road yet, but there is a road further up, and they have started trying to negotiate [with communities downriver].

There are Achuar and Kichwa people from Morete and Villano who are asking for the road to go along the Conambo river, which will affect Gloria Ushigua’s territory. But we will continue our resistance against the conjoined forces of politicians, farmers, collectives, people who say we need development.

[These actors] send letters to the provincial government asking for the road, saying it’s the key to development, that the communities have been left behind, and are not able to trade. They speak on the radio and on television, they continue with their propaganda that the road has to come. We too use the media to explain the impact of the building of a highway, to explain the reality of development— asking ‘is it development or is it destruction?’

These are the local struggles that we are engaged with. For example, they proposed building a road from Canelos right through Sarayaku territory to Montalvo and to Peru, which would extend over 200 kilometres.

LAB: Can you tell me about Canelos?

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JG: There is a road in Canelos and they have serious problems. There people are more vulnerable to offers from the extractive industries, for example, offers from oil companies. They are our allies, but as there is a road, they now have other needs, other realities, a different way of life. But we, without roads, we are strong, because we still have resources, we cultivate the land, grow plantain and yucca. We have fish, animals for meat, forest fruits and palm trees. We have enough for each family, to feed ourselves.

We have to be brave enough to employ the public relations techniques of the road-promoters, to present our own analysis; that is part of our struggle, as the road is a threat that our allies do not see, because of the way that it is used in political campaigns. That is why the project we have for air transport is called Reaching for the Skies of the Living Forest to Save Lives.

LAB: How will the project work? How can it save the forest?

JG: This is my proposal. At the moment Aero Sarayaku (the community’s local airline) has two planes: a Cessna 206 which fits five passengers, and a Cessna 182 for only three passengers, these fly between Amazonian communities. We have one pilot, a mechanic, someone for security, and I am the manager. [On the managing team] we are three people from Sarayaku: myself, an accountant, and another who is a director.

There are Kichwa, Shuar, Achuar, Shiwiar, Sápara, Huao [Waorani], and Andoa communities who have landing strips, as they do not have any river transportation. We envisage that if these communities were to develop selective tourism that is respectful, supportive, ethical and responsible, our air transport will enable them to increase their income. Of course, tourism itself has an impact, but if it is a good organisation, it will have a good impact. It has to be controlled. This is not mass tourism where everyone can go, this is specialised tourism with group reservations.

If the tourism project succeeds in increasing income for the community, the airline can be used for medical emergencies, to support elderly people, and save lives.

The purpose of Aero Sarayaku is to prevent the arrival of the road, which will mean the end of all of us, as we in Sarayaku are between Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil. If a road were to link us to Manaus, in Brazil, and to Peru, you can imagine the impact it would have on the environment. Our strategy is to use air transport to carry the message of Kawsak Sacha, the Living Forest, to other communities.

There are other airlines, with helicopters, who sign contracts with the oil and mining companies, to transport the mine workers, the loggers, the oil workers. But we have a rule not to fly with miners, oil workers, or loggers. Our role is to provide transport that will support the communities themselves.

LAB: Tell us about your project ‘Saving lives and reaching for the sky of the living forest’

JG: Saving lives and reaching for the sky of the living forest is not just a question of transport – that would not make sense. Our idea is to prevent the advance of the road and to ask the State, the government, to provide enough subsidy to evacuate people who have been bitten by snakes, to improve the small landing strips that we use. Altogether in Ecuador, there are 280 landing strips in the forest, each of around 450-600 metres, which we use for our light aircraft.

If no one will support Aero Sarayaku, the roads will come. We argue that air transport is the only alternative to the road.

This is an Indigenous enterprise, unique in Latin America, in Ecuador. But no one will listen to us. Our allies say that they will not fund air transport because it involves the use of fossil fuels. We did receive funding from Amazonwatch three years ago for emergency medical evacuations, but other NGOs will not support us. I ask them about how they themselves travel from Quito to New York, or Europe, about how much carbon those large planes from airlines like American Airlines or KLM emit in one flight: there is no logic to their argument.

Our vision is to acquire electric planes by 2030 to 2035. Yes, it is a huge project. We are looking for investors and partners, or someone who can loan us the finance at a low interest rate, as the Ecuadorian banks charge an interest rate of 20 per cent, which is expensive. It would be an ambitious project: we are talking about US$300,000-$500,000 for electric planes in the Amazon.

Aero Sarayaku promotional leaflet 2024

LAB: Did you have problems with the Correa government in terms of Aero Sarayaku?

JG: In 2014, we gave humanitarian protection to Cléver Jiménez, who was a member of the national assembly. Fernando Villavicencio, who was a journalist at the time and an adviser to Cléver Jiménez, and Dr Carlos Figueroa, also sought refuge in our territory. But the government called them fugitives from justice, which means that they accused the Sarayaku of protecting delinquents.

For this reason, the government persecuted us and prepared a military attack against us. This created a conflict in the country at the national level, and this reached the international press, in Spain and in France.

They put pressure on us to hand over the three refugees, including Fernando Villavicencio, to the police. They put up a control post in Canelos to check all the people of Sarayaku, in violation of the community’s rights. They closed off the road to prevent transport from reaching Sarayaku from Puyo, the capital of Pastaza province. (Sarayaku is accessible by canoe along the Bobonaza river from Canelos.) They halted the flights of Aero Sarayaku, which we were in the process of establishing, through the aviation authorities. Each time we arranged a flight, we had to visit and have the flight approved by the civil aviation authority offices at Shell-Mera, at the Rio Amazonas Airport.

