Eye on the Amazon

Oil? Not in Our Dreams

Meet the Zápara

The Zápara

The Zápara were once one of the largest indigenous groups in the Ecuadorian Amazon. But by the 1980s anthropologists deemed them extinct, an entire culture erased in less than a century by disease, violence, persecution and assimilation. What most didn't know was that some 200 Zápara remained hidden in the dense jungle along the Peruvian border, among them five people who still spoke the native language.

Everything about the Zápara – including their language, rituals and worldview – has been influenced by the rainforest. To the Zápara, dreams are opportunities to rendezvous with guiding spirits. Cosmology is based in large part on dreams, which form an integral part of decision-making. This cosmology is expressed through language.

The Zápara

In 2001, the United Nations declared the Zápara a "masterpiece of the intangible heritage of humanity” stating that their cultural heritage “expresses itself through myths, rituals, artistic practices and their language. This, which is the depository of their knowledge and their oral tradition, is also the memory of the entire region."

The surviving Zápara owe their existence in no small part to the fact that theirs was, until recently, one of the last sectors of the Ecuadorian Amazon free from oil concessions. The Ecuadorian government has just unleashed an auction of oil blocks that encompass a massive swath of the southeastern Amazon. Chinese conglomerate Andes Petroleum has submitted bids on blocks 79 and 83, which overlap the majority of traditional Zápara territory. The government has yet to respond to the offer, which it solicited through the "11th Oil Round." The survival of the Zápara hinges on their ability to maintain control of and manage their own traditional territory.

This week Gloria Ushigua, a shaman and the head of the Zápara Women's Association, is at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) with our friends at Land is Life to ask that the UN do its duty to protect the Zápara, who are the only nationality in Ecuador declared a UNESCO cultural patrimony.

The Zápara have long organized to protect their territory, which is over 300,000 hectares of the some of the most biodiverse and best-conserved rainforest in the world. They have released declarations, participated in press conferences, and were critical players in the March of Women  last October when over one hundred Amazonian women organized to walk 300 miles to denounce the government's plans to auction off their ancestral rainforest homes.

It seems unfeasible, but there's something magical about the Zápara people – it's a feeling one can't quite place but radiates a ethereal power to defeat probability and accomplish the seemingly impossible, as if from a dream...

The Zápara

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