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For Ecuador’s A’i Cofán leaders, Goldman Prize validates Indigenous struggle

Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez, Goldman Prize winners for South and Central America in 2022.

Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez, Goldman Prize winners for South and Central America in 2022. Image by Goldman Environmental Prize.

  • Alexandra Narváez and Alex Lucitante, young leaders from the A’i Cofán community of Sinangoe in Ecaudor, led a movement to protect their people’s ancestral territory from gold mining.
  • In recognition of their struggle, they were awarded the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize, widely known as the “Green Nobel.”
  • The A’i Cofán community of Sinangoe forced the Ecuadoran state to revoke 52 gold mining concessions that threatened their territory and were awarded without the prior consultation stipulated in the country’s Constitution.

Alexandra Narváez and Alex Lucitante, two young Indigenous leaders from the A’i Cofán community of Sinangoe, located in the Ecuadoran Amazon, have been awarded the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize for their fight against gold mining on their territory. This marks the second time that this internationally renowned prize has been awarded to Ecuadoran Indigenous leaders. In 2020, Nemonte Nenquimo, leader of the Waorani, received the same prize for her work in protecting more than 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of the Waorani’s ancestral lands in an area of tropical rainforest that has repeatedly been targeted by the oil industry.

The award jury for this year’s prize highlighted the actions of the A’i Cofán youth leaders in their struggle against gold mining, which threatens their community’s water sources, soil and air quality. The jury hailed Narváez and Lucitante as the faces of their people’s struggle. “Their leadership resulted in a historic legal victory in October 2018, when Ecuador’s courts canceled 52 illegal gold mining concessions, which were granted illegally without the consent of their Cofán community. The community’s legal success protects 79,000 acres [32,000 hectares] of pristine, biodiverse rainforest in the headwaters of Ecuador’s Aguarico River, which is sacred to the Cofán,” the award jury said in its announcement of the winners.

The A’i Cofán community of Sinangoe lives on the banks of the Aguarico River and is made up of 56 families, or around 230 people. The Cofán and Chingual rivers are two tributaries of the Aguarico, and are sources of food, irrigation and leisure for the community. These waters, however, have been contaminated by mining activities authorized by the government without prior consultation with the community.

Government officials have tried to justify the lack of consultation by saying some of the mining concessions don’t cover A’i Cofán territory. But this ignores the fact that the waters used by the community have been polluted upstream by both legal and illegal mining activities. As a result, in February this year Ecuador’s Constitutional Court said that “The obligation for prior consultation does not only apply to those plans or projects that fall within the lands of Indigenous communities and peoples … but also to those that, even if they are outside their territory, could directly affect them environmentally or culturally if they are within their sphere of influence, as established by Article 57, Paragraph 7 of the Constitution.”

Community leaders of the A’i Cofán Indigenous community of Sinangoe, from left: Nixon Andy, coordinator of the Indigenous Guard; Alexandra Narváez, community leader; Victor Quenamá, community president; and Wider Guaramag, community secretary. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Alexandra Narváez: Voice of the community elders

Alexandra Narváez won recognition from her community by becoming the first woman to join the Sinangoe Indigenous Guard, as well as for chairing the Association of Indigenous Women of Sinangoe Shamec’co and being a spokesperson for the community. “The maternal line of Alexandra’s family has been a reference point of knowledge and wisdom, and her voice represents the voice of the elders,” says Roberto Narváez, a cultural anthropologist whose research has focused on the A’i Cofán people.

Alexandra Narváez, 32, isn’t just a community leader; she’s also a mother to two daughters, ages 13 and 15. “Despite all the problems, like having to leave my two daughters alone at home to be able to go to marches and patrol our territory, it has been an honor to show A’i Cofán women that we can move forward, that we can raise our voices and say that we are going to look after our territory, that we are defenders of our territory, defenders of life itself,” she says.

The Sinangoe Indigenous Guard was created in 2017 to protect the land from what the community calls external threats, such as the invasion of their territory by hunters and fishermen, or the arrival of illegal mining activity. The guard members, Narváez says, are trained in using camera traps, drones, GPS and first aid, as well as leading guided tours, among other activities. They leave their homes for days or even weeks at a time to carry out reconnaissance patrols of their territory, record the coordinates of areas affected by illegal mining, and document the presence of invaders through photos. “We’re not paid, we do it from our hearts because we want to protect our territory,” Narváez says.