For several years, they charged us for every flight from beginning to end, which cost a great deal of money. They put up administrative obstacles that made it difficult for us to operate. It was political persecution. And the superintendencia de compañias, the institution which oversees financial accounts, intervened for no reason at all. They made demands on us in terms of paperwork that they did not impose on other companies, that were so rigorous, that it was damaging to us. It was a punishment for protecting Fernando Villavicencio, Clever Jimenez, and Carlos Figueroa.

LAB: What was your relationship with the late presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio?

Fernando Villavicencio, June 2023. Photo: Carlos Granja Medranda, El Universo

JG: Fernando Villavicencio 2)Fernando Villavicencio, Ecuadorian presidential candidate, murdered on 9 August 2023 in Quito, Ecuador, described his persecution by the Correa government, his period of refuge in Sarayaku territory in 2014, and his admiration for the Sarayaku people, in his book Sarayaku: La Derrota del Jabalí, Alexandria Publishing House, Miami, 2014. would have liked to have a representative of Sarayaku as his vice-presidential candidate, for example, my sister Patricia Gualinga, but we did not want that, as it would have been a risk to her life.

Villavicencio supported us from the beginning, when he was a member of the National Assembly, when our leadership proposed the Kawsak Sacha (Living Forest) project to declare the Sarayaku forest as a Living Being and protected area. I met with him several times, and when he became a presidential candidate, he continued to refer to the story of Sarayaku, offered us protection, he congratulated us, recognised us, saying that when he was in government, he would support us.

LAB: What support do you receive from the administration of President Daniel Noboa? What are Aero Sarayaku’s plans to secure more funding?

JG: We receive no support from any of the government ministries, as we are not a priority for them: Indigenous communities are allocated very little funds for health care or medical emergencies. The government allocates funds to private companies for medical evacuations to serve the special interests of its associates. Our immediate need is to secure funds through our supporters and allies to buy a CESSNA 20 Lycoming engine. Without those funds, the air service will no longer be able to operate.

For the longer term, we are putting together a project, in consultation with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean (CAF), to combine communitarian ethical tourism with an air transport service. We will need the support of large foundations to provide grants and lines of credit.

There are already a number of Indigenous communitarian tourism initiatives, such the Kapawi Lodge in Achuar territory, the Waorani (Huaorani) Bameno project, and the eco-tourism project of the Sápara [Cabañas Ripanú, led by Gloria Ushigua], established in 2019, and other enterprises in Amazonía. We would like to establish a zero-carbon Amazonian aerial network, covering Peru, Ecuador and Brazil by 2035.

LAB: What would happen to Sarayaku if former president Rafael Correa’s party were to win the elections? Who will defend the forest and prevent the construction of roads through Indigenous territories and protected areas? Leonidas Iza 3)Indigenous leader of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, CONAIE?

JG: There are several presidential candidates standing for election: it is not clear that Rafeal Correa will win. Whatever happens, all the main parties will promote the construction of roads. It is only us, the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, who will resist the advance of development projects that will have irreversible environmental and social consequences. We are on the front line as defenders of the Living Forest. It is precisely our projects to create sustainable transport and eco-tourism that will protect the forest.

With regard to Leonidas Iza, leader of Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, we understand that Leonidas is no longer planning to stand as a presidential candidate. In the present circumstances, therefore, the Indigenous movement and other sectors must pull together to present a political project based on social and cultural diversity in our multicultural, plurinational country.


José María (Angún) Gualinga Montalvo is a leader of the Sarayaku Kichwa community and a member of the (T)ICCA Consortium in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He has been Tayak Apu (president) of the Sarayaku Kichwa, and former president of the community’s Advisory Council. He is the Coordinator of the Sarayaku people’s Kawsak Sacha Living Forest initiative. José is the General Manager of Aero Sarayaku, and manager of Papangu Operadora de Turismo Ecológico.

Dr Linda Etchart is associate lecturer in Human Geography at Kingston University, and a regular contributor to the Latin America Bureau Environment Defenders Series. She is the author of Global Governance of the Environment, the Rights of Nature and Indigenous Peoples: Extractive Industries in the Ecuadorian Amazon. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-81519-6

References

References
1 Gloria Ushigua has been a pivotal figure in the recent history of her people, the Sápara, whose territory has been reduced to 400,000 hectares of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Lives and territory were lost as a result of depredations of the rubber industry from the 1890s. The Sapara were recognised as a cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2001, with only three individuals remaining who speak the Sápara language. Gloria has been a leader in contesting the incursion of the extractive industries into Sápara territory, despite threats against her life and physical attacks, and is the president of Ashiniawka, the Association of Sápara Women of Ecuador, founded in 2009. She has led resistance to the operations of logging companies who have been extracting balsa wood from Sápara territory, and continues to represent her people at the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples, UNPFII.
2 Fernando Villavicencio, Ecuadorian presidential candidate, murdered on 9 August 2023 in Quito, Ecuador, described his persecution by the Correa government, his period of refuge in Sarayaku territory in 2014, and his admiration for the Sarayaku people, in his book Sarayaku: La Derrota del Jabalí, Alexandria Publishing House, Miami, 2014.
3 Indigenous leader of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, CONAIE

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