- On Wednesday, the Ecuadoran Indigenous NGO Ceibo Alliance received the biennial Equator Prize Award from the UN in honor of its integral strategies to protect Indigenous Rights and the Amazon, and its leadership of Indigenous-led strategies to protect the rainforest.
- By unifying four Indigenous groups, the Alliance has been able to work effectively across a variety of different areas, including legal advocacy, local development, media training, and territorial monitoring.
- The success of the Ceibo Alliance suggests that these kinds of Indigenous-led alliances could become a model for confronting extractive industries worldwide.
Appreciation of the outsized role that Indigenous people play in helping to protect the planet’s biodiversity, intact ecosystems, and global carbon stocks is growing around the world. On Wednesday, the United Nations honored 10 organizations – over half of them Indigenous – with its prestigious “Equator Prize.” The prize is awarded every two years to recognize community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Among those honored was the Ceibo Alliance, an Indigenous Ecuadoran non-profit comprised of communities from four different Indigenous groups spread over Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia.
The prize, awarded during the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, came just days after Ceibo Alliance’s Co-Founder and prominent Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo was named to this year’s TIME 100, the magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
The award is the latest in a series of hard-won recognition for Indigenous peoples’ ongoing fight against extractive industries in Ecuador, home to the third-largest oil reserves in South America. By uniting different Indigenous nations around a shared cause, the Ceibo Alliance has managed to create a multilayered and successful approach to territorial and cultural protection that spans everything from territorial mapping and legal aid, to solar energy projects and Indigenous media training. By working closely with different stakeholders on the ground and internationally, alliances like these are increasingly bearing fruit and becoming a model for change in an uncertain time.
“We are honored by this global recognition by the UN for our work in defense of our rainforest territories and cultures,” Siona leader and Ceibo Alliance’s director, Alicia Salazar, said in a statement. “This Prize goes out to all our Indigenous communities and nations who are on the frontlines of the battle to protect the Amazon. As Indigenous peoples, we have suffered many oppressions and violations. But through our shared struggle for survival and guided by the vision of our ancestors, we are building a unified movement to protect the rainforest, our planet, and future generations.”
Strength in unity
The prize comes at a difficult time for many Indigenous communities in the Amazon, who have been impacted disproportionately by the covid-19 pandemic. Hundreds of communities in the Ecuadoran Amazon are still reeling from an oil spill in April, leaving the primary source of food and water for 27,000 Indigenous people polluted by nearly 16,000 barrels of petroleum. It also comes on the backdrop of a decade-long battle to receive compensation from Chevron for what some have called one of the worst environmental catastrophes in Latin America.
It was the decades-long experience with the toxic aftermath of oil exploitation in their territories that sparked the formation of the Ceibo Alliance. Principal among these was the decades long fight with Texaco – now Chevron – who allegedly spilled 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water and 17 million gallons of crude oil in the northeast Ecuadoran Amazon between 1964 and 1992.
“People speak of development but what have we received?” Hernan Payaguaje, general coordinator of the Ceibo Alliance and member of the Siekopai people told Mongabay in an interview. “Nothing. If anything, we have been left with the pollution.”
Payaguaje said that after a series of visits by different Indigenous groups to parts of the Amazon that had been affected by oil contamination, representatives of four Indigenous groups decided to unite in their attempts to keep oil drilling out of their territory and provide an alternative model for development. Shortly after, in 2014, the Ceibo Alliance was founded. It is made up of representatives from the Kofán, Siona, Secoya, and Waorani nations, spanning four provinces and 70 communities in the Ecuadoran Amazon, Colombia and Peru. Their aim is to defend Indigenous territory, create viable alternatives to rainforest destruction, and ensure cultural survival in over 5 million acres of primary rainforest.
“Corporations used to come in here and make agreements with Indigenous people or communities – they divided us. But now we are united,” he said. “We’ve seen that Indigenous groups with low populations often get ignored on their own. But this alliance has allowed us to create a much bigger resistance.”
A new era of legal rights
For Indigenous groups, fighting the Ecuadoran state, and the state-run oil company and one of Ecuador’s most important income streams, Petroecuador, is an uphill battle. Around two-thirds of the Ecuadoran Amazon is divided into oil blocks either to be explored or auctioned off for development, with many of these below Indigenous territories. In the northern part of the Ecuadoran Amazon, where the bulk of oil development has occurred, hundreds of spills have occurred in the last decade, affecting the rivers and watersheds of Indigenous communities, essential for their health and subsistence. In addition, mining interests, such as for gold and copper, pose additional threats.
The Ceibo Alliance, together with its legal partner Amazon Frontlines, has made international headlines for helping to win a number of court rulings against the Ecuadoran State. In April 2019, the Waorani people won a case against the Ecuadoran government for auctioning off their land for oil drilling without a proper consultation process. And in October 2018, the Kofán people also won a landmark legal battle against the Ecuadoran state, leading to the nullification of 52 gold-mining concessions at the head of the Aguarico River, one of Ecuador’s largest and most important rivers.
“These legal cases interrupt the rampant impunity with which corporations have acted in Indigenous territories,” Suzana Sawyer, an anthropologist who has studied resource extraction in the Ecuadoran Amazon for over two decades, told Mongabay. “The court cases and their success have also re-instilled an inspiring capacity among Indigenous nationalities in the Northern Amazon. These groups are small and often within Ecuadoran national politics have been overshadowed by the actions of larger groups.”
While precedent-setting legal battles have been fought – and won – against oil companies in the Ecuadoran Amazon in the past, it is precisely the kind of unifying capability of NGOs like the Ceibo Alliance that “is part of a new era of Indigenous peoples using law (via legal allies) to press for their rights,” Sawyer said. “The Ceibo Alliance, of course, does much more than simply engage in legal advocacy and together all their work has instilled and demonstrated the deep integrity and ethics that pervade an Indigenous way of being,” said Sawyer.
For Payaguaje, while the actions to defend the territory, such as helping to provide legal aid, and monitoring and patrolling their territories is important, it is just one side of the coin. “One of the most important things for us is maintaining our territory”, he said. “But we also need our cultural practices, our rituals, our language, so we need to protect our territory as well as our culture.”
The Ceibo Alliance has also helped support recovery and protection of ancestral knowledge and rituals, alongside installing rainwater filtration systems for every Kofán, Secoya, Siona and Waorani household affected by oil contamination, built over 120 solar energy systems, and provided Indigenous youth with media training, among an impressive list of achievements in a short period of time.
“We planted a seed and we have harvested now our first crop,” Payaguaje said. “These awards give us strength to continue and we are continuing to seek alliances and support. Behind this alliance there are communities, families, people that need our help. Our ancestors fought for us, and we have to fight for our future generations.”
Banner image: Members of the Kofán, Siekopai, Siona and Waorani tribes that make up the Ceibo Alliance. Photo Credit.