VIDEO: 'Reimagining progress: Voices from the Ecuadorian Amazon'

In their resistance to the foreign oil consortiums, Ecuador's indigenous communities are not only fighting for themselves, but also for indigenous peoples in every part of the world.

Joe Tucker Adam Punzano
10 November 2016


After experiencing first-hand the pressures put upon the indigenous people in the Ecuadorian Amazon during 2015, as two documentary filmmakers, we decided to launch a new project. Its aim was to raise international awareness around the main challenges facing the Sapara and Kichwa communities of Ecuador – and specifically, their long-running resistance to the imminent entry of oil companies into their territories and their efforts to preserve their culture in an increasingly globalised world.

The films wider aim, however, is to draw attention to their rich indigenous worldview and culture – one from which we believe can greatly inform the international community. Both practically and philosophically, their outlook offers a special perspective on the current battle with climate change and the prevention of further environmental degradation in key biomes such as the Amazon.

“Many people think that our message is only the Sapara vision, but it also comes from the dream world, the spiritual world… we're not only thinking about Sapara culture, we’re thinking about saving and protecting the forest.” - Manari 

During our time filming Reimagining Progress we worked closely alongside the Sapara community of Llanchama Cocha and Kichwa of Sarayaku. They are all bound together by a shared past and future, through their common language – Kichwa – which has ensured the survival of the Sapara culture. And now it helps them as the resist the the Chinese-owned oil consortium Andres Petroleum following the illegal auctioning of oil blocks 79 & 83 in January of this year.


  Manari Ushigua, political and spiritual leader of the Sapara community in Pastaza province. Photo: Punzano/Tucker Archive. All rights reserved.Being amongst the Sapara in the dense jungle of the Pastaza province, we were able to spend time filming while with inspiring community members – including the spitirual and political leader of the nation, Manari Ushigua, his sister Gloria, President of the Sapara Women’s Association, as well as her close friend and colleague Rosa Dahua. They had a great impact on us, as we discussed at length their unwavering resistance against the entry of Andes Petroleum and also the vital role of women at the forefront of their struggle – and all their efforts as they confront increasing intimidation.

As mothers and women we're trying to save nature… We want the government to respect our decision because indigenous women aren't animals, dogs or cats for them to say, “pets, now you have to go”, and then we go- no! - Rosa Dahua

In the latter part of our 6 months in Ecuador, we spent time filming in the jungle community of Sarayaku. A 5 hour canoe journey from the nearest outside town, the community is on a different scale to Llanchama Cocha, with over 1,000 inhabitants. The Kichwa of Sarayaku have resisted the entry of oil firms into their territory for more than 13 years, with a landmark court case going back to 2003  - a case they won in 2012. Throughout this period they faced intimidation, the direct entry of army personnel onto their territory, as well as the dumping of large quantities of high explosives used to conduct seismic trials in the early stages of oil exploration.

During our time in Sarayaku we were able to meet and work with the younger generation of leaders in the community. This included Felix Santi, the current President, with whom we discussed their strategy as a whole in regards to protecting the forest and also their relationship with the international community more generally. He told us:

“The living forest, or Kawsak Sacha, is a sacred zone which we consider as an area of potential floristic and faunistic diversity which also contains the protector beings of the forest...Respect between the protector beings and human beings is what we want to put in the consciousness of humanity, to make a shift, a change of humanity's consciousness. Why we, as indigenous cultures, propose this is that it's the only proposal that can  deal with climate change, that these areas are declared and conserved for all time to guarantee the lives of future generations. That´s what we have always raised in international forums.”

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Patricia Gualina talking on camera for the documentary 'Remimagining Progress', 2015. Photo: Punzano/Tucker Archive. All rights reserved.

This interview illustrated one of the most striking aspects we discovered during our time living and working with these communities: the extremely strong internationalist element to their current resistance. They are acutely aware of the need for international partnerships and intelligent collaboration with other communities and organisations globally. Such partnership are central in ensuring the continued protection of the Amazon and the advancement of indigenous rights as a whole. This has been demonstrated by the presentation of the ‘Kawsak Sacha’ proposal by Sarayaku in international forums such as COP21, which pushes for a recognition of the forest as a living entity with rights.

We are always here present for the communities and nationalities that are fighting, not only the Sapara but globally we are standing with those in North America, Canada, Peru, because the reality of indigenous peoples is the same in every part of the world.” - Patricia Gualinga

With the assistance of community members such as the filmmaker Eriberto Gualinga we conducted extensive interviews with a broad range of individuals. This included Sabino, an elder of the community, who spoke poignantly about being one of the last shamans in the lineage and the sadness which accompanied this, the president of the youth council, as well as those involved in community medicinal work including the building up of an in-community jungle pharmacy.

Based on a continual dialogue with community members to inform the direction of the film, we also travelled to the deforested oil town of Nueva Loja, where Texaco (later Chevron) began operations at Lago Agrio in the 1970s. The experience here was a stark and sobering contrast to the preserved rainforest, as we conducted interviews with affected communities in the region who have had to experience the effects of contamination from petroleum extraction first-hand.

Meeting with José from the ´Frente de La  Defensa De La Amazona´ - an organisation representing locals in their battle with Chevron - we explored the full impact of oil extraction and its associated extraction. It was clear that in the cases of Nueva and Coca, the negative consequences continue to blight the lives of locals, even decades after Texaco/Chevron’s drilling took place, including a crippling prevalence of cancer from consumption of polluted water and other health issues.

The tragic dangers of pursuing unsafe, extractive-driven development policies was also apparent when we went to view the environmental damage caused which included toxic oil pools, accompanied by Alejandro from the Committee. His words carried considerable weight, as he has personally lost family members, including his own father, to contamination-associated health issues:

“We shouldn't forgive this company for the crimes it has committed here and in all the world, they should be sanctioned so it doesn’t happen again, because those that are living here are humans. We're humans like in all the world...what humans need is to live, and the (oil) companies shouldn’t only try to make money for themselves whilst the masses die with cancer, die from the problems caused by oil.”

Through this combination of extensive interview footage, interweaved with scenes from everyday life in the forest – such as hunting, fishing, agricultural work and ceremonies – the film presents a detailed insight into life in these communities. But also, it acts as a vehicle to help carry their voices to a broader, global audience.

We hope it will play its part in inspiring of the international community to take real notice of the messages of indigenous communities, and join the growing movement to both support them... to help foster the urgent change required to conserve the planet for all.

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