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“Indigenous people are fighting to protect a natural equilibrium”: Q&A with Patricia Gualinga

  • Increase in legal and illegal mining in the Ecuadorian Amazon, along with the emergence of carbon credit system that bypass Indigenous people, are posing a challenge to Amazonian communities.
  • Patricia Gualinga is a Kichwa leader in Ecuador and member of Amazonian Women (Mujeres Amazónicas), a coalition of women environmental and land defenders.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Patricia Gualinga talks about Indigenous resistance in the face of extractive threats and the popularity of carbon credits in the Amazon rainforest.

Patricia Gualinga takes a deep breath and pictures herself inside the rainforest in Sarayaku, Ecuador.

“It’s hard to describe the smell of such pure air when you’re in the rainforest”, she says. “When you go into these sacred forests, you feel so much closer to the forces of creation.”

In these spaces, she claims, beyond encountering an incalculable natural wealth, one can connect to the basic principles of energy and equilibrium.

Portrait of Patricia Gualinga. Image courtesy of Jonathan Rosas.

Unsurprisingly, given her profound connection to the region, it pains her to remember the time when it was all at risk of disappearing. In 1993, the Argentinean General Fuel Company (Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC)) gained access rights to what was then known as Block 23. Nine years later, in 2002, the company entered the Sarayaku community, located in the province of Pastaza in the Ecuadorian Amazon, to start their extractive activities, using large amounts of dynamite in the process. It was at this moment that the Kichwa people’s fight to defend their territory was born.

“Sarayaku came together and brought it all to a halt,” said Gualinga, who is a leader of the Amazonian Women (Mujeres Amazónicas) collective and a political advisor for the town of Sarayaku. “People mobilized across various fronts. There were months of struggle, people were living in a constant state of uneasiness because of it.”

There were river blockades and arrests of Kichwa defenders of their territory. But in the end, they managed to expel the company from the area.

“It was the first time in history that an Indigenous people had achieved something like this; which was followed by a long 10-year period until the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) made a ruling in favor of the people of Sarayaku,” she explained. “By leading this long, arduous struggle, by having carved out a path and set a legal precedent and shown that by fighting you can win, this community has become a symbol of resistance.”

Patricia Gualinga is also the daughter of the late Sabino Gualinga, a shaman best known for his testimony before the IACHR, where he explained the idea of the “living forest” and helped win the ruling in favor of his community.

Sabino Gualinga (on the left) takes part in ritual ceremony with tobacco at the entrance of Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. Image courtesy of Heriberto Gualinga.

In this interview with Mongabay, the Kichwa indigenous leader spoke about Ecuadorian Indigenous peoples’ resistance in the face of threats to the Amazon rainforest, such as mining, logging, or oil extraction.



Mongabay: What are the main threats that Indigenous communities in Ecuador face and how have they impacted these communities?

Patricia Gualinga: The biggest threat are the extractive industries: oil drilling, mining, and logging. We could also add hydroelectric projects to this list. The most recent boom to appear has been the ‘environmental business’ of carbon [credits and offsets].

One of the threats we have started to see grow more aggressively over the last few years, however, is that of mining, both in its ‘formal’ sense — meaning projects that have attained government licenses — and in terms of illegal mining, whereby organized crime groups target certain communities for resource extraction. This is happening across the Amazon region. In my region [Sarayaku], there have been attempts to expand the scope of oil drilling activities, spurred on by the government’s announcement that it wishes to double the level of oil extraction in the country.

Large machines to process gold in the Jatunyacu River in Napo province, Ecuador. February 11, 2022. Image courtesy of Iván Castaneira.

Mongabay: Is the Ecuadorian state prioritizing extractive industries and the nation’s economy over the interests of the country’s indigenous peoples?

Patricia Gualinga: The government is giving full priority to the economy, with the justification that it is for the good of the country. There’s no room for the discussion of the rights of Indigenous peoples, of collective rights or the consultation of Indigenous peoples, let alone their consent [for such extractive activities to take place]. They are stuck in their ways, following the same practices and framework as they have done for many years, despite the efforts, for example, of the community of Sarayaku to demonstrate that violations of the collective rights of Indigenous people and their territory had taken place.

