Eye on the Amazon

Power to the Protectors in Ecuador

Kichwa Communities Fight Fossil Fuel Expansion with Renewable Energy

Power to the Protectors in Ecuador

Across the Amazon, Indigenous peoples are stepping up their efforts to defend their rainforest territories and rights from the extractive industry, agribusiness, and other industrial threats. To do this, they need to be able to communicate with the outside world from their remote territories, and have basic energy access to power their resistance, as well as implement sustainable solutions for management and protection of their territories. And what better way to stop the expansion of the fossil fuel frontier and protect Earth Defenders than with clean, renewable energy! 

This spring, we carried out the second install of our Power to the Protectors program in three Kichwa communities in the central Ecuadorian Amazon, all threatened by new oil expansion. The equipment and training provided will be essential tools to support the communities’ ability to monitor their territory, denounce rights violations, and share their vision and story with the world. 

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The foundation for our latest install began when I first met Salome Aranda on International Women’s Day in 2018 on the streets of Puyo, the bustling Amazon jungle town and gateway to the remote rainforests of southern Ecuador. She had just addressed hundreds of women that had mobilized from deep inside their rainforest communities to highlight the unique role that women play in defending their forests, families, and our planet. They raised their voices to denounce the decades of damage oil extraction has caused and reject new plans by the government to open roadless, frontier forest and titled Indigenous territories to new oil extraction.

Salome was the newly elected women’s leader of the Kichwa Community of Moretecocha, and quickly found her voice as an outspoken critic of the oil industry. Moretecocha, along with other surrounding communities have endured almost two decades of oil extraction by ENI, in a project hailed by the oil industry as the epitome of ‘best industry practice’. However, contamination, deforestation, rights abuses, and even cases of sexual violence have been reported by women as endemic since the project's inception. Now, the government is hoping to expand production into three major new oil fields. 

Not long after I met her, Salome traveled to Italy to denounce ENI’s legacy in the region and reject new drilling plans at the company’s annual shareholder meeting. But two months later, unknown assailants attacked her home, hurling rocks at her house and threatening her and her family. In the aftermath of the attack, she reached out to Amazon Watch to support her communities’ efforts to stop new extraction and protect the lives of leaders who have been vocal. The threats against Salome ultimately resulted in greater unification of the Kichwa of Moretecocha against oil extraction.

Moretecocha, along with neighboring Piwiri and Tarapoto, face grave impacts from a major expansion of the oil concession known as Block 10, operated until now by Italian oil giant ENI and recently sold to Argentinian company Pluspetrol. Moretecocha is home to nine communities and covers 37,600 hectares of primarily pristine forest. The government and industry view expansion in this block as the gateway to opening of the rest of Ecuador’s intact Amazon, because expansion here will allow oil infrastructure build out and provide easier access to pipelines for any future exploration. The company is seeking to open up three major new oil fields, with no Free, Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), and no new environmental impact assessment. This is a story that is repeated throughout the Amazon, and leaders, especially women, who are critical of the oil expansion, have received death threats, and the government and company have taken punitive action against neighboring communities.

We have worked with Salome and community leaders over the last year in workshops and trainings that have allowed them to deepen their understanding of their legal right to self-determination and Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) and have provided technical support in their efforts to stop the expansion of oil infrastructure on their territories. This recent solar/ communications installation represents the next step in this collaboration. 

The Install

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After months of preparation and coordination with the communities and Empowered By Light, our non-profit partner who provided much of the solar equipment, our ten day trip by car, plane, and canoe was set. I was joined by John Parnell, aka “Walkie Talkie”, a self described gringo radio ham who has been working with communities across Central and South America setting up communication systems for frontline communities since the 1980s. I was also accompanied by Yanda Ushigua, a young Sapara communications leader and founder member of the “Lanceros Digitales”, or Digital Spearthrowers--an Indigenous media collective, to help provide training and document the trip. 

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After several last-minute delays due to planes too heavy to fly with all of our gear, we finally made it to Moretecocha with three solar installers carrying nearly two tons of equipment: solar panels, storage batteries, radio equipment, tool boxes, and more. There, we installed four 270W 24V panels in parallel charging, with eight 6V 200 Ah batteries.

From there, we flew to Piwiri, where we installed two 270W solar panels in parallel, producing 540W of power and an inverter for AC power and took the boat to Tarapoto to install the same system. Along the way, we installed four solar-powered radio systems, distributed walkie talkies, and trained community members on how to use the devices. 

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With the installation complete, these remote communities can communicate more easily with one another and with the outside world without relying on fossil fuels, a development that represents true energy independence and will quite literally save lives. 

“This project is essential support for our efforts to keep new oil extraction off our lands and help protect our forests, for our families, our way of life, and the world. We reject new oil extraction on our lands and denounce the violence the industry has brought upon us, especially the women.” - Salome Aranda, Kichwa leader

"The government says we’re 'obstacles to development' and calls us hypocrites for rejecting new oil extraction while using diesel generators. With this project, we’ve taken that accusation away from them, and are one step closer to truly having our autonomy as a people.” - Fidel Ushigua, President of Comuna Morete

This is the second solar installation we have completed in Ecuador as part of our Power to the Protectors Program. To learn more about upcoming projects and how to support this work, visit our Power to the Protectors program page.

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