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Ecuador’s Indigenous Siekopai communities sue for title in protected area

  • Approximately 800 Siekopai occupy territory in the Western Amazon along the Ecuador-Peru border but haven’t been able to obtain a constitutionally guaranteed title to their ancestral land in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.
  • After years of requests, they decided to file a lawsuit against the government in hopes that they will finally gain control of Pë’këya, the ancestral and spiritual home of their peoples.
  • The Siekopai are world renowned for their knowledge of local flora and fauna, which they use in many of their traditional ceremonies.

A group of Indigenous communities in Ecuador is taking legal action to regain control of territory in a wildlife reserve they say the government recognized a long time ago but never properly delivered to them.

Siekopai communities, which occupy territory in the Western Amazon along the Ecuador-Peru border, have filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition in hopes of being granted the title to approximately 104,000 acres (42,087 hectares) called Pë’këya, the ancestral and spiritual home of their peoples.

Ecuador has a long record of delaying the granting of land titles to Indigenous communities. It has also never titled land for an Indigenous community that was already declared a protected area.

“We believe getting a property title guarantees that the Siekopai are owners of a territory that we, with our way of organizing, with our way of seeing nature, can manage and develop as a peoples,” said Hernán Payaguaje, a resident of the Siekopai San Pablo community and founding member of the Ceibo Alliance, an Indigenous rights group made up of four Indigenous nations.

Siekopai elder Andres Piaguaje with a blow dart in the Ecuadorian Amazon. (Photo courtesy of Alex Goff / Amazon Frontlines)

The Siekopai communities, which include approximately 800 people, have been fighting for control of their territory since the early 1940s, when the Ecuador-Peru War militarized the area, broke up families and threatened ancestral customs connected to the local wildlife. Both sides of the conflict accused the Siekopai of working for the other, often forcing community members to flee.

Even after a peace treaty was signed, the newly drawn borders divided the Siekopai territory, making it harder for families to travel freely as they had generations before.

In 1979, part of the territory was incorporated into Ecuador’s Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, which was then then expanded in the early 1990s. And while that meant some conservation efforts and protections were being applied to Siekopai land, the communities were concerned they didn’t have control over how the area was being managed.

Representatives of the Siekopai sent a request to the Ministry of Environment in 2017 asking for a land title to the area in hopes of resolving their concerns. But the ministry said it lacked the technical capacity to carry out the titling process, according to Amazon Frontlines, an NGO that has been supporting the Siekopai communities with litigation and the territorial defense process.

“Both international law and the Ecuadorian constitution are clear: rights violations are not excusable by the absence of any technical guidance,” Amazon Frontlines said in a September statement.

The Ministry of Environment didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

After two years of delays and little response from the ministry, the Siekopai submitted a different request to the country’s Ombudsman, arguing that the government’s failure to grant the title violated their rights as laid out in the country’s constitution, which recognizes ancestral territories as the inherent property of Indigenous communities.

The Ombudsman ruled in favor the Siekopai but the government still didn’t grant the title.

After several more years of waiting, the communities decided additional action needed to be taken, and this year moved forward with filing the new lawsuit.

Over the last several years, they’ve been working with GPS and satellite technology to document the exact limits of their ancestral territory, Amazon Frontlines said, in order to strengthen their claim.

But the lawsuit is much more than just acreage and land boundaries. It’s also about identity.

“They can continue to live in whichever part of the world but they can only develop their culture, their philosophy, their way of life on that land,” said Lina María Espinosa, an attorney representing the Siekopai. “[It’s] the land where they have roots, where the bones of their grandparents and ancestors are buried.”

Pë’këya, also known as Lagartococha, is the ancestral heartland of the Siekopai people. (Photo courtesy of Jerónimo Zúñiga / Amazon Frontlines)

The high rates of biodiversity in Pë’këya, the cultural nucleus of the Siekopai’s territory, has allowed many communities to develop rituals and traditional healing practices that give them unprecedented knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna.

Some communities use aniba trees (Aniba rosaeodora) for the roofs of spiritual houses while others use mangroves for making fishing tools. Families from different areas share their skills and practices, creating a deep network of “ethnobotanical” knowledge that helps conserve the area.

Ecuador has a long record of prioritizing extractive industries and other economic drivers over the rights and needs of local communities.

“There’s a lot of external pressure and interests from the state itself,” Payaguaje said, “from big industries, from the big companies, extractive industries, oil, gold, loggers, the agricultural frontier … The state is looking to those territories to take advantage of natural resources.”

Nevertheless, and given the state’s slowness to grant a title to the Siekopai communities, Payaguaje said he has hope this new lawsuit will be successful, bringing a title and much-needed protections to the land and the culture it houses.

“We have been very, very patient,” he said. “We’ve succeeded in some parts and in other parts it’s been more difficult. But as I said, we are going to keep fighting.”

Banner image: Siekopai people gather on the beaches of the Aguarico river on the border between Peru and Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Piaguaje/Alianza Ceibo.

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