The economic practices have stayed the same, and for all the talk of ‘responsible mining’ or ‘responsible oil drilling’, or ‘responsible’ whatever, it has been clearly demonstrated that in practice they have failed to act responsibly everywhere such activities have taken place. Every week, we have seen oil spills take place in the northeastern regions, which have been affecting the river basins of the Amazon River; such is the case of the Napo River, which is a tributary of the Amazon, and has been severely polluted. In the Napo River region, people have started to protest against what is happening, with regard to both the oil spills and the practice of ‘flaring’ [the burning of natural gas in a practice that is part of the process of oil drilling], the impacts of which are irreversible.

Mongabay: What is the relationship between Indigenous peoples, on an organizational level, and the Ecuadorian state? To what extent are Indigenous movements being listened to?

Patricia Gualinga: I think there are a few things we need to emphasize. With regard to the issue of mining, the government claims that the destruction that takes place only comes from illegal mining activities — who, of course, act atrociously — and that the formal, large-scale mining projects are ‘responsible’. However they also end up causing complete destruction. When it comes to extractive industries, there is no middle ground, no opportunity for reconciliation or to coalesce around a compromise position, because we are coming at the issue from completely unequal standings. They are always trying to tell us that, this time, with the latest, cutting-edge technologies, they will be able to act socially and environmentally responsible. I’m really not sure if they even know what they are saying, it’s all just theoretical talk.

Patricia Gualinga, International representative for Kichwa of Sarayukuof the Ecuadorian Amazon (middle) and Alex Baldwin, Actor & Advocate for UNDP Equator Initiative. Image courtesy of Freya Morales / UNDP via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

There is also now big paradox, because there has been a big social outcry, not only coming from Indigenous peoples, for fuel subsidies. Here it seems like what we’ve said is contradictory, because while we have said no to oil extraction, we have also spoken out in favor of fuel subsidies. However, I think that you have to look at it from a different point of view: there wouldn’t have been a social uprising for fuel subsidies if Ecuador wasn’t so dependent on fossil fuels, if it had followed another path as a country and if the Ecuadorian state was more reflective of the diverse and pluralistic nature of the country.

In terms of politics, in my experience, the government has been quite confrontational towards the Indigenous movement and I don’t really see, in organizational terms, any kind of agreement taking place. Governments past and present think that, maybe, by offering us a few political or administrative roles, they can solve the problem. They also claim that there are funds available for us, but in our communities we don’t see any evidence of this. So, the same pattern continues to play out: social neglect and abandonment, neglect of infrastructure projects, and the marginalization of Indigenous groups in rural areas, as well as the stigmatization and discreditation of Indigenous leaders themselves. The party in government and the names of those in charge may change, but the colonial, patriarchal and extractive model remains in force.

Mongabay: Last year, during the COP26 U.N. climate change conference, it was stated that Indigenous peoples are the best guarantors and defenders of the natural world. Despite this, international resources don’t always reach Indigenous communities. How could we ensure that the environmental proposals of Indigenous peoples are respected and implemented?

Patricia Gualinga: It’s true. If we still have rainforests, it’s because we, the indigenous, have fought for our lives to protect them. We have risked our safety in order to clearly state that this cannot continue, that one cannot look at life in purely economic terms, that life is not only about exploitation and extraction for economic means. Our worldview is rooted in the protection of the ecosystems that are vital for humanity’s existence.

Patricia and José Gualinga from Sarayaku, Ecuador. Image courtesy of Climate Alliance Org via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Governments and humans are specialists in coming up with bureaucratic frameworks that make it difficult for Indigenous peoples to gain access to resources. If they actually listened to what Indigenous people had to say, they would adopt our proposals, which are rooted in our own vision and knowledge of our land. The reason they don’t support us, I think, is because they succumb to a racist view of us, painting us as a people devoid of ideas, and they want to impose a wholly impractical conservation strategy upon us.

The world needs inspiration, the world needs to know that it is possible to preserve the natural environment and to live in harmony with nature. The world needs to stop looking at its Indigenous peoples as poor people in need of support; we need to change this perspective and say that Indigenous people are fighting to protect life, to protect a natural equilibrium, because, thanks to the struggle [of the Indigenous], we can still say that there is hope for life on this planet to continue.

