Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa Indigenous leader of the Sarayaku people in Ecuador, was interviewed during the UN Water Conference in March by Lisa Sullivan of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns. A longer version of the interview can be found here.
CHALLENGES AND BLESSINGS
The Amazonian ecosystem is one of the most important freshwater sources of the world. I come from a land of waterfalls, lakes and rivers that flow from the Amazon, and it is water that gives us food sovereignty. There are no markets in my town; we feed ourselves with fish from the river. If [water] dries up we lose our food source, the land dries up, and it generates an imbalance because the water is a living thing, with energy, with its own light and purpose.
According to our ancestors, we are the people of the Zenith, meaning midday; a fighting people. … It’s a people of 1250 inhabitants who fought fiercely against extractive companies.
Our challenge is a “success story” because we are the only people that removed an oil company [the Argentinian General Fuel Company] in the early 2000s, confronted the nation of Ecuador and denounced human right violations. In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights agreed with us, ruling in Sarayaku’s favor and penalizing the state.
The blessing of Sarayaku is turning into a symbol of resistance, struggle and dignity for Indigenous people.
A GLOBAL PLATFORM
This is not only for the welfare of Indigenous peoples. Think about humankind, about your children and all the people who benefit from the Amazonian biome. No one can say we are isolated; we are close and connected.
We [Indigenous] are people who have cared for those forests and ecosystems for millennia. We come to the United Nations … to speak up and to make a stand. The human right to water belongs to everyone and, accordingly, defending the Amazon is everyone’s responsibility because thanks to it we have water.
If the forest is healthy, water will flow. Complete deforestation, as commercial interests attempt to do, affects water directly; it begins to dry up, to lose its balance. Now it’s time to listen to us, to act and to see things in a different light. Not as man dominating nature, but man as part of nature.
FACING THREAT AND DANGER
When the oil company entered Sarayaku territory and people decided to fight … it was impossible to stand by and watch. We didn’t know where this fight would take us, but we knew we couldn’t stay quiet.
I knew the plan of action, how the government functions, how to direct, how to document the technical aspects of the process and how to communicate. I had contacts in the media. … [Initially] I thought the fight would be over if we managed to say no to the company, that it would end there.
In 2018, I decided to retire from leadership and keep a low profile, but it was impossible. Six months after, I received death threats. It was terrible because they came to my house around one o’clock in the morning. I was with my elderly parents. They threatened me, “If you continue with this, we’ll kill you.”
When you begin a fight against global economic interests, your life is always at risk. I knew staying quiet was not the better option; I had to keep going. If they wanted to drive me away through fear, they didn’t succeed.
POPE FRANCIS AND THE CHURCH
I asked the Church to be our ally. I told them they couldn’t watch while Indigenous rights were violated. That they had speak up and accompany us. We have fought side-by-side with many priests, but help from the head of the institution was needed.
Currently, I’m part of the vice presidency of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon (CEAMA).
[It] can only be the work of the Spirit. That a pope, at the moment the Amazon needed it so much, put the Amazon in his heart.
It’s a great strength for a global spokesperson to speak for marginalized people who inhabit and care for such a biodiverse biome and at the same time suffer the ravages of extractivism. This is an ideal moment. Our pleas have been heard. I’m 53 years old and 30 of those years I have spent fighting.
My parents were Catholic — the first catechists. I always dreamt and prayed that the Church would be a part of this journey, of this accompaniment. God lives in the Amazon rainforest, in these peoples.
Featured image: Patricia Gualinga, an indigenous rights defender from Ecuador, attends a news conference to discuss the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican on Oct. 17, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)