The Sarayaku territory is reeling from this double impact: When the COVID-19 pandemic began to stalk the Indigenous territories and the cities began a strict quarantine, the overflow of the Bobonaza and Arajuno rivers caused a ferocious flood in Sarayaku.

“We were not prepared for a flood that had not been seen in more than 100 years,” Noemí says over the phone in perfect Spanish. Sarayaku is also the name of a parish where more than 30 Indigenous Kichwa communities live that was heavily impacted by the flood. The villagers lost their huts, their belongings floated away in the water, and the school and the community college collapsed.

Noemí was going back and forth between Puyo and Sarayaku every day during the COVID-19 quarantine, from March 17 to the end of July. To get to her community, she took a taxi from Puyo to a small town called Canelos. From there, she would take a motorized canoe. If the river was high, it would take her three hours to her community; if not, the trip would last almost five hours. In Sarayaku, Noemí would leave rice, noodles, grains, dishes and pots for her people, to try to make up for the loss of crops, fish and chickens that the floodwaters had carried away.

She has always been like this.

“My mother would leave at seven in the morning and wouldn’t return until night because she was helping the people of our communities,” says Helena Gualinga, her 18-year-old daughter, who adds that her mother is always working to solve problems.

Despite belonging to a family of well-known environmental defenders, Noemí has typically played a background role. Helena says she has seen her brave the early morning rain in the jungle, running as fast as she can for more than 40 minutes to help a woman give birth.

She is like a mother to everyone.

Noemí Gualinga, 53, is the third of the six children of Corina Montalvo and Sabino Gualinga. Photo: Courtesy Helena Gualinga.

The silent sister

Noemí Gualinga gave birth to her first child, daughter Nina, in a wooden house in Puyo, surrounded by midwives, her husband, her sister Patricia and her younger brothers, who waited worriedly outside. The delivery was complicated, but ultimately went well. She raised Nina in the Sarayaku jungle and continued in her community leadership role.

Noemí’s husband, Swedish biologist Anders Henrik Sirén, and her mother asked her to go to Puyo in case there was an emergency. The couple, who have been married for decades and lived in Puyo since 2017, have four children: daughters Nina and Helena Gualinga, and sons Emil and Inayu Sirén.

The daughters carry their mother’s surname: in Sweden, they only have one and they decided to identify with their mother’s. The two sons opted for the father’s. They all speak Kichwa as their native tongue, and also Spanish, Swedish and English.

As an education and health leader, Noemí attends community meetings. When she had her three younger children, she thought about dedicating herself entirely to their upbringing, but she continues her work supporting her community.

The list of family members who are environmental stewardship leaders is long.

Perhaps the most prominent is Noemí’s sister, Patricia Gualinga, a highly visible activist and recognizable face of the anti-extractivism resistance movement. Patricia has been present in the media, forums and international meetings, while Noemí has chosen to remain far from the spotlight, making her work less known.

“I don’t really know her much or in greater depth regarding her campaigns,” Carmen Josse, executive director of the civil society organization Ecociencia, says of Noemí Gualinga’s work. María José Veramendi, South America researcher at Amnesty International, says over WhatsApp, “I don’t know her closely, nor do I know her leadership.”

It’s Patricia who has amplified the efforts and dedication of her lower-profile sister.

Patricia Gualinga (carrying a girl), on one of the days of the mobilization of Amazonian women that started in Puyo, Pastaza, and arrived in Quito in March 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Selvas Producciones.

“She has not stayed still,” Patricia says. “If she sees that someone is suffering in the pandemic, regardless of the risks, she goes and helps.” It was Noemí who sought support for a brigade of doctors to visit Sarayaku and test its residents for the coronavirus.

Zoila Castillo, an Indigenous Kichwa and vice president of the Amazonian Indigenous Parliament of Ecuador, says Noemí “has been at the forefront organizing, looking for food so that women are well.”

Since the pandemic began, many Indigenous Kichwa women and those of other nationalities have been trapped in Puyo. Since March 17, the day of the flood, many Indigenous communities across the six Amazonian provinces of Ecuador decided to prohibit entry and exit to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

It was Noemí who helped the stranded women find food.

