For the Sápara Peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon, “Sinchi”, or “sacred” is the term that best describes their ancestral language and forests. Though abundant with meaning, the Sápara never had a word for “sacred”. There was simply no need for it until they faced the threat of possible extinction. The term “sacred” became crucial in the Sápara’s battle to garner attention and support from those around them.
The Sápara ultimately succeeded in gaining the attention they needed. But now they face what is arguably an even greater threat at the hands of the oil industry and a government that eagerly backs it.
Despite having promised representation and protection of what is considered by many to be the best constitution in the world, the Sápara employ headstrong acts of resistance through international activism, conservation efforts, and partnerships. They also use a solar-powered communication system to fight the long and arduous battle against the encroaching oil industry in their ancestral homeland. Revival of their at-risk language and culture is now a critical priority for this small but strong-willed Amazonian nation.
The Mystical Sápara of the Amazon
The Sápara Peoples are traditionally semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers in what is now the Pastaza Province of Ecuador. The heart of their territory lies “at the confluence of the Pindoyacu and Conambo Rivers and the Tigre River” but their territory has been found to cover the Pastaza River to as far as Curaray, all within the outskirts of Ecuador and Peru. At the time of contact, the Sápara were 200,000 strong. Everything about the Sápara, including their language, ceremonial practices, and cosmovision, has been influenced by the rainforest and rivers, which, according to Ulrich Oslender, author of The Geographies of Social Movements, are “central to all economic, domestic, and social activities.” It is important to understand that “nothing is or will be more valuable than pristine watersheds”, particularly in the Amazon.
Relying on a sustainable agricultural system, the Sápara have a long history of farming banana, manioc, papajibra, and chonta. Those who have studied their culture agree that it is “largely one of self-subsistence, with community members growing their own crops and hunting in the forest for monkeys, tapirs, wild pigs and fat worms.”
Like many other indigenous nations, the Sápara underwent a timeline of decimation. Four centuries of Spanish conquest, slavery, forced assimilation, epidemics, war, and deforestation have driven the Sápara and their mystical culture to near extinction. With the loss of their shamans in the late 1990s, the Sápara subsequently “lost their source of knowledge about their traditions, the healing power of plants and the secrets of the jungle.” According to Manari Ushigua, the current president of the Sápara nation, their shamans “were very powerful because they knew the medicinal secrets of more than 500 plants.”
Considered the smallest Ecuadorian Indigenous nationality, the Sápara now coexist with the indigenous Kichwa peoples and have thus adopted Kichwa as their main language. Last year, only around 559 people identified as Sápara. Other sources claim the number could be somewhere closer to 350. It is said that presently, “only five elders (all over the age of 65) still know Sápara, and only two master it sufficiently.” Manari Ushigua underlines their dire predicament by stating, “We don’t like asking for help, but since there are now only a few of us left, we’re afraid it’s the end of the road.” Taking action against the precipice of involuntary extinction, Manari (whose name means “a hefty lizard that lives in the forest”) changed his name to “Bartolo Ushigua” so that Ecuadorian officials could register him. Then, Manari Ushigua and the Sápara that remained formed Nacionalidad Zapara del Ecuador (NAZAE), an organization of activists that act as political representatives working towards the revival of their native language.
Since the creation of NAZAE, the Sápara have “worked with an Ecuadorean linguist to get its culture and language into the UNESCO World Heritage List”, which recognized their language as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
This recognition paid off in several ways. They received financial support for three years from the Project for the Development of the Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian People of Ecuador (PRODEPINE), World Bank, Non-governmental organizations (NGO), several national institutes, and foreign foundations. They also gained a voting seat on the executive board of the Consejo de Desarrollo de las Nacionalidades y Pueblos del Ecuador (CODENPE, Development Council of Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador), that manages development initiatives in Indigenous communities. UNESCO’s highly-esteemed recognition also generated awareness about the Sápara, countering the previous lack of awareness about their existence. “The recognition gave us the feeling that our elders who had been dead for long years…were all coming back to life,” reflects Manari after the finished process.
Given the newly “sacred” status, the Sápara have gained new visibility in their fight to recover their ancestral cultural expressions. Additionally, the Sápara continued using their language as a “petition for greater administrative and cultural autonomy from Ecuador’s government” which has proved to be an “invaluable platform from which leaders have been able to gain recognition and support from Ecuador’s indigenous movement, international support networks, and the state.”
The Sápara have also been able to utilize this platform to gain momentum as they struggle to push back one of their biggest foes: the “Mungia” that is the oil industry.