What they should do is, firstly, cut back on the bureaucracy and, secondly, aim to find adequate solutions, and not use economic justifications to come up with ‘environmental businesses’ that, in many cases, are absurd and ridiculous. They should put social justice at the heart of their actions, and recognize that we, in fact, have been the ones who have protected the rainforest. They should not start coming to us and forcing business ideas upon us or trying to show us how they can come and impose another conservation model upon us.

Mongabay: Why has the carbon credit system proved unworkable and what impact does it have on Indigenous peoples?

Patricia Gualinga: It’s a way of commercializing rainforests that are already being protected by Indigenous peoples. They have come up with this whole idea that they [the rainforests] need to be put on the stock market, and also came up with this idea that, if a big company pollutes a lot, they can enter into the stock market and buy shares [in the rainforest] to justify their polluting activities. This is pure hypocrisy. Clearly, they have come up with these bureaucratic schemes and studies that an Indigenous community will not have easy access to; they’re going to be able to create big intermediary companies and that’s all we’ll be left with.

Indira, a Sarayaku woman, cooks for her family, after hours of being in the chakra. Image courtesy of Esteffany Bravo.

From there, bodies and organizations have emerged who have started to say: ‘our rainforests, our Indigenous people’. These bodies are not just there to call us ‘our’; they’re there to say: ‘let’s listen to them, let’s support them and let’s build from their own proposals’, rather than with [unworkable] schemes others have come up with. These schemes are unviable, they’re always talking about spending millions of dollars. Not even 0.01% of the state’s budget or those millions reach our community. The schools in our communities still have dirt floors, the houses are made out of leaves and were built by the mingas [Indigenous communal laborers]; there aren’t even clean bathrooms or a piped water supply. If we’re going to talk about Indigenous people, that’s their reality. And yet in spite of that reality, they persist with the principle of defending the Amazon region.

Mongabay: You mentioned that Indigenous people have risked their lives and safety to defend the environment. Across Latin America there have been numerous cases of men and women who have been killed for their efforts to defend their land, of Indigenous communities who have been displaced by violence and extractive projects. How have these events affected the Indigenous peoples of Ecuador?

Patricia Gualinga: They have started to spread fear among the people who defend [their land] and speak out about issues. They think that, by silencing us, they’ll have easy access to our land. Colombia is a living example of this: every day, sadly, we see how social leaders and Indigenous activists are being killed for raising their voices, and those responsible for the killings are never found. The government is complicit because, when they actually want to, they can always find out who is responsible, but when it comes to justice for social leaders who have been killed, or other people who have been murdered, they’re not interested. They’re only interested in instilling fear into the population.

Perhaps the situation in Ecuador is less serious, things are maybe a little more subtle. There was a period in which a number of female Indigenous leaders received death threats. We really tried to make the issue more visible and raise awareness in order to protect our lives and to denounce head-on what was happening, because the worst thing one can do is stay quiet, or go into hiding, because this is precisely what they want you to do.

Maria Aguinda, the lead plaintiff in the Aguinda v. Chevron lawsuit, shows some of the crude oil that is still contaminating the Ecuadorian Amazon, 35 years after it was spilled. Image courtesy of Amazon Watch.

During the pandemic we were holed up at home, but the industries never stopped. As ‘strategic sectors’ [of the economy] they were well protected. During this period there were killings of social leaders and we were silenced. People paid with their lives. We are not just fighting to protect our land that is under attack, we’re fighting because their actions are irresponsible and threaten to destroy our ecosystems. They think the Earth can continue to resist, but we have passed the limit of what is sustainable. If we end up destroying the little that we have left, we will provoke such great instability that the victims will not just be Indigenous people; there will be a catastrophe on a global scale.

Mongabay: What does it mean to be a woman Indigenous leader in this context? What role do women play in the defense of their land?

Patricia Gualinga: They call us leaders because we speak out, because we say things how they are and we don’t remain silent. We call out the problem, the injustice and denounce it. What are the implications of that? It means that you’re looked upon negatively, often it means that you’re marginalized. It means they ridicule you. It means that, at some point, they’ll try and destroy you, and make you feel unsafe.

