The leader of the Sarayaku, Kichwa community in Ecuador, has fought oil companies for more than twenty years. For her struggle, she has been tried, slandered and threatened with death —yet, she has never caved in.
Who’s afraid of Patricia Gualinga?
Patricia Gualinga is sitting in a noisy cafe, on a central street in El Puyo, a cement enclave in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon. It's a Friday in February 2019, shortly after ten o'clock in the morning. El Puyo —an urban hive of merchants, oil workers, NGO staffers servants and environmental activists— is uproarious early on. A brief Amazon downpour has cleaned the environment and cooled the asphalt.
Gualinga speaks with a sweet and stern voice about her life —a life she did not expect, but that she has completely embraced: she has spent more than 20 years to the resistance against oil exploitation in the nearly 135,000 hectares of ancestral territory of Sarayaku, a Kichwa community in the center of the Ecuadorian Amazon, at the banks of Bobonaza River, where around 2,000 villagers live. She has been accused of sabotage and terrorism, of destabilizing the State, of even being a capricious girl, and, in 2018, she received death threats. None of that was among her life plans. "My parents are important leaders," she says, as she watches cars and pedestrians pass by, "I grew up with the awareness of the defense of rights and territory, but I was the calmest of my siblings."
In the midst of the rumble of the escapes of tuned motorcycles, of loudspeakers that begin to blare their music on the street, of blenders that crush sour and sweet fruits into juice, Gualinga arranges her black hair, long and beautiful like an endless waterfall, opens her deep black eyes as she remember that the only time he had spoken publicly about the indigenous cause of Ecuador had been in 1992.
Just graduated from school, at 18, Gualinga walked along 500 kilometers with 1200 other indigenous people of 148 communities belonging to the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Province of Pastaza (OPIP). They walked from the jungle to Quito, where they expected to meet with the Ecuadorian government to discuss land rights. In the middle of the march, a reporter approached the group of young people in which Gualinga was, and asked her what they asked for. "Something very simple," she recalls, answering,"that they give us our territories." The clarity and eloquence of Patricia Gualinga was even then already visible —although it would take a few years to show completely.
OPIP’s march of 1992 changed the historical relationship between the indigenous peoples of Ecuador and the State. They arrived at a puzzled Quito on April 23, where a group of activists greeted them with roses and refreshments. The first thing the indigenous people did when they arrived in the capital was pay tribute to Jumandi, an Amazonian leader who was quartered by the Spaniards in the 16th century. At 11 o'clock in the morning they were received by the then President of the Republic, Rodrigo Borja, who two years earlier had rejected the demands filed by OPIP. "[The indigenous people] are trying to create a parallel state in which Ecuadorian laws and authorities are not in effect," Borja had said.
But the indigenous organization, led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), of which the OPIP was a part, had pushed the government to the negotiation table. It was the first time that a delegation of Amazonian peoples crossed the colonnade of Carondelet Palace, the presidential seat, on an official visit. "This is your house," Borja told them.
One of the leaders of the march, Valerio Grefa, began his speech before the president, and an array of ministers and generals of the Armed Forces, saying that they were there "representing all the lives of the jungle." Patricia Gualinga's eyes moved, restless, from one side to the other, as she processed what she saw and heard.
One of her aunts spoke to President Borja in the name of the Sarayaku people —which in their language means ‘river of corn’— in an imperfect Spanish, but with a very clear message: "This is the face of the Amazonian People," she told him. Patricia Gualinga remembers the emotion of those days —"I participated with a lot of passion"— but at 18 she did not know —how could she— that her destiny would be to become the most visible face of her people's resistance over the next two decades. Her brother Eriberto, a filmmaker who travels around the world showing his films about the Sarayaku resistance, says that his sister "made her own lifestyle, without giving up or forgetting that she was a sarayaku, but from where she was". Time would put her exactly at the center of her people's cause. It was just a matter of waiting.
Every story of resistance is an unfinished story. The first part, that of 1992, ended with the formal recognition of more than one million hectares to more than 100 indigenous communities throughout Ecuador. During the more than twenty days of negotiations, Patricia Gualinga and hundreds of other indigenous people camped in the historic El Ejido park in Quito. At the end, it was decided that the Army would control a 'security zone' of 40 kilometers on the border with Peru (with which Ecuador had an intermittent war at that time) and that the Yasuní National Park would be expanded by 270,000 hectares. The third resolution of the 1992 agreements was that the State would continue to administer the natural resources underneath those ancestral lands. That final determination would perpetuate the constant conflict between corporations and the State against indigenous peoples.
Yasuní National Park would return to the headlines 20 years later, when president Rafael Correa promised in 2007 not to drill it to obtain oil. Six years later, an authoritarian Correa would end up, against his own word, authorizing and promoting its exploitation, and, in the process, accusing environmentalists and leaders like Gualinga of being enemies of the State. But, in 1992, that story seemed closed, and Patricia Gualinga, the calmest of her siblings, would take a path that would take drive her away from activism for the time being.
At the beginning of the 21st century, she was learning something that would be extremely useful in the life that awaited for her in her near future: she had an important position in the Ministry of Tourism of Ecuador. "I was the regional director of tourism," she says, smiling, as she looks over the balcony of bamboo cane of the cafe where she speaks.
Gualinga had come to the office with the same impetus that, years later, would make her the leader of the Sarayaku people. Her family had decided to open a small tour operator company, because the law at the time did not allow communities to directly manage visits to their lands. "It occurred to me that we could invite the Minister of Tourism for her to see that we did not have rights to manage our own tourism, but only companies did." Gualinga wrote "one of those many letters that one sends and ministers do not answer". However, the minister, whose name was Rocío Vásquez, replied, promising that she would go to Sarayaku.
Receiving a Minister of State was something that had never been done in the community. Gualinga, who was then in her twenties, realized that mobilizing a figure of such high status was going to require expensive and specialized logistics. "I had no idea how I was going to get the Minister to Sarayaku," she says, as if she was feeling again the same surprising realization of that moment. Gualinga decided that there was only one way to move a Minister of State through the jungle: by helicopter. She just had to find someone to lend her one.