Indigenous Women March in Ecuador, Vow to "Defend Our Territory"

Women from different regions of the Ecuadorian Amazon gathered in the city of Puyo, Ecuador to mark International Women's Day

Zápara indigenous women march in Puyo, Ecuador on March 8, 2018. Photo credit: Kimberley Brown / Mongabay

About 350 Indigenous women from across the Ecuadorian Amazon gathered here yesterday to celebrate International Women's Day, and, they say, to fight back against a system that violates their rights. Many women spoke out specifically against the extractive industries operating in their territories.

They say these industries have caused forced displacements and mass contamination.

Women are often the most vulnerable in extractive sector-related issues. Many say they are exposed to sexual violence, and forced into prostitution, alcoholism and drug abuse after their traditional lifestyles in the forest have been contaminated.

Across the country, indigenous women also experience more violence than any other group: 67.8 percent of all indigenous women are reported to have suffered from some kind of gender violence, according to the latest state figures.

But indigenous communities in Ecuador have long been well-organized, and women from these communities have been at the forefront of the fight for territorial autonomy, women's rights, and environmental protection.

Following are several images from the Woman's Day march in Ecuador.

Cleansing

Women started the day's celebrations with a traditional cleansing. Some of the elders gently patted the skin of others with nettle branches.

"For me, today is a celebration, an act of gratitude for the natural space where we live, the physical space where we live and defend our rights with happiness," said Katy Watatoka of the Quichua nationality.

Cleansing is an important part of many indigenous cultures in the Amazon, and is believed to keep the body and spirit balanced.

"For me, it's really important to come and listen, and also to bring the voice of other women in our community who couldn't leave," said Ena Santi of the Quichua nation.

"Nettle, or chini, as it's called in Quichua – it's for everything, pain, to remain joyful, to wake the body up," said Uriena, of the Quichua nationality. "With any kind of pain you need to nettle."

Banding together for change

One Woarani woman told Mongabay that the activism of indigenous groups includes extremely dedicated people, both men and women.

"Where there are a lot of people, we're going to enter because we women are going to confront these spaces to defend our territory," said the woman, who did not want to give her name. "Both men and women will keep fighting for their territory, so we can be one unified group working together. People have come from all over, from very far, to give this message."

She added that her community traveled almost 12 hours to get to Puyo and join the march.

Others noted the impact on flora and fauna of the Amazon.

"Petroleum is killing the animals," said Maria, a Woarani woman. "We used to have many fish in our rivers, but they all died…we don't have any animals anymore."

Maria said she traveled one hour by boat and five hours by bus from her community near Coca to be in Puyo.

Others encouraged individuals to be motivated to make an impact.

"You can't wait to change other people, but people can change within themselves and from there you see real change," said Rosa Caneloz of the Quichua nationality.

"I work in the theme of change, and I practice this. I use [traditional] plants with my kids and family and I try to encourage my community to strengthen their traditional medicine and not depend on the city," she said. "That's the change. Change ourselves so that the world changes. The government isn't going to change."

Protections amid extractive expansion

One point of protest was the lack of legal and physical protections for women.

"We are marching to demand that the authorities support us, because they don't support the women in the Amazon," said Hilda Ande of the Quichua nation. "We're forgotten by the authorities, in this province and at a national level."

Ande added that even though women today can enjoy certain freedoms like access to jobs and education, abuse and violence in the home remain major issues that are too common in her community.

"Here, women are defending our rights, our rights to territory, for our kids," said a young woman named Zoraya of the Zapara nationality.

Zoraya said she has been living and studying in Puyo, but plans to go back to live in her small community of less than 50 people in the middle of the Amazon rainforest one day, which is only accessible by plane.

"We have been keeping [the oil industry] out up until now, but they are trying to kick us out," Zoraya said. "The women in particular have always been fighting to keep them out, to stop the contamination."

One protester noted the impact of the petroleum industry on the Amazon and her community.

"For many years, since the petroleum industry entered into the Amazon, women have been mistreated, forgotten, violated in all ways," said Ena Santi from the Sarayaku territory. "The women of the Amazon always want to bring women's voices to the public so that they understand how we suffer."

Confronting the government

Halfway through the march, the women stopped in front of the provincial government office to demand that extractive activities stop in the Amazon and that their territorial rights are respected.

Women are abandoned here, Katy Watakota told Mongabay during the march.

"There are many flaws with respect to women here," Watakota said. "We need more women to put more emphasis in achieving purpose, not just staying within the fight, but that we do tangible things and show what is possible."

Watatoka is among those who laments the lack of progress.

"We've seen many years of fighting, but we haven't seen changes," she said. "We need more professional indigenous women, who are also part of the collective. But we haven't seen this."

The march ended at the central market where various women representing different nationalities made speeches.

"Extractivism isn't good," said Catalina Chumbi, a coordinator for the National Council of Protected Areas, CONAP and one of the coordinators of the march. Extractive industries such as mining destroy traditional lifestyles, cause communities to be displaced and fail to even provide jobs for those people, she added.

She also blames the lack of opportunity for displacement.

"Why is there so much migration? Because there are no jobs, there are no businesses," Chumbi said. "So people go to prostitute themselves. Kids as young as thirteen or fourteen go to prostitute themselves. They go to drink, to take drugs. So many things are happening to the young today, because there are no jobs. So that's why we're going to fight."

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