Indigenous women lead land rights struggle in Ecuadorean Amazon

May 26, 2012

When Argentinian oil company CGC began seismic testing on their ancestral land – in one of the most remote and pristine areas of the Ecuadorean Amazon – it was the women of the Sarayaku community who decided to take a stand against Big Oil.

“As mothers, we were concerned about our children and our land,” Noemi Gualinga told me.

The 44-year-old is one of the leaders of the decade-long fight over land rights between the Sarayaku, who number some 1,200 people, and CGC and the Ecuadorean government.

Invited by Amnesty International to attend the launch of their annual report in London this week, Gualinga, wearing a colourful traditional dress, described her community’s struggle.

She explained how in 1996, CGC oil company was granted exploration rights by the government, without the consultation and the agreement of the local indigenous population.

Then in 2002, CGC entered Sarayaku land with the aid of Ecuador’s military to begin exploration on a patch of land called “Block 23″. Once again, the locals had not been given any warning nor were they consulted, Gualinga said.

Human rights abuses were allegedly committed by the company’s employees, with women and young girls facing rape threats, Gualinga said.

Women brought the community together, she added, in what became a pioneering struggle against human rights abuses and the exploitation of their territory.

The Sarayaku case has received global media attention over the years and now sits before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), awaiting the final verdict later this year.

A favourable ruling for the Sarayaku would establish the right of all indigenous communities to be consulted and to give their consent before the green light is given to any development projects, including and especially extractive oil or mining projects.

Strong because of the respect they enjoy among their community and thanks to the prominent roles they play in their society, Sarayaku women organised non-violent protests against the “occupation” of their land by Ecuadorean army and CGC personnel in 2003.

Gualinga said in one occasion, one pregnant woman left the protest to give birth and returned to the frontline the following day, carrying her newborn child on her back.

“(We’ve suffered) a lot from stress and the psychological repercussions were harsh since we embarked on this battle,” she said. “But we now feel proud of the long way we have come.”

Sarayaku women are teachers, farmers, spiritual leaders. They are on a par with men in every aspect of daily life, Gualinga said.

It is perhaps this strong sense of equality and the total engagement of the whole community that has brought Sarayaku people where they are now – leading a battle that could set a precedent for many other indigenous communities.

A win, they hope, will not only make the voices of indigenous populations across Latin America heard and their rights respected, but it may well loosen the grip of big oil corporations on the continent.

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