The Sinangoe Indigenous Guard periodically patrols the community’s territory to monitor and halt any illegal activities. This site, Las Pizarras, is close to where the patrol first spotted heavy machinery, in 2018. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Despite the fact that A’i Cofán women play an active role in their community, Narváez joining the Indigenous Guard “was a striking moment for the A’i Cofán people.” She says she recognizes this: “I received a lot of criticism, since people thought that women should stay at home,” she said in a recent Instagram post. There are now six women in the Sinangoe Indigenous Guard, sharing “the desire to continue defending our homes and the homes of our children,” Narváez says in an interview with Mongabay Latam and La Barra Espaciadora.

Jorge Acero, a lawyer with the group Amazon Frontlines, who has followed the community of Sinangoe’s court cases, hails Narváez’s achievements as a woman in a patriarchal society like Ecuador’s. “She has the strength to take on leadership roles, mobilizing not only the women [of her community], but also gaining recognition from her whole community,” Acero says.

As president of the Association of Indigenous Women of Sinangoe Shamec’co, Narváez has led training programs for tourism and food activities. The aim is to create sustainable sources of income for the women and young people of the community by sharing their culture. One of the projects they rely on is smoking or cooking native fish. For this, the Sinangoe community has already created nurseries of cachama (Colossoma macropomum), a local fish, with the finished product targeted at urban markets.

Alexandra Narváez and Holger Quenamá travel on the Aguarico River in a boat belonging to the Sinangoe Indigenous Guard. Imagehoto courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Alex: Spokesperson for his ancestor’s wishes

“This recognition gives strength to the community of Sinangoe, for whom the reception of this prize serves as inspiration for all the Indigenous nations of Ecuador who have seen the struggles of the people of Sinangoe,” Alex Lucitante said upon receiving news of winning the Goldman Environmental Prize. Lucitante, 29, has three children — two boys and a girl — and considers himself very close to the ancestral healing methods of “the grandfathers, the taitas.”

Jorge Acero says the familial groups among the A’i Cofán come from clans that are linked to traditional wisdom and the knowledge of plants and their healing powers. “The taitas, who can be seen as the equivalent of shamans, are a strong presence in their families, and Alex has a strong link with his father and grandfather, who were both taitas,” Acero says.

For Lucitante, maintaining his elders’ legacy is an inescapable responsibility. In that regard, the Constitutional Court’s backing was like receiving “a well-sharpened machete from the state itself” to preserve this legacy and continue their struggle to defend their territory against extractive activities.

His concern is not only for his people, but for all the Indigenous communities living in the Ecuadoran Amazon. Lucitante says the international community must join them in their struggle to preserve the natural world. He says this is why they’re working to share the mandate of their forefathers more widely and will work to keep these sacred rainforests left intact by their ancestors.

“It’s very clear what the Constitutional Court has said: the Ecuadoran state and companies must carry out consultations, and the consent [of Indigenous peoples] is very important,” Lucitante says. “The state needs to understand that the Amazon is not the place for mining or oil industries, because communities have been living here for thousands of years, and if they try to exploit this territory, there are going to destroy us both physically and culturally.”

Alex Lucitante, South and Central America winner of the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Recognition for a struggle that has lasted years

“This is not a recognition of Alex and Alexandra, this is a recognition of the whole A’i Cofán community of Sinangoe for their efforts, for their struggle,” Alexandra Narváez says. For her, the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize represents a form of recognition for the Indigenous peoples and nations fighting to defend their territories and their lives. “This is an important recognition of the fact that processes like that of Sinangoe can change the reality of Indigenous peoples in the region, and of other struggles globally,” Acero says.

He says the community’s fight to protect their territory began in 2017, with the creation of the Law for Control and Protection of the Ancestral Territory of the Community of Sinangoe of the A’i Cofán Nation. This was the Indigenous group’s response to the threats posed by legal and illegal mining, deforestation, and the arrival of mestizo hunters and fishermen from other parts of Ecuador. With this law, the community of Sinangoe proclaimed their right to self-governance and to sovereignty over their own territory. One of the central points of this law is a ban on outsiders entering their territory to carry out extractive activities. The creation of the Indigenous Guard was an additional measure taken to help defend their territory. Narváez and Lucitante say all these decisions were taken during an assembly with the whole community.

