The lush, pristine wilderness of the Yasuní spans nearly 3800 square miles in Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest. Declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1989, it is one of the most biodiverse places on earth — home to 500 species of bird, over 100 amphibians (including 43 kinds of tree frog), and at least 173 different species of mammal. There are over 100 kinds of tree per hectare.
The Yasuní is also home to various indigenous tribes belonging to the Huaorani and the Kichwa families. For the past half century, many of these communities have been in a struggle to protect their lands and way of life from external forces looking to exploit the Yasuní’s natural resources. One such community is Sarayaku, a village on the meandering Bobonaza River in eastern Pastaza Province. When the Ecuadoran government granted a concession to an oil company to dig up the Yasuní’s untapped reserves and the company’s armed security forces began invading the area in 2002, the people of Sarayaku decided to make a stand.
At the time, Patricia Gualinga was in the city building a life different than the one she had known back in Sarayaku. “We come from a family of yachaks [shamans], men of wisdom,” she explained in a 2013 interview. “So there was always a profound contact with nature in certain aspects. We never forgot to drink the guayusa at five in the morning and to discuss our dreams. And when we were going to go to the city, our parents took the time to talk to us about life. That’s how we grew up.”
As their way of life increasingly came under attack, Patricia was called back to Sarayaku “to assume a role in the defense of [her] people”:
From then on, I never went back. And little by little, as I started appearing with leaders in the media, that’s when a number of my brothers, of my compañeros, of the people who were out in front, began facing lawsuits and arrest warrants. And so someone had to assume the position of the leaders who were being intimidated, and who were prevented from going to the city and issuing denouncements.
Patricia was named to the Governing Council of Sarayaku and dedicated herself to not only protecting the Yasuní but also expanding the role and visibility of indigenous women. In 2010 she testified at a hearing of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights along with other Sarayaku residents and members of other indigenous tribes, condemning the Ecuadoran government’s actions as both unconstitutional and against international law.
“The court states that in the case of big projects that may affect the lives and integrity of the peoples living in the area, their consent is required,” Patricia later explained:
Any oil project … or exploitation of the Yasuní is a mega project; it isn’t a small project. When that project clearly affects life [in] the indigenous territories, consultation is compulsory; but more than that, consent is compulsory. In that sense, there is nowhere [for the government] to hide in [terms of] international rights. The Constitution of Ecuador, in terms of human rights, is supranational … And that’s why we are saying that what they are doing is unconstitutional, illegal, and it shouldn’t be allowed. …
All of what they are doing is illegal. But in the case of isolated peoples, it’s much worse, because there can be genocide; and that would be a matter not only for the Inter-American Court, [but also] for the Hague Court, even though there is no [previous] similar experience. [The government and the oil company’s security forces] are disappearing peoples. That is prohibited by international law, by the constitution — that is, there’s no way around it. And the world is watching how this is occurring in this country.
In 2012 the Inter-American Court ruled in favor of Sarayaku, making mandatory the consultation and consent of indigenous people prior to projects in their territories. It also ruled that the government of Ecuador must pay reparations to the people of Sarayaku for the damage done to their lands and the health risks caused by oil exploration in the area, including the removal of 1.4 tons of explosive materials left on their lands. Nonetheless, President Rafael Correa and the Ecuadoran government have done little to address the court’s ruling; and so for Patricia, the struggle continues.
In a 2014 essay titled “Why I March,” she writes:
This isn’t just the fight of indigenous peoples or Sarayaku. It’s the fight of everyone, because the air we all breathe doesn’t have borders. Water doesn’t have borders. While we humans place political borders, the Earth is a unified entity. And the consequences of pollution are affecting everyone.
Honoring Patricia — as well as the planet that gave us life, and the indigenous peoples who are the Americas’ original and enduring caretakers — is how we celebrate our heritage.