The Slimy Oil Mungia
The Sápara speak of the legend of the Mungia, a shadowy entity that terrorizes the rainforests. With so much land covering the Amazon, the chances are of running into the terrible Mungia were slim on the worst of days. But in more recent times, it takes little effort to cross paths with something not unlike the Mungia. It’s as if the Mungia has taken a new and insidious form – a thick, slick, and slimy substance known as oil that lurks close to home and greedily consumes all lifeforms around it.
The Sápara territory encompasses around 361,000 hectares (867,339 acres) of tropical rainforest within Pastaza Province, a region that is rich with botanical medicines, timber, and oil. The province lies in the Napo eco-region, which holds the most potential for conservation areas. Because of the Ecuadorian Amazons’ mountainous regions, microclimates have allowed “endemic species to flourish…resulting in modern-day biodiversity levels that are some of the highest on the planet.” This has since been rendered obsolete time and time again by a steady stream of oil companies setting up shop in Ecuador, an occurrence with origins dating back to the 1940s. Consequently, around five million hectares (12.3 million acres) have practically been handed over to private oil exploitation. To make matters worse, many Sápara men have left their communities to work for the British-Dutch oil company Shell, preventing further progress in rebuilding their language and culture.
The oil industry has continued to extract from Oil Blocks 74, 79, 80, 83, 84, and 86, which are superimposed over Sápara territory today. In January 2016, the Ecuadorian government jumped into a $72 million contract deal, known as the 11th Oil Round, with China National Petroleum (CNPC) and with China Petrochemical Corporation (SINOPEC), which are both a part of Andes Petroleum, a Chinese-owned oil exploration and production consortium. The deal arranged for work to be done on Blocks 79 and 83. Combined, Blocks 79 and 83 cover about 45% of Sápara ancestral lands.
President Rafael Correa’s promise to take back Ecuador’s oil wealth from overseas companies and put Ecuadorians at the forefront of the country has since lost credibility. “As the global price for oil falls to its lowest level since the 90s”, Ecuador’s economy is now in a wildly unpredictable state. Brenda Shaffer, an energy and foreign policy specialist, explains that “when oil prices are low…states offer foreign and private companies attractive conditions to invest in their energy resources and to take the risk on themselves.” This could explain one of the reasons why Ecuador has continued to pursue relations with China since 2009, whom has since lent Ecuador more than $11 billion.
“If they put an oil well in our land, it would be like they are destroying our laboratory, our knowledge,” Manari Ushigua says. He adamantly warns against oil extraction of Blocks 79 and 83 because of the obvious threats it poses to the Sápara rainforests, mountains, trees, and water – all of which are unquestionably vital for Sápara survival. According to Kelly Swing, who is the founding director of Tiputini Biodiversity Station Laboratory based in the Ecuadorian Amazons, “In forests impacted by oil development, perhaps 90 percent of the species around denuded sites die.” As if that isn’t disastrous and foreboding enough, there is concern about the process igniting violent confrontations between different Indigenous nations. Adam Zuckerman, the Environmental and Human Rights Campaigner for Amazon Watch, discloses that “it is not just about the contamination and the loss of their sovereignty but also about the loss of harmony against community members.”
Resistance Against the Oil Mungia
The lack of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) can be found at the heart of the matter. The Sápara is not the only indigenous nation that has been denied this right. Many, if not all, of the Amazonian indigenous nations in Ecuador have been repeatedly denied this consultation. It can also be argued that an FPIC is not legitimate enough to protect indigenous rights and already condemns their lands to development projects. Whatever the case, the lack of consultation rides strictly against Ecuador’s constitution. Article 57 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples clearly states that “the government is required to organize a free, prior, and informed consultation to obtain the consent of the communities before any drilling activity is contemplated.”
Instead of clashing with other tribes over the issue, the Sápara have chosen to pursue activism as a form of resistance and modeled their first attempts after actions conducted by the Ecuadorian Sarayaku nation. When the Sarayaku brought their case against the oil industry to the courts in December 2003, they succeeded in being awarded $1.4 million by the state. The Sápara took note and followed their example by planning to bring their own case against the drilling of Blocks 79 and 83 to both national and international courts.
Recent articles have reported on the active protests taken on by Manari Ushigua and Gloria Ushigua against the 11th Oil Round. They have sent letters to China asking for their oil companies to abandon drilling plans on Sápara rainforest territory, but their pleas have still gone unanswered. A determined Manari Ushigua promises that, “the oil will remain underground, that is our message. And with that intention, we are going to fight until the end, no matter what happens. We are going to resist.” Not surprisingly, the Sápara uprising has been matched with equal resistance from their enemies. In January 2014, the Ecuadorian Secretary of Hydrocarbons, Andrés Donoso Fabara, filed a formal complaint against Manari Ushigua, Gloria Ushigua, and a third Sápara leader, Cléver Ruiz. Fabara’s accusation? They were all threats to the 11th Oil Round. His recommendation? They belong behind prison bars. Rosalia Ruiz, a Sápara leader from the Torimbo community within Block 83, firmly declares, “Right now the oil company is trying to enter our territory. That is our homeland, this is where we have our chakras, where we feed our families. We are warriors, and we are not afraid. We will never negotiate.”
