Indigenous fighters


Photojournalist Nicola Ókin captures the deep resilience of indigenous communities facing extractive forces in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated March 12, 2021

DoubleBlind // News

Indigenous communities in the Amazon predicted the destruction before a single bulldozer plowed through the rainforest. The origin story of the Sápara people speaks of the first Sápara man, Piatsaw, who prophesied the end of his community. The Sápara were once one of the largest indigenous nations in the Northwest Amazon Basin. Today, there are 573 Sápara left in Ecuador and only three of them speak their original language.

Among all the indigenous communities shot by photojournalist Nicola Ókin, this sort of forecasting—whether through dreams, plant medicine ceremonies, or community gatherings—continues to serve as an integral part of the resistance against threats to their territories. In the now decades-long fight against foreign companies extracting oil and mining, they are not only protecting their livelihoods, but they’re also protecting the Amazon’s ecosystem and all that’s contained within it. Leila Salazar-López, executive director of Amazon Watch, tells DoubleBlind these communities’ concerns about the environment range from “the most microscopic organism to the greatest Kapok tree.” The land they’re protecting is where their homes are located, but it also, in and of itself, contains a deep spiritual value and history that connects them to their ancestors and identity.

This was the basis for a proposal submitted by the Kichwa people of the Sarayaku, another one of the communities shot by Ókin, to the Ecuadorian government last year. The Living Forest proposal demands the state and the international community recognize their land as sacred as well as the connection between the wellbeing of humans, animals, plants, and the planet at-large.  

“This vision is neither a quaint belief nor a simple conservationist ideal,” the proposal states. “It is instead a call to the people of the world to learn once again to feel this reality in their very being. This metamorphosis will only be possible once we learn to listen to and dialogue with these other beings, who are part of a cosmic conversation that goes well beyond the dialogue of the deaf until now carried out exclusively among us humans.” The proposal calls, specifically, for an end to all oil, mineral, and lumber extraction in their territories.

And yet, as Ókin chronicles in his ongoing project Piatsaw, the threats against indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon are still an everyday reality. He’s been documenting the resistance efforts—primarily among different Shuar communities as well as the Kichwas, Sápara, and A’i Kofán—since 2016.

A group of young Kichwas on watch during the meeting organized in order to stop the construction of the hydroelectric plant above the Rio Piatúa. The community was not consulted before the process began. The Company Genefran started preliminary work which was stopped by indigenous pressure in defense of the river, their primary source of water. The indigenous people threatened to burn company machinery on a daily basis until Genefran decided to leave their area. Cantón de Santa Clara, Pastaza Province. (Photo by Nicola Ókin)

At the time, Rafael Correa was still the president of Ecuador. He made large-scale mining and oil extraction deals with Chinese enterprises a pillar of his economic program, causing irreversible damage to the Amazon, violently repressing demonstrations, and criminalizing more than 700 people protesting his policies. In 2017, when the country’s current president, Lenín Moreno, was elected, he was praised by conservationists for saying he’d do more to protect the country’s delicate ecosystems. Instead, he’s made plans to ramp up the extraction.

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“It was just a speech,” Carlos Mazabanda, Ecuador Field Director for Amazon Watch, tells DoubleBlind. “In reality, his actions have been completely different.”

Currently, Moreno plans to follow Correa’s agenda to extract oil in 21 new areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon, which, in total, will affect 90 percent of indigenous territories in the country. Each area is roughly 568,000 acres, rich with flora and fauna.

Mining projects are also planned for ten percent of the Ecuadorian Amazon, all in areas where indigenous communities live. These communities are, for now, successfully resisting new mining projects, except for one, called Mirador, run by Chinese capital company Ecuacorriente SA (ECSA).

“What the government and enterprises are trying to do is buy these communities,” says Mazabanda. “They say we’re going to build you schools, we’re going to employ you in mining, we’re going to do all of these things for you. That happens with oil too and these communities become vulnerable to division because some people believe them.”

