One woman against Big Oil and patriarchy

Alicia Cawiya, an indigenous activist prepared to defy the powerful to save Ecuador’s Yasuní, talks to Linda Etchart.

'Women have the power,' says Alicia Cawiya, threatened for defending © Elle Enander/This photo was submitted to Your Shot, National Geographic's online photo community
'Women have the power,' says Alicia Cawiya, threatened for defending ©Elle Enander/This photo was submitted to Your Shot, National Geographic's online photo community

On 3 August 2013, Alicia Cawiya, Vice-President of the Huaorani Nation of Ecuador, stood up to address the country’s Constituent Assembly in Quito, broadcast live on national television.

She was expected to follow the script given to her by her President, Chief Moi Enomenga, to accede to oil drilling in her homeland in the headwaters of the Amazon River.

Moi had already signed agreements with Chinese oil companies, giving them the right to extract oil on the territory of the Huaorani, Taromenane and Tagaeri peoples, in the Yasuní national park, one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989.

Instead, Alicia defied her President and the government and made a magnificent speech, first in her native Huaorani language, then in Spanish, to denounce the oil companies and to speak up in defence of her people, her indigenous brothers and sisters from other groups, and their culture.

The message to the Ecuadorian government and to the transnational companies was clear: keep out. ‘Seven companies have been working in Huaorani territory and we have become poorer… How have we benefited? Not at all,’ declared Alicia to applause from the Assembly. ‘The animals are now in danger of extinction. Who is to blame? Not us… We have been conservationists. We want our territory to be respected. Let us live the way we want to live.’

‘He threatened to blow my head off’

The vote to save the Yasuní from oil drilling was lost that day in the National Assembly, by 108 to 133 votes, but Alicia had captured the hearts of Assembly members and the nation. Her message was front-page news; from that moment Alicia became an inspiration for indigenous women and a respected national political figure, tirelessly campaigning for the rights of her people, of the uncontacted groups of the Amazon and its environment.

But she had also made powerful enemies, among them her own community leader. Alicia claims that following her speech, Huaorani President Moi threatened to kill her.

‘Moi was angry with me. As were the young Huaorani men around him. He threatened to get a gun and blow my head off. He said that when I went back to the rainforest, my brothers would kill me. But when I went back, I was welcomed by the elders, who appreciated what I had done to help the community.

‘I denounced Moi, as it is not good to threaten to kill someone. The Huaorani and Taromenane people should be working together, not fighting among ourselves. I said to Moi: “Why do you not acknowledge that you are on the side of the government? You should support the communities who voted for you and sent you to represent them.”’

'Seven companies have been working in Huaorani territory and we have become poorer... How have we benefited?'

Alicia had to secure an injunction to protect herself from Moi. And together with Gloria Ushigua, President of the Sápara Women’s Association of Ecuador, she wrote to Liu Jieyi, Permanent Representative for China to the United Nations, to protest the violation of indigenous rights by the Chinese state company Andes Petroleum that will result from the agreements signed with the Ecuadorian government in January 2016.

Where did Alicia get her courage and fighting spirit from?

She was born in the Ñoneno community in the Yasuní reserve, the granddaughter of a feared Huaorani warrior, called Iteca. The Huaorani were regarded as the fiercest of all the indigenous peoples of the country, known as aucas (savages) even under the Inca empire, before the Spanish conquest.

While Western anthropologists had presented the Huaorani as ‘uncontacted’ until the 1950s, their territory between the Napo and Curaray rivers had been invaded by rubber tappers as far back as the 19th century. For 200 years, the Huaorani people have been on the move, retreating deep into the jungle to escape from local and foreign incursions, and returning.

As a child, Alicia was sent to be raised by missionaries, before being brought back to the forest by her grandmother. Missionaries were given the task of ‘civilizing’ the ‘barbarians’ in order for the oil companies to move in to indigenous territory without resistance.

Alicia says that she became politically active at the age of 13, and a leader at the age of 18 – unusual in traditionally male-dominated indigenous Amazonian communities.

‘I followed in the footsteps of my grandmother. Women at the time were not allowed to make decisions. But my grandmother said that as men and women were engaged in the same struggle to keep their territory [from incursions by oil companies], why could they not do it together?’

Amazonian women began to mobilize separately as women when their men capitulated to enticements provided by oil companies, whose strategies to divide and conquer indigenous communities such as the Huaorani have been successful.

‘The men were in control, and they decided to sell the entire Huaorani territory to foreigners – to some Americans,’ comments Alicia. The Huaorani are now considered by their indigenous neighbours as defeated and lost, the subject of pity for having succumbed to the temptations of a lavish Western lifestyle and the perils of alcoholism, against which they have few defences.

Amazon women on the march

The women appear to have greater resilience. Alicia recalls: ‘The women said: “We have the power, we are mothers, we harvest, we sow, and are able to manage our territory.” From then on we trained ourselves. We saw how other organizations like the CONAIE [Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador] and the CONFENIAE [Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon] worked, how other women were acquiring skills, attending workshops, organizing themselves. We agreed that we must protect the rainforest, or the oil companies would take advantage. So off we went.’

Inspired by the first indigenous Amazonian peoples’ march from Puyo to Quito in 1992, in which Alicia participated, Shuar, Kichwa, Sápara and Huaorani women organized a five-day 250-kilometre Women’s March to Quito in October 2013 to demand that their territories be declared a petroleum-extraction-free zone:

‘We walked until our feet hurt. We wanted to take our message to Quito so that the people in the capital would realize that the Amazon women would defend their rights. We demand that our rivers not be contaminated, that we should not be killed in the interests of oil… We now have new illnesses because of the oil. Our children are worried that we might be taken to prison. But let them take us to prison. We shall continue this struggle even as we grow old.’

Alicia founded the Huaorani Artisanal Women’s Association, as she wanted women to improve their economic capacity. Being politically active – having the triple burden of hunter-gathering, caring for children, and travelling the country as well as the world with few resources – is a challenge for her and other Amazonian representatives, most of whose homes are several days’ journey into the rainforest by canoe:

‘It is not easy for us… Sometimes the women decide not to travel because of their husbands, who object to their political activities as they have doubts whether they are telling the truth about where they are going. Although it is difficult, we have succeeded. Before, the women kept quiet and the men made the decisions. It is different now. Women work the same as men to move our cause forward. When decisions have to be made about our territory, the importance of our role as women has to be recognized.’

Linda Etchart is a researcher and lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, and Kingston University. She is a contributor to Latin American Voices, Latin American Bureau/Practical Action Publishing, forthcoming 2017.