In Puyo, “we looked at each other from a distance to tell them that we are here,” she says in a thin voice that could be mistaken for that of a young girl. If qualities were people, Noemí Gualinga would be solidarity, her two daughters and her sister agree.

Since she was young, Noemí Gualinga has been an activist for the rights of the women of her town. Photo: Soka Vision.

Amazon women

Since 2017, Noemí Gualinga has presided over the Sarayaku Women’s Association, Kuriñampi, which means “Golden Paths.” From that position, she has bolstered the role of women in her community.

“The women have always been next to the men, participating, but it has not been a direct participation with our ideas, with our opinions,” Noemí says. She notes that often, male leaders dedicate themselves more to politics, at the expense of work within communities to improve education and health, especially during the pandemic.

Through Kuriñampi, Sarayaku women also sell necklaces, seed earrings, and wooden and clay handicrafts. Noemí doesn’t do any of the handicrafts, but she coordinates the sale of the products. “The women were very happy to be able to take out their crafts to have money and buy notebooks for their children, for the previous school year,” she says.

But the pandemic came and happiness stopped.

Sometimes, she’s had to be a mother twice over, but for a specific type of people: environmental defenders.

Noemí’s eldest daughter, Nina Gualinga, is one of the most visible faces of the Indigenous struggle in Ecuador. The 27-year-old leader won the WWF Youth Conservation Award. Helena, the younger daughter, participated in the COP25 climate summit in Madrid in December 2019. Aged just 18, her leadership has been compared to that of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage environmental activist.

The mother of the jungle is also a healer.

According to Nina, for a stomachache or a cold, Noemí used to prepare infusions made from medicinal jungle plants. This year, before leaving Sarayaku very early to help in the COVID-19 emergency, Noemí prepared those same infusions, especially with guayusa, a plant native to the Ecuadoran Amazon.

Noemí is also an activist for the rights of her people and the women of her town.

From age 23, she spoke on radio in Puyo and used her platform to explain to the people of her community what to do if they had a fever or a child suffered from diarrhea. She also spoke about Kichwa culture  and challenged young people not to forget traditional dances and to make handicrafts.

Before going on radio, she worked in the Organization of the Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza, where she videotaped the organization’s assemblies. That advocacy work was always relegated to the background because Noemí chose to be a mother to her own children and those in her community who need help.

Noemí is also an Amazonian woman. In 2017, after living half her life between Sweden and Ecuador, she returned to Sarayaku to stay. That same year, she joined the Mujeres Amazónicas collective — “Amazonian Women” — created in 2013 by a group of more than 100 women from the Indigenous Kichwa, Achuar, Shuar, Sapara, Andoa, Waorani and Shiwiar peoples, as well as other mestizo defenders of the rights of nature.

When Noemí joined the group, her daughter Nina was already part of it. It is a space where they all feel like leaders.

“No one is worse or better than the other women,” Noemí says. Mujeres Amazónicas is recognized by international organizations, such as Amnesty International, for its unwavering fight for the rights of its people’s territory. Because of the women’s struggle, they have been the victims of attacks, threats, harassment, insults and even legal pressures. In 2018, Patricia Gualinga was the victim of a home invasion, in which the perpetrator broke in through the window, threatened her life, then escaped.

On March 9 this year, the women gathered at the Ecuador Attorney General’s Office in Quito to deliver thousands of signatures collected in more than 168 countries calling for investigations into cases of harassment and intimidation against its members such as Patricia Gualinga, Nema Grefa and Margot Escobar.

However, the kind of recognition they have earned abroad continues to elude them in their own country.

Members of the Mujeres Amazónicas collective during the demonstration they held in March 2018. Photo: Génesis Anangonó for GK Ecuador.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadoran Amazon (Confeniae) has twice signed a document in which it refuses to recognize Mujeres Amazónicas. Elvia Dagua, Confeniae’s women and health leader, says that in organization meetings — first in 2018, and then in March 2020 — they decided that “Mujeres Amazónicas, in quotation marks, do not represent the Confeniae.” According to Dagua, they do not have an office, and it is not known who leads them. She says this confuses the civil society organizations that finance the projects of Indigenous groups.

