democraciaAbierta: Feature

The women of the Amazon who dream the resistance

In Ecuador, indigenous women lead a march to the capital, to demand an end to the pillaging of their land

Gabriela Ruiz Agila
22 May 2021, 12.00am
Catalina Chumbi (centre, shouting), next to Noemí Gualinga, Sandra Tukup and others
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Darwin Pizarro/Fluxus Foto

On 26 March, in an event in Pastaza, Ecuador, that paid homage to the resilience of Amazonian women, María Taant, a leader of the Shuar indigenous people, sang a song invoking the great anaconda of the Amazon jungle. Hours later, she would be dead, a tragic road accident that left the Amazonian women’s movement bereft while also demanding they continue the struggle to defend their territory.

In memory of María Taant, we remember the march from Puyo to Quito on 8 March 2018, when María Taant and her companions delivered the Mandate of Amazonian Women to the government of Lenín Moreno. It read: "we demand the deletion of the contracts and/or agreements and concessions granted by the Ecuadorian government to oil and mining companies in the south-central Amazon."

For five days, the women kept vigil in the Plaza Grande, Quito’s central public square. Their struggle and persistence now resonates around the world. One of them, Nemonte Nenquim, led the Waorani people’s battle to protect 500,000 acres of rain forest from oil extraction. Her grassroots activism won the prestigious Goldman environmental prize for 2020 and a place on the New York Times’s 100 most influential people list.

The events of March 2018 were transformative. The women of the Amazon – from the Kichwa, Shuar, Achuar, Shiwiar, Waorani, Sapara and Mestizo peoples – had gathered to tell a story of negotiation and struggle, as they sought to redefine their place in the family and in wider society. For many years, they had been cultivating knowledge and resistance in their territories and communities.

Source: Shuar People. 13 March 2018. Maria Taant sings to give heart to the women of the Amazon, gathered in the Plaza Grande in Quito

Taant was prepared for the struggle. Eleven days before leaving for Quito, she fasted, visited the waterfall, dreamed and spoke to her ancestors. Widowed seven years before the march to Quito, she was raising four children – a daughter and three sons – on her own. At 25 she had been chosen by the Shuar elders to be a healer. At 47, she did not dream of shields as male warriors do, but of women walking, painting the great anaconda, talking and laughing. She dreamt the resistance. She saw it all clearly: a gruelling journey followed by hours of waiting. "It will be hard for them to listen to us," she told her gathered sisters.

I write with a child in my womb and the awareness that every woman is fertile and capable of conceiving even if she has not given birth, nor will ever do so. The Wao women say that if a baby moves a lot inside the belly from very early on, it is a girl. That was how it was for me when I met Taant on 13 March 2018, the third night of the Amazonian women’s protest in Quito.

What was the most important knowledge you inherited from your elders? I asked her.

“The bath in the waterfall," she said, uncovering her mouth with her left hand, as if saying the words is enough to invoke the water.

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Dayuma, granddaughter of the first Waorani woman to make contact with the Western world | Darwin Pizarro/Fluxus Photo

Her tongue was brown. Two crossed spears on each cheek reminded me that as well as being a mother, Taant knew about war. The border conflicts between Ecuador and Peru, especially the 1995 Cenepa conflict, required soldiers. And the Iwias, the Spanish-language acronym for the indigenous soldiers, were always on the front line, because they were brave and knew the terrain.

Taant and I recalled that in a 2017 letter, the Governing Council of the Shuar People called on President Rafael Correa’s government to halt the mega-mining projects in communities like Nankints, in the Cordillera del Condor in southern Ecuador. “Our jungle has become stained with tears, anguish and blood,” the letter said, “and the paths and roads that we once walked in peace have now become unsafe and dangerous.”

The letter went on to say: “It has been almost 30 years since the Ecuadorians spoke of us as the warriors of the Cenepa, defenders of Ecuador, to which we belong. But now it is necessary that through our own voice they know who we are."

That yearning remains unfulfilled.

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María Taant holds up a protest sign on 13 March, the third day of the vigil | Darwin Pizarro/Fluxus Foto

In the initial days of the vigil, the women were faced with threats of eviction from the Plaza Grande. They stayed, along with the other groups, which included the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Confeniae), Saramanta Warmicuna, an indigenous women's association, and other organisations.

One night at the vigil, it was getting late and it was cold. The women, who have travelled from the Amazon, felt the difference of nearly ten degrees between their forest home and Quito, which sits high in the foothills of the Andes. They were tired but they waited to be received at the Carondelet Palace, where the president was at work.

But the women felt strong. Each of them felt she was many. When they carried their children in their arms, the children seemed to spread out like branches from their bodies. The women sang in the Plaza Grande. In their voices, you could hear the music of the kiki bird. They danced. At the end of the day, the lines drawn on their faces early in the morning were mixed with their hair.

Changing out of their traditional dress, they looked for shelter and food for the children who accompanied them. After dinner, they returned to the vigil. "Tomorrow they won't receive us either [but] we're going to the square. I came here to fight," said Salomé Aranda. The women talked about what they would need over the coming days – warm clothes, food, medical care. Community dialogue is a practice, a way of doing things; it is the articulation of responsibilities.

