Julián: facing the road that destroys his part of the Amazon

The struggle of this Achuar leader against extractivism and the advancement of infrastructure toward the jungle faces the contradictions between progress and preservation. Español Português

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
25 February 2020, 3.17pm
Julián Illanes es un indígena de la comunidad achuar de Ecuador quien lucha por prevenir los impactos de la nueva carretera que está siendo construida dentro de su territorio. A la derecha; Julián recostado; a la izquierda, vista aérea de la carretera
Pablo Albarenga. All rights reserved

Even in a moment of deep political crisis and despite the courageous opposition of indigenous communities to the rapid extraction of natural resources, the development of roads into the jungle is unstoppable. From a government perspective, these infrastructural developments bring a wide range of benefits to the communities. However, for some of the indigenous groups such as the Auchar people in the south east of the Ecuadorian Amazon, near the border with Peru, the supposed benefits are questionable, now more than ever.

A road from Puyo to the Amazon basin has been underway now for years cutting through the home of the Shuar and Achar communities in the rainforest. There is a tireless army of workers opening up and conquering the jungle, knocking down obstacles in their way, destroying virgin territory in the process. The road runs directly through the community of Copataza, parallel with the fast-flowing Pastaza river and crosses the Shuar territory. This community had agreed that the benefits from the road would compensate for the environmental and social losses and had also agreed to its continued construction.

But the consequences are plain to see. Along the road, there are new wooden buildings, surrounded by newly deforested areas. There is also a growing number of new evangelical churches made of brick and iron. Here and there, the influx of capital brought in by loggers is evident and along the road pylons of wood perfectly cut pile up on the roadside, ready for loading, transportation and trading. But this sudden capital can turn out to be an ephemeral mirage: once their land in the jungle has been cut down and sold, families are left impoverished and without land. Forced to sell themselves as cheap labour, they are barely surviving.

In many corners of the Amazon, the effects of roads are devastating. Satellite photographs show that as soon as a road penetrates the rainforest, secondary roads are built almost immediately, and the timber is extracted. The most valuable timber goes first, first, followed by the rest.

I made the trip from Puyo to the Wisui community, where - for now - the road ends, with Julián Illanes, an Achuar leader who has just finished his political term as Territory Leader of the NAE (Achuar Nationality of Ecuador). Julián now plans to monitor the arrival of the road and to try and alleviate its effects. The NAE, in the past, approved the route of the road that is now underway, and Julián aims to reduce the impact that the road will have on his community, Copataza, which is where the next stretch will be built. It will serve as a bridgehead into Achuar virgin territory.

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Aerial view of the community of Copataza, the next point that will be reached by the new road.


Pablo Albarenga. All rights reserved

Before reaching Wisui, and surrounded by deforested terrain, there is a 100-year-old, precious Ceibo tree. It is a proud giant who is still standing despite the offers the owner has received for him. “First he was offered 100 US dollars and then 500. Luckily the owner of the tree is a teacher who doesn’t need the money and won’t sell it” says Julián. In any case that majestic tree is the exception that confirms the rule: all of his neighbours have fallen hopelessly, one after another.

While still in Shuar territory, at the side of the road, Julián identifies some logging stations. They are made up of suspended steel wire that go towards the jungle and carry back precious wood that is rapidly being felled. The increasing numbers of these stations, and the sound of chainsaws in the background worry Julián and increase his scepticism about the construction of the road.

As the road advances, and Shuar territory is left behind, the images speak for themselves. It is both astonishing and sad.

Constant intrusions

Entry into the Achuar territory requires authorization. The Achuar people have, as far as possible protected themselves from outside intrusions. Therefore, together with Julián, the expedition includes Ernesto Senkuam, the NAE's communication leader, who has the mission of opening the "political" door of the communities, introducing visitors and negotiating interviews and taking pictures within the territory.

Until the road is built, to get to Caoptaza you need to travel by canoe along a river of rapids and shallow rock. Navigation is hazardous. The fierce and unpredictable nature of the river, along with the density of the primary forest in this remote Amazon region, has protected these peoples. At least until now.

Canoe trips are expensive. If they come from upstream, in addition to the passenger, they need to bring down fuel supplies, an essential source for electricity generators, water pumps or outboard motors. The weight reduces the height of the freeboard and means that freak waves can make the canoe liable to flooding and sink the cargo and passengers in the blink of an eye. As a result, the safe transportation of passengers and fuel, along with schooling in the city and quick access to a health centre in case of emergency, are powerful arguments for the building of a road.

The Achuar have been nomadic until very recently and their settlements within the territories are also relatively new. But their communities are very well organised both socially and politically. Jaime, who occupies a prominent place in Copataza as a síndico, (this the name given to the head of the community in the Achuar territory) has an intense and imposing presence. He speaks about the pride of the Achuar people and their responsibility to provide the best for their community.

