Skip to content Skip to footer

“The Last Guardians”: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice in Ecuador

Indigenous activists in Ecuador are fighting Big Oil.

Secoya indigenous leader Humberto Piaguaje speaks to crowd of protesters outside Chevron's 2011 Annual Shareholder Meeting in San Ramon, California, USA. (Photo: Amazon Watch)

An international movement by Indigenous peoples to protect their lands from despoilment is magnifying a fight for justice that has been under the radar for too long. It exploded onto the US national news when Native Americans said “no” to the planned Dakota Access pipeline, fearing for the safety of their drinking water.

In a new documentary, The Last Guardians, British filmmakers Joe Tucker and Adam Punzano give viewers an on-the-ground look at the fight for Indigenous land rights and self-determination in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

To shoot the film, Tucker and Punzano took their cameras to the villages of the Sápara of Llanchamacocha and Kichwa of Sarayaku in Pastaza state — neighbors for centuries — to substantiate their struggle for environmental justice on ancestral grounds. Embedding themselves with the local population, Tucker and Punzano interviewed members from elder representatives of the village to those who are on the front lines of activism.

The adversaries in question are not a surprise: Big oil, moneyed interests and the agenda of the Ecuadorean government are the powerful entities squaring off against the local inhabitants fighting to stop the poisoning of their land, water and families.

The first half of the movie presents the native culture, showing the community’s deep and powerful connection to the land and spiritual world. Manari Ushigua, president of the Sápara Nation, explains the interrelationship of humans with trees, animals, insects, water and the Earth as a non-hierarchical society. Everything and everyone are equal. “We have an equilibrium with nature,” Manari Ushigua states.

When the Spanish first came, they sought to exploit the rubber resources. “They enslaved our ancestors and brought unknown diseases like measles and yellow fever … and with these illnesses our elders died,” says Manari Ushigua.

Originally, there were more than 200,000 people speaking 32 dialects within their territory. The population is now 200, with only six living people speaking the native Sápara language. (UNESCO gave their oral tradition “Intangible Cultural Heritage” status in 2001.)

The 1941 war between Ecuador and Peru divided the nation into two entities. Members now live in both countries. The last Sápara shaman dwells in Peru.

Before oil drilling became prevalent in the 1960s, this rainforest area was home to the Cofán, Huaorani, Kichwa and Secoya peoples. The extent of the drilling has resulted in a diminishment of both the rainforest and Indigenous territories.

To demonstrate this point, the film shifts to northern Ecuador and the locales of Coca and Nueva Loja, the core spots for oil extraction.

Texaco was active in the region from 1964 to 1990, before the company merged with Chevron in 2001. During this period, allegedly 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and 15 million gallons of crude oil spilled onto the land. “Oil muck” left behind led to contamination, which spread to all the river estuaries. This resulted in the disappearance of flowers and fauna, people getting sick and children born with deformities.

The Last Guardians interviews tribal members who attest to the long-range impacts of the 20-year oil spill. One man spoke of the death of three of his children.

Alejandro Soto, a community activist who works with the Amazon Defense Coalition and the Comité de los Afectados (Committee of the Affected), showed the filmmakers places where dumped oil had resulted in remaining patches of deposits. Luis Yanza, president of the Amazon Defense Coalition, was concise in his assessment of how the oil companies operate. “The fundamental purpose is to enter and extract oil without paying the damages,” he said. “Basically, there’s been no change in the past 30 years.”

Yet, despite the Ecuadorian government’s insistence that Chevron pay up, they have simultaneously continued to grant drilling rights on Indigenous lands without proper authority.

Tucker and Punzano, responding to questions via email, related that as per the country’s constitution, the government needed a decree for Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to allow drilling. Like the oil companies, the government circumvents this prerequisite through subterfuge and dividing tribal allegiances. One method is paying off a high-profile tribal representative to approve drilling. Another ploy is securing consent from “external communities” who have moved onto Indigenous territory. This divide-and-conquer approach is antipathetic to the parity among members that is key to their societal structure.

However, in July 2012 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights rendered a decision on Sarayaku v. Ecuador. It stated that Ecuador was liable for “breaching the indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consultation under international standards.”

This was a game-changing court case. Tucker and Punzano explained, “Essentially, as the community becomes fully aware of their rights and is able to receive legal counsel from outside, it becomes much more difficult for the government to pretend consent has been given. Sarayaku v. Ecuador is a landmark case which indigenous communities from across the Amazon now look to as a model.”

Yet in 2015, the Ecuadorian government sold access to blocks of land to a new fossil-fuel player, Andes Petroleum, a Chinese consortium. (The company noted for the record that they would “respect the local customs and culture in all operation areas.”) Patricia Gualinga, the international relations director of Sarayaku, called out the government for using FPIC as a “smokescreen.” She accused the oil companies of trying to “impose an economic and social model completely distinct from our reality.”

In October 2015, the Sarayaku took their grievances directly to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “At the root of this, we were victims of a host of violations on the part of the president of the Republic,” Gualinga said.

The movie demonstrates the essential conflict between two mindsets. One is money-driven; the other looks to nature to supply life’s basic needs and meaning.

A matter of philosophical orientation, this point of view has given rise to the Kawsak Sacha proposal called “The Living Forest.” It was presented at COP21 in Paris. The tract laid out the Living Forest as “a sacred heritage of biodiversity, free from oil, mining, and wood exploitation.” With the objective of helping to heal climate change by giving “balance to the planet,” it declared sacred Indigenous land “a heritage of humanity,” free from ill use.

Tucker and Adam Punzano state, “The Sápara and Kichwa communities recognize that they are advocating a new international solidarity between indigenous peoples, which can function as a key to the defense of indigenous rights globally.”

The Kichwa of Sarayaku sent a delegation to Standing Rock last year in solidarity with North American tribes. They have attended international events, where they have presented a template of resistance to other peoples disenfranchised first by Europeans colonialists, and now by foreign businesses.

As the documentary rolls out in the UK and the US, two issues remain on the table: Chevron has yet to pay the billions of dollars in damages that it owes to Ecuador; and Andes Petroleum is primed to drill on Sápara territory this year.

Regardless, the Indigenous communities will continue to fight.

We have hours left to raise $12,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.