In reality, these extractive activities not only result in the eviction of people from their homes, but also leave a wake of annihilation in their path. One of the first steps typically taken by oil and mining enterprises is massive deforestation to make way for roads and machinery. Once the extraction begins, it pollutes the air and rivers, poisoning plants, animals, and the communities who rely on the water for drinking, bathing, and fishing. The pollution causes skin issues, stomach infections, and, in some areas where it’s particularly high, even cancer.

The Sarayaku write in their proposal that these extractive activities are the result of a flawed perspective that views nature as merely “a landscape for aesthetic appreciation” and “a resource for exploitation.” A shift in perspective, they say, is not only essential for the protection of the Amazon but for the preservation of the entire planet.  

Little Manari of the Sápara community of Llanchama Cocha is considered a special child for being able to foresee events that will happen in the community. The Sáparas believe that since ancient times they have had the unique ability to interpret dreams. Through dreams, they make decisions, as individuals and a collective. Nowadays, the Sápara community has 573 members. They’re still resisting oil extraction on their ancestors’ land. Community of Llanchama Cocha, Pastaza Province. (Photo by Nicola Ókin)
Beetle larvae for sale in the binational market in Ecuador and Peru on the Santiago River. The wars in 1941 and 1995, caused by territorial conflicts between the two countries, divided the Shuars into Ecuadorian and Peruvian. The local people, though, never accepted this border. On days like this, commercial and personal relationships are visible between the communities on both sides of the border. (Photo by Nicola Ókin)
Fernanda Tzamarendia, 17 years old, poses for a photo in front of corn crops by her house in Sucúa. She was the winner of the Nunkuinua in 2016, a beauty contest in the Morona-Santiago Province. The Nunkuinua myth speaks of a girl who has the powers to produce food for the people in the Amazon as long as she is respected. (Photo by Nicola Ókin)
Activists clash with police during a protest in Quito in 2016 against the militarization of the Morona-Santiago Province and mining in the Amazon. (Photo by Nicola Ókin)
A man in the Yaku Runa Community inhales tobacco juice, administered by an elder, at 3 a.m. Members of the community inhale the juice to increase their strength, have clearer dreams, and improve their lives. Intercultural Community of Yaku Runa, Pastaza Province. (Photo by Nicola Ókin)
Franco Viteri Gualinga, age 49, on the landing track of the Originary People Kichwa of Sarayaku. He was elected President of Tayjasaruta from 2001 to 2003, fighting against oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Along with the community, Gualinga managed to expel the Argentinian oil company CGC out of their territory. They had never been consulted about the oil company coming in, which they argued was a violation of their constitutional and human rights. The Sarayaku people succeeded in filing a complaint against the State of Ecuador, which was referred to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They had a historic victory 10 years later, in 2012. To date, they are waiting for the sentence to be carried out. Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian government has, once again, allowed oil extraction in new areas of Sarayaku territory. Over the last 20 years, Gualinga has represented indigenous people at international events, defending their rights and maintaining alliances with social movements in the country and across Latin America. Sarayaku Community, Pastaza Province. (Photo by Nicola Ókin)
Boys playing after a bath in the Conambo River. Sápara Community of Llanchama Cocha, Pastaza Province. (Photo by Nicola Ókin)
A helicopter from the Ecuadorian army launches from the soccer field of a school in the canton of San Juan Bosco on November 24, 2016. The army was posted up at the school to attack the Shuar community of Tsumtsuim, which decided to go back to their ancestors’ land after they were forcefully evicted in August 2016. The Ecuadorian army was carrying out an operation in support of the mining company Exsa China. The Shuar community of Tsumtsuim is still displaced and Exsa is proceeding with its extraction plans in the territory. Nankints, Panantza sector, Province of Morona-Santiago. (Photo by Nicola Ókin)

Nicola Ókin is a freelance photographer who works in the areas of reportage photography, editorial, photojournalism and portraits. Over the last 14 years, he has traveled through Northern Mexico, India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Sardinia. Widely published, Ókin’s work can be seen in National Geographic (Germany), Time Magazine, The New Yorker Magazine, The Guardian, and Vanity Fair, among others.

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