Ecuador: Siege, dispossession, and resistance at Siekopai

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Maruja and Roque Payaguaje feel that the territory is the reason for their existence Photos Siekopai Nation Archive

The Siekopai have been forced to resist and fight for their territories and lives ever since they first came into contact with the Western world. The Amazonian people are impacted by the oil frontier’s expansion, the monoculture of African palm, settlers’ invasion, forced displacement, and food contamination. These individuals, who endured division through the boundaries made by the Provinces of Peru and Ecuador, presently battle against extractivists in an Equity framework and an Express that doesn’t ensure their freedoms to their hereditary region.

The Siekopai people could be referred to as mythical and mystical in two ways: an ancient indigenous people of the Amazon jungle who live near the Peru-Ecuador border. The representations of the jungle environment, the universe, relationships with other beings, and the development of society and identity are described in tales like the wise elder Fernando Payaguaje’s. In a similar vein, the testimonies make reference to the history as a whole, as well as the transformations that this millenarian person underwent in the face of siege and the presence of external agents who desired their territory.

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The Siekopai, like the majority of Amazonian indigenous peoples, have been adversely affected by Christian, capitalist, and Western civilization’s expansion. Today, the dispossession of their domains has increased, while simultaneously, an opposition development has arisen that tries to shield the final Siekopai regional fortress. The resistance aims to recognize the rights to self-determination and reunite a nation divided by an international border in a very difficult environment.

Elements of place and memory The Siekopai people live in four communities that are spread out along the middle of the Aguarico River and a small portion of the Lagartococha River at the present time. However, their ancestral homeland held far greater significance. They fought back against the Spanish and Portuguese during colonial times and remained independent. They endured the effects of the rubber boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: death, exploitation, slavery, and the extinction of other Amazonian peoples. The Siekopai continued to work on the hacienda in dire circumstances despite the collapse of the rubber industry.

Some Siekopai families left Lagartococha and moved to Cuyabeno with their Ziona relatives to live in harmony after the war between Ecuador and Peru in 1941 set the boundaries of the border. In the years that followed, new groups of Siekopai left the Peruvian side to return to their ancestral territory and attempt to reunite the Siekopai nation that was divided by the border, drawn by the Ecuadorian Siekopai’s freedom. The signing of the Peace Agreement between the two countries in 1998 sped up this process. The Siekopai government strives for cultural, political, and territorial integration