But Noemí says the confederation does not understand what it means to be an Amazonian woman. She says the rejection is rooted in jealousy and a lack of understanding that “you can not only be part of a struggle when you are a leader, but you can also be a leader from your home or when you see an injustice.”

At the end of 2020, Confeniae will elect a new board. Elvia Dagua will no longer be a leader, “and no one will remember her,” Noemí says. “If she wanted, Elvia could be one more Amazonian woman.”

Since 2017, Noemí Gualinga has presided over the Sarayaku Women’s Association, Kuriñampi. Photo: Courtesy Helena Gualinga.

Away from the bright lights

“You will never see my mother in the photos. She does the work and if they take photos, she puts herself aside,” Helena Gualinga says. Noemí chuckles at that and says she does not shy away from the cameras, but at the same time is not looking to appear in photos.

One of the few images of Noemí in her role as a leader is a photograph that shows her with a microphone in hand, not posed, oblivious to the cameras, amid the songs of Indigenous women and with a wall of posters against mining exploitation.

The photo was taken on March 16, 2018. Noemí had come to the Carondelet Palace in Quito, the seat of the presidency of Ecuador, along with 60 women from 11 Indigenous nationalities of the Amazon, to demand that President Lenín Moreno receive them. Many had walked from their territories to nearby cities from where they could take a bus to Quito to deliver a list of demands for solutions against oil exploitation.

For five days they waited in the Plaza Grande, at the foot of the Carondelet Palace.

Amazonian women. Courtesy of Selvas Producciones.

When officials realized that they would not leave without voicing their issues, Moreno sent the private secretary of the presidency, Juan Sebastián Roldán, to speak with a delegation of women, one from each nationality. Roldán told them the president would visit them in their territories to talk.

Each of the women present spoke at the meeting. When it was her turn, Noemí said, “We have been outraged that we were not received by the president or the vice president.” In spite of that, she says that just entering the seat of power and handing over the document, even if it was only archived later, was still an achievement.

When the meeting was over, Noemí walked on the balcony of the Carondelet Palace. She looked at her companions who were chanting and shouting for the defense of their territories.

“When I was with everyone, together, we seemed like a lot, but from up above the group I could see how few we were,” she says. Looking at the scene from above, Noemí says she was overcome by sadness and tears welled up in her eyes. Photographer Santiago Cornejo took a picture of her in that moment.

The battles of the Sarayaku people

One night this past August, Noemí Gualinga is on the other end of the phone. She talks about her people’s struggle against the oil companies, which in 2012 saw the Inter-American Court of Human Rights rule in favor of the Sarayaku people in a lawsuit against the government of Ecuador for having violated the right to prior consultation, to Indigenous communal property and to cultural identity.

The court ruled that the goverment should remove the explosives buried in Sarayaku for oil activities. It also ordered that a prior, adequate and effective consultation be made if an extractive activity is intended to be carried out.

The court order has not been fulfilled. In November 2019, the Sarayaku people again sued the Ecuadoran state, this time before the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, for noncompliance. The struggle of Indigenous peoples to defend their lands and ways of life continues, even after an international body has said the fight is over.

Noemí Gualinga outside the prosecution office in March 2020. Photo: Mayuri Castro for GK Ecuador.

The problems for the Sarayaku people persist. And Noemí continues to help. One afternoon in September, she went to Sarayaku to help a woman from another Indigenous community who had fled from her abusive husband.

The woman was devastated because she had learned that her husband had given their 12-year-old daughter to a man. It is a long-running practice in many Indigenous communities, where girls are forced to live with these men, many of them becoming victims of physical and sexual violence.

Noemí says she told the woman, “I’m going to see who you should talk to and where you should seek for help.”

It is 11 a.m. on a Saturday, and Noemí Gualinga, the mother of the jungle, is at her house in Puyo. She might go the next day to Sarayaku to continue bringing food, clothing, medicine and her services as a midwife to her people. Otherwise, she will be sitting at the entrance of her house, scanning the horizon, waiting for someone to come and ask for help.

Banner Image credit: Original illustration of Noemí Gualinga as created by Los Angeles-based artist Marlene Solorio for Mongabay. You can find out more about the artist on Instagram at @m2rl3n3.

Hear more via Mongabay’s podcast: “In the Amazon, women are key to forest conservation” here:

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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