The Indigenous Women’s Association of Sarayaku

Context

In November 1993, inhabitants of the northern Oriente filed a $1.5 billion class-action lawsuit against Texaco in the U.S. federal courts protesting against the company’s intentional use of substandard technologies which they claimed resulted in contamination of the their land. [1] After ten years of petitioning to have the case relocated to Ecuador, the lawsuit was ultimately filed and began in Ecuador in May 2003. [2]

Many indigenous peoples were devastated by the consequences and impact of Texaco’s time in Ecuador. The oil company had devastating impacts on indigenous lands and severe injustices continued to plague rural communities as a result of Texaco’s continued appeals and government policies that ignored indigenous peoples’ rights. In response to this disaster, women especially began to mobilize and form organizations in order to better serve their communities and create a voice for themselves within the Ecuadorian government.

A Gendered Approach

The women’s mobilization may seem surprising for far “too often the traditional concept persists of women solely as ‘beneficiaries’ of social services in their circumscribed role of wives and mothers restricted to the home.” [3] The reduction of women as solely wives and mothers covers up the work women do in building and maintaining houses and improving community life as well as the roles they play as producers and community managers. This work ultimately further encourages men to become involved in community action as well, positioning women as the “principal actors in low-income communities.” [3] This integral role that women play in maintaining their communities became clear through the actions they took against Texaco.

Women were the first to deeply understand that by violently attacking the environment that rural communities depend on, the acts of Texaco also affected women’s own bodies, the bodies around them, and the livelihoods of their communities. Maria Garfalo, an indigenous woman from the Pastaza province living in San Carlos,  highlights the nature of this attack when reflecting on the uterine cancer she is suffering from as a result of the toxins contaminating her drinking, cooking, and bathing water: “if I could say something to the oil companies, I’d tell them not to contaminate the land because they are killing people, making people suffer with this continuation. I have six children, and it’s very sad for me to think that maybe my children will lose their mother.”  Since this very interview was conducted, doctors have further diagnosed her husband with stomach cancer and her daughter with liver cancer.[4] These very tragic and real health consequences highlight the fact that the attack on the earth conducted during the exploration for oil parallels attacks on indigenous bodies, especially female ones.

Agency and Activism

When understanding female indigenous agency we must first acknowledge the assumptions and truths of female agency in general and be wary of stereotyping. “Women are positioned on the dominated side of the dichotomy and seen as rather passive subjects in Western traditions, a passivity that is even amplified in the case of non- Western women, Third World, or minority women. However, postcolonial feminists such as Chandra Mohanty cogently critique this amplified passivity of women of color, poor women, or women in the Third World as a construction that served the political goal of elevating First World women to the category of liberated.”[5] By understanding this, we can now better consider how power dynamics such as these influence whose story is told and given legitimacy. Theorist María Moreno Parra notes that, “in such a context, the understanding of indigenous women as political actors has to be undertaken from an analytical standpoint that counters sustained stereotypes of indigenous women’s purported passivity.” [5]

But far from echoing this narrative of passivity, indigenous female groups in rural Ecuador were quickly able to recognize the need for action and the Indigenous Women’s Association of Sarayaku (AMIS) was formed. By doing this, these women – a minority within a minority –  simultaneously fought for their rights to a voice in government as well as their rights to their land, health, and livelihoods.

On July 7th, 2004, 30 leaders from various grassroots organization affected by the oil company occupied the Foreign Trade Ministry. The groups pressured Minister Ivonne Baki to respect the wishes of the rural Ecuadorian people that the environmental responsibility of Texaco’s action not be transferred to the state-owned company Petroecuador, an action which would dismiss the Texaco of responsibility, much to the favor of the US. [6]

Also at this meeting, AMIS expressed it’s collective solidarity with the women and children of the Yana Yaku community located in the Ancash Region of the Santa Province of Cáceres del Perú. This community has faced violent government militarization in response to their environmental activism in protesting the actions of the oil company. In a public message AMIS collectively declared itself “in solidarity with the women and children of the community of Yana Yaku.” [6] Along with this message, AMIS put forth proposals to the national government that included the immediate exit of armed military groups and an investigation into the violation of the indigenous rights of Pastaza. A document listing the entirety of the proposals can be found here.

The  ability of AMIS to organize and provide support was important for the creation of a collective indigenous front against oil company. AMIS closed their proposal with the following statement: “We reaffirm that our fight for the dignity of the people of Sarayaku, our territory, projects and dreams for an alternative form of development, is not an isolated fight, it is a joint decision of all the Kichwa communities…and other areas that identify themselves with this cause…[that we] will never allow any form of abuse in this sector, be these oil companies, government or military forces.” [6]

An Ecofeminist Framework and Limitations

Without taking away from the merits of these women’s activism, it is important to retain a critical lens and not romanticize the situation. “In rehabilitating women as agents, there is a romance with women’s activism. And finally, there is a general romance with the indigenous. Being at the intersection of different forms of romanticized understandings, one could easily assess indigenous women’s activism in rather triumphalist manners, as an ‘amplified’ resistance in the face of intersections that amplify domination. The tensions that pull the analysis toward poles of over-victimization or over-romanticization need to be tackled with appropriate conceptualizations of human agency and of the structures in which it takes place.” [6]

With this recognition in mind, however, I still argue that it is not a romanticization to claim that through their activism these women were able to defend their lands while simultaneously creating a platform for indigenous voices to be heard. By virtue of being the literal embodiment of the intersection between environmental degradation and physical, bodily health the women of AMIS were able to advance an inherently ecofeminist type of activism that led them to successfully and strongly defend themselves, their communities, and their natural lands against the attacks of big business, military, and government. Because the goals of AMIS were strikingly ecofeminist in a way other activists could never be, they were able to organize and add an integral and underrepresented voice to the national and global conversation about oil exploration and conservation.

 


[1] Sawyer, Suzana. “Indigenous Initiatives and Petroleum Politics in the Ecuadorian Amazon,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 20.1 (1996): 365.

[2] Chevron Toxico. “Historic Trial.” Chevron Toxico. Accessed May 1, 2016.

[3] United Nations Centre for Human Settlements. Human Settlements Development through Community Participation, Ecuador: Women and Low Income Housing. By Ana Falu. Nairobi: United Nations, 1991.

[4] Dematteis, Lou, and Kayana Szymczak. Crude Reflections: Oil, Ruin and Resistance in the Amazon Rainforest. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2008.

[5] Parra, María S. Moreno, and Sarah Lyon. “Warmikuna Juyayay!: Ecuadorian and Latin American Indigenous Women Gaining Spaces in Ethnic Politics.” PhD diss., University of Kentucky. Abstract in Theses & Dissertations – Anthropology, 2014.

[6] Alter OilWatch Ecuador 2004 (2004) (testimony of Marcia Gualinga and Marlon Santi to the Foreign Trade Minister of Ecuador).

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