But it also means that you can make progress, and help other people shake off their fear. When you face up to the fear that they try and instill in you people start to think and reflect, they start losing their fear and start taking action. A living example is much more important than something that only exists in theory. It’s a double-edged sword: it implies danger, but it also means that you can make a difference. That’s what being an Indigenous leader is about.

But what about taking part in the struggle as a woman? Even in our own organizations, we have always been relegated to a secondary role. People have made sure that the most prominent figures, the presidents, have always been men. Now that it’s fashionable to have a female vice-president, we have risen up the ranks a little. On a political level, no matter how capable you may be, they always try to put you in a secondary position. It got to a point where we, as women, said no: women have to have a voice, we have to be in the position to speak out, we have to be more visible and we have to speak out about things from the perspective of our feelings [and how issues affect us]. And that’s how our organization, Amazonian Women, was born.

Portrait of Sarayaku Warmikuna, member of Mujeres Amazónicas (Amazonian Women). The women of the community were the first to be part of the collective known as Amazonian Women. Image courtesy of Esteffany Bravo.

We have been heavily scrutinized because we are atypical, we are not part of any organizational structures, even though we are made up of people from [Indigenous] groups and communities. We also have our own forms of organization, of protesting, of looking after ourselves, but, above all, we have a non-hierarchical structure where everyone can talk, everyone can make statements, where every woman is a leader and every woman is important, and where we support each other.

Mongabay: In terms of the question of Indigenous land in Ecuador, how far has the granting of land rights progressed? Has there been the political will on the part of the state to recognize Indigenous land rights?

Patricia Gualinga: When we received titles to our territory in 1992, we had to earn them through a great amount of protest. They have since granted some land titles to other Indigenous peoples, and this acts as a sort of shield for us, as it allows us to defend ourselves and say that this is our land – even if the state says: ‘sure, the land is yours, but the subsoil belongs to the state, for reasons of national interest’. Since the subsoil is where the minerals and oil are found, they are always trying to use this line of reasoning to make incursions into Indigenous territories. This [defending land rights] takes years and can cost you your life. That’s what happens with [resisting against] mining.

Something that I’ve discovered is that when you let them enter your land, it is difficult to get them to leave, because they make every justification imaginable, and everything to gain from the situation. The state supports them with the army, the police, with everything it has got, all against an Indigenous community that is at a severe disadvantage. What we’re really talking about here is a situation of completely unequal conditions.

They try to play around some of the irregularities in the land titles and we have seen how this can trigger serious intra-community conflicts which present a danger. That’s why we try to avoid falling into the traps that they try to set for us when it comes to land titles, like what they did with Sarayaku.

This isn’t a new practice either: they set all the other communities against us and blocked our access roads, prevented us from moving freely, encouraged attacks upon us and a whole load of other horrible things. Merely holding the land rights does not guarantee that there won’t be any conflict when it suits them to provoke some. The only good thing about the situation is that our communities are becoming more and more aware about these issues and we hope that we will continue to increase our awareness in order to be able to confront any situation that could arise owing to outside manipulation.

The Sarayaku territory and way of life have been protected by international legislation since 2005. In the photograph, a young woman makes her way along one of the paths that run through the community. Image courtesy of Verónica Potes.

Mongabay: What does the word ‘territory’ mean to you?

Patricia Gualinga: Our territory is something that is part of us, part of who we are. Territory is something central to any Indigenous people: it is not about the land in and of itself, rather the wholesomeness of what lies there. For us, there is no subsoil, there are no boundaries. For us, our territory is a whole and indivisible. Our territory is also the land of our ancestors, but above all, if you really think about it, our territory is also the remains, the bodies, the blood, the spirits and energy of our ancestors. All of that is fused together with the earth, with our territory and part of the natural equilibrium.

Without our territory, there is no buen vivir [‘good living’]. Without our territory, there is no living rainforest, and there is no life. There is an intrinsic, sacred relationship between Indigenous peoples and their territory, and that is why we cannot negotiate it, why you will not see terms of purchase and sale over something that is part of who we are. If you think about it: when we die, what do we become? Earth. Our body is made of earth. So, we should look at our territory as something sacred, something from which we are born, that we are part of, that we will leave one day and to which we return. That is what our territory means to us.


Banner image: Patricia Gualinga, Kichwa indigenous leader. Photo: Amazon Watch/Caroline Bennett.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here:

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