In 2017, the Indigenous Guard’s first patrols found evidence of illegal mining, such as the installation of tarabitas, a rudimentary type of cable car, for transporting mining material and building trails. The community of Sinangoe raised a publicly outcry over the discovery, triggering an investigation by the public prosecutor’s office to identify the violators. But there’s been no progress since then, Acero says.

At the start of January 2018, excavators and other heavy machinery were brought into the A’i Cofán territory as miners pursued gold in the Aguarico River. The community filed an injunction against them in the Sucumbíos Provincial Court, denouncing the damages to the environment and the lack of prior consultation, given that the mining blocks covering the tributaries of the Aguarico River had been drawn up and awarded without informing the A’i Cofán.

Women from the Sinangoe Indigenous Guard. Alexandra Narváez, third from left, led the creation of the Indigenous Guard in 2017, and was the only woman in the group at the time. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Alexandra Narváez, of the A’i Cofán people, is a leader of her community of Sinangoe. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

The court ruled in favor of the Sinangoe community, calling for the immediate suspension of the 20 active mining concessions, and another 32 concessions in the pipeline, all of which had been awarded in the Indigenous territory. It also denounced the violation of the community’s rights and compensatory measures. The court also ordered the State Controller General to carry out an audit to determine the legality of the concessions, and called on the attorney general to launch a criminal investigation. The case then moved to the Constitutional Court, and in February 2022, the country’s highest judiciary upheld the provincial court’s measures. That set a historic precedent for Ecuador’s Indigenous peoples and nations with regard to prior consultation and self-governance.

Despite what Indigenous groups and lawyers considered to be a great victory, in Sinangoe the community is still waiting for the results of two other administrative processes. One is for the formal recognition of the A’i Cofán’s territory, which the state has still not acknowledged as it falls within Cayambe Coca National Park, a protected area administered by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition. The ministry doesn’t have the authority to recognize territories that are within protected areas. According to lawyer Jorge Acero, in October 2021, the environment minister, Gustavo Manrique, made a commitment to discuss with Indigenous groups the draft version of legislation that would give his ministry that authority. To date, that promise has not been fulfilled.

The second administrative process filed by the community is a complaint before the Ombudsman’s Office over the Ministry of Education’s delay in building a school in the community, after the Aguarico River washed away part of the area where the previous school was located.

The Sinangoe Indigenous Guard periodically patrols the community’s territory to monitor and halt any illegal activities. This site, Las Pizarras, is close to where the patrol first spotted heavy machinery, in 2018. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

The legacy

“[The A’i Cofán] are aware of the risks they face by confronting situations like illegal mining or facing up to the government, but they are clear in one thing: the defense of their territory and their rights is backed and sustained by the whole community,” Acero says. The community holds regular assemblies to decide whether to make public complaints, stage demonstrations, or take other actions when any of their initiatives requires renewed efforts. To that end, Alexandra Narváez says, the Goldman Environmental Prize will serve to amplify those efforts. “It’s an opportunity to tell the world to join the struggle, to not leave us alone, because this struggle to protect Mother Earth is not the sole responsibility of the A’i Cofán people or of Indigenous peoples [in general],” she says.

Alex Lucitante underscores the importance that their ancestral territory holds for the A’i Cofán. “I defend my territory because I grew up fishing on this territory, my parents have been protecting this territory because it’s where we fish, it’s where we hunt,” he says. For this young man studying the ancestral knowledge of the A’i Cofán, each and every person has a mission to fulfill. “Our aim is for our children to know our history, to understand it and live it by being on our territory, although given all the threats we face, it’s also important that our children learn the knowledge rooted in our culture. Our children are the ones who will defend our territory in the future,” Lucitante says.

A’i Cofán community members use drones to monitor their territory. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Narváez and Lucitante say they feel the recognition gained from the Goldman Environmental Prize is just another step forward in a struggle that involves all the Indigenous peoples of the nine countries that share the Amazon Basin. For them, being recognized as among the most important environmental leaders in the world carries great responsibility.

Since its creation in 1989, the Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded by the U.S.-based Goldman Environmental Foundation, has been awarded to 213 defenders of the natural world, including 95 women, from 93 different countries. In 2022, this international award, often called the “Green Nobel” and widely considered the most important in the world for community environmental activists, recognized the struggles of seven environmental activists from Thailand, Australia, Nigeria, the Netherlands, the United States, and Ecuador.

Banner image: Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narváez, joint winners of the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize for South and Central America. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

This article was first published here on Mongabay Latam on May 25, 2022.