There were a few men too, but the night belonged to the women, the resistance was theirs. They revived as the cry went up: "Long live Amazonian women." It is a fact, of course, that many of the oil and mining agreements were signed by men.

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Waorani leaders Alicia Coawiya (left) and Yolanda Omaca | Darwin Pizarro/Fluxus Foto

Women bear children, they are fertile, they know they are nature’s guardians. Here, for example, is Dayuma, the granddaughter of the first Waorani to make contact with the western world.

Dayuma, the grandmother, died in 2014. Dayuma, the granddaughter, has long hair, is 24 years old and pregnant with her first child. "We move from the first moment in our mother's womb, and we never stop," said Alicia Coawiya, a Waorani leader and the mother of a little girl.

The women talked amongst themselves. Their skin had tattoos, scars that mark birth or death. Sandra Tukup, 33, asked to speak. Five months pregnant, she walked from her remote village and joined the march in Puyo. She is a testament to the women’s pain and strength. She recalled how children's lives were lost in the struggle against what they call the “mining feast”, when two million hectares were granted by the government to mining companies without consulting the indigenous peoples or considering the environment.

The women's network, Chaski Warmi, which means "women messengers" in the Kichwa language, exposed the problem. The campaign to ban mining received popular support.

Noemi Gualinga, president of the Sarayaku Women's Association, was also at the vigil. She had left her 16-year-old daughter at home, in charge of the family and her two brothers.

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'Defender of the jungle', written with pitu dye | Darwin Pizarro/Fluxus Foto

“Most of us Amazonian women here are mothers," said Gloria Ushigua, president of the Pastaza Women's Association. "We spend time together with the land. We sow. We look for food. And that is why our mandate rejects oil exploitation.”

Ushigua has suffered because she has long protested against the exploitation of Amazonian territory, according to Human Rights Watch. “The benefit is not just for indigenous peoples or Amazonian women, it's for everyone", says the NGO.

"We are here because of our children," added Rosario, 47, who had also travelled to Quito for the first time. María, 36, and Nora Santi, 43, also said the same thing. It became like a slogan: heard in the square, a deep prayer in the night. The vigil was not just about the march from Puyo to Quito. It was about being heard and seen.

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Catalina Chumbi, 70, president of the seven nationalities of Pastaza province | Darwin Pizarro/Fluxus Photo

In the garden of the large house that welcomed them, Catalina Chumbi (70), president of Pastaza province’s seven nationalities, stood firm. She wore a satin dress. Multicoloured feather earrings hung from her ears as two flowers slept on her shoulders. Catalina had been in political representation for 25 years. She participated in the 1996 Ecuadorian indigenous movement march and in the 2016 women's march.

“This is the most important moment of the fight,” she said, while looking into the dark as we tried to take her portrait. “I feel that future generations need me. I leave pointing the way.”

– How many children do you have?

“I had 10 children. Five are alive. One was killed by measles, another by vomiting and diarrhoea. Soledad was killed by her husband.” A deep sigh breaks her heart again. “He was a military man. He drowned her where they bathed.”

Catalina said her daughter's name with tears lighting up her cheeks like mercury.

– “What happened to the murderer? Was he prosecuted for this crime?”

“No! He ran away. But the justice of life is greater and he died later on. My daughter was called Soledad because she was born on her own. Her father left me when she was in my womb. He told me that, because I had dedicated myself to being a politician, I would also be left alone.”

Children come to honour our passage on earth. We hugged tight. It was a night of tiredness and exhaustion.

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De izquierda a derecha: Alicia Coawiya y Yolanda Omaca, líderes waorani, observando las estrellas. | Josué Araujo

I turned back to Taant:

– Why do they say you are a wise woman?

“Because I perceive what is going to happen.”

– What did you feel before coming to Quito?

“I already felt in my community that we were going to stand still for a long time before the government received our mandate. It still hasn’t received us. [But] my colleagues denied it. If we want to be received, we must first talk with the ministers.”

– And now what do you feel? Tomorrow is the fourth day in the Plaza Grande.

“Tomorrow, if the compañeras allow us to meet at a round table, we can meet with the government.”

– What has been your most important vision?

“The struggle! Take advantage and share knowledge. Be supportive and constructive. We are the most rejected and at the same time the greatest fighters.”

On the fifth day of the protest, the Amazonian women were able to meet with President Lenín Moreno’s private secretary, Juan Sebastián Roldán. It was a closed-door meeting. The women’s mandate contains 22 points and they demand its fulfilment. It is about rights and not complaints.

Among the demands were the suspension of auctioning new oil field lots, setting up a truth commission to investigate the assassinations of indigenous leaders, and reparations to families. The request for a "deep and historical investigation on sexual and gender violence associated with mining, oil and militarisation activities” also demanded “necessary sanctions and guarantees” to prevent it happening again.

The women had to wait another week, until Thursday 22 March, to be received at the Carondelet Palace. Taant had not been wrong when she predicted a long and gloomy wait. Request after request, day after day.

What else did Maria Taant foresee for future generations? The extinction of the forests? The machinery digging deeper into the jungle soil?

Dreaming is doing. María Taant saw the Amazonian women sowing the land and walking forward.

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