Manari Ushigua and Gloria Ushigua embarked on the long journey to Washington, D.C. to march in the People’s Climate March, held on April 29, 2017. Both leaders believe that marches are a “key solution to climate justice.” Headstrong activism by the Sápara nation has also been supported by prominent celebrities. To express his solidarity with the Sápara, American actor and environmental activist, Leonardo DiCaprio, marched with the Ushiguas. In another act of solidarity, Nahko Bear, a tribal and cultural musician, helped raise $150,000 in October 2016 during an Amazon Watch fundraiser. It goes without saying that influential individuals can play an important role by supporting the Indigenous rights movement.
Amongst conservation efforts are the Yasuní-ITT (Ishpingo, Tambocha, and Tiputini) Initiative and the Pastaza Ecological Area of Sustainable Development. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative is an attempt to save the Amazons and the indigenous nations that call it their home, as well as a way to “find innovative alternatives to traditional extractive development based on the export of raw materials.” One particular resource that is helping push Ecuador towards a post-extractivism era is cacao production, which is currently on the rise and was listed as one of Ecuador’s primary exports back in 2011. Shade-grown cacao has been shown to improve soil moisture and fertility while suppressing ground weeds. With benefits like these, cacao production can prove to be just one of many other sustainable and profitable ventures.
Spanning over 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres) is the Pastaza Ecological Area of Sustainable Development. The Sápara are just one of seven indigenous nationalities that live within the protected area, which makes up for 90% of Pastaza Province. The area stands to conserve water, acts a conservation corridor, regulates the use of natural resources, and is the “culmination of three years of collaboration by provincial and local governments in Ecuador”, indigenous communities, and Nature and Culture International, an organization that directs conservation efforts toward Latin America.
To clarify, the Sápara are not resisting development in their lands per se, but merely the reckless and exploitative tendencies of the current powers pursuing Amazonian natural resources. “We want development but we want to have it our way”, says Gloria Ushigua. Falling in line with their vision, Sápara have requested a solar-powered communications system that would allow them to share their situation with the outside world. Amazon Watch and Empowered by Light (EBL), an organization aiming to bring light and power to remote global areas, took the reins and delivered resources to the Sápara in April 2017. The two non-profits, alongside NAZAE and Terra Mater, an NGO, designed a system to accommodate Sápara needs for “inter-community organizing capacity, [the] ability to communicate with the outside world, and monitoring mechanisms.” In retaliation to the government’s eye-rolling views of the Sápara’s resistance against oil extraction, Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Sápara community leader, argues that “the government can’t call us hypocrites for opposing oil extraction [while] using dirty diesel generators. We’ve made the first big step towards being fossil fuel-free – the government should learn from us.”
Ecuador contains some of the world’s most beautiful and biodiverse regions, with more species per hectare of trees, shrubs, insects, amphibians, and mammals than anywhere else on this planet. Alongside the legend of the Mungia, the Sápara speak of the creation-myth of Tsitsanu, a powerful Sápara man who became a hero figure to his peoples due to his strong commitment to helping those in need. Tsitsanu experienced many adversities on his journeys and was not always well-received. But even so, Tsitsanu stayed true to his nature – he would only respond with kindness. He is truly an emblem of the Sápara nation – his nature speaks volumes of the Sápara peoples themselves.
Such myths and legends color and distinguish Sápara culture. By pursuing ways to strengthen their language, they have strengthened their identity and platform for resistance against oil industries. Through international activism, conservation efforts and partnerships, and solar-powered communication systems, the Sápara offer the world “new ways to think about collectively building a post-petroleum economy.” By first having the right conversations about Amazon culture and conservation, we can begin taking steps toward solidarity with the Sápara peoples and their homeland as they continue their fight against extractive industries. Then, by understanding the mechanisms behind their social and environmental justice movements, we can gain more “respect for [Sápara] cultural, educational, educational, and territorial self-determination.” It is no easy process. Indeed, this is an “enormous undertaking requiring honest reflexivity, brave self-awareness, and respectful, ongoing dialogue.” The Sápara nation’s fight to repair and revive their language and land is legendary in itself. It stands as a reminder to the world that resistance is not, and never will be, futile. “And our message to our friends,” says Manari Ushigua in a video, showing him sitting within the Amazonian rainforest which is alive with the sounds of life, “is that the world and nature can come together, united, to defend our lives as human beings and the life of planet earth.”