Jaime decides that the decision to allow Julián to speak on behalf of the community does not belong to him, but to the entire community. An assembly is called for 7 p.m. that evening. The sense of authority and collective decision making are essential features of the Achuar communities. So, validating Julián's opinion to the road at the assembly is so important.

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Shuar indigenous children observe the trucks loading an excavator.


Pablo Albarenga. All rights reserved

This is a turning point for the Achuar people, who have seen how their Shuar brothers have benefited from rapid transportation to the capital in 4X4 cars and buses that can bypass the rockiest obstacles, especially flood waters. But the Achuar have also seen the scale of the catastrophe that roads bring in the northern Amazon, where the oil industry is based.

However, the decision has been made: the road will reach the old landing strip for small planes built by the missionaries in Copataza. Since the beginning of the settlements of these communities, no more than five or six decades ago, these runways have been their primary means of communication since the journey otherwise would take days or sometimes even weeks, on canoe or by foot.

Unwanted efectos

During the debate in the communal house, the elders of the community express their scepticism at the arrival of the road and address repeatedly the dangers it represents. Illegal loggers will arrive, along with alcohol, violence, and evangelical missionaries will have easier access. Other threats to the community will inevitably follow.

Still, they agree to open the territory to the road recognising the fragile consensus that was previously agreed. Aurelio, the most articulate leader, tells us: "the decision has been taken, and it would take a hundred Aurelios to reverse it”.

After the assembly, Julian is authorized to speak on behalf of the community and defends the arrival of the road, although the decision does not satisfy everyone. With much more enthusiasm than when talking about the road, Julián speaks about the decisions that will have to be made, from now on, to control its imminent impact.

There is also uncertainty about the schedule for completion. A lot depends on the governor of the province of Pastaza, and the political situation in the country is tense and complicated. Two weeks before the visit to Achuar territory, Ecuador was blockaded and Quito, the capital, was occupied by more than 40,000 indigenous people.

They came from the Andean highlands and the Amazon basin in protest against the neoliberal austerity measures adopted without warning by the government. The protest resulted in riots that lasted 12 consecutive days. The repression by the militarized police was brutal, the resistance invincible, and finally, when the casualties began to accumulate, the government withdrew the package of measures. Two weeks later, they presented an alternative to the deficit reduction that the government had planned to please the IMF.

It is important for the indigenous community that leader Jaime Vargas, is an indigenous Achuar. Displaced to Puyo, Julián actively participated in the Ecuadorian protests, and it increased his conviction that it was important to resist the negative impact of the arrival of the road to Copataza. Under consideration now is what the final layout of that road will be, where the river and the road will connect and, most importantly, whether the road will cross the river.

Opposition to the construction of a bridge is unanimous. Opening a road that crosses to the other side of the river means jeopardising the virgin forest on the other side, where controlling illegal extractive activity would be practically impossible for the community. The dream option would be the construction of a cable car to cross the river.

Downstream, during the canoe trip to the community of Sharamentsa, there are many signs of destruction of the territory . On some of the islands there is balsa wood being extracted. Strong and light , balsa is highly valuable

Julián feels the weight of responsibility on him. He knows that his territory, which until now has been protected by isolation and inaccessibility, will become something very different from what is today.

Julián's dream

If the Achuar maintain their collective decision making processes, they will be more able to ease the tensions that will inevitably result from the temptation of the riches that the road is expected to bring.

Julián is determined to preserve sovereignty, to make the new river port work, to prevent the road from continuing to penetrate into the jungle and to ensure that the river can only be crossed by cable car. There is hope that the project of electric canoes propelled by solar energy led by the Kara Solar Foundation can be developed and that the necessary recharging stations are installed along the Pastaza River. Julian wants to connect his dreams and the dreams of the Auchar people to the opportunities that solar energy bring

The Achuar Indians, who were not colonized and have survived multiple threats, attach paramount importance to their dreams. They use them to guide their daily lives as well as their most important decisions.

And they reveal their dreams at dawn, while drinking the local infusion, oblongas calabazas la wayusa, that induces a cleansing vomit intended to strengthen them before their hard day of work.

Today, before the imminent arrival of the road, the certainty of continuing to defend the jungle from external aggressions depends, perhaps more than ever on the history of the Achuar people, on the dreams of Julián and on the faith that the Auchuar people have of continuing to dream.

This investigation belongs to a series on forests' defenders that began in Brazil and now continues in Ecuador. It is an openDemocracy / democraciaAbierta project and has been carried out with the support of the Rainforest Journalism Fund of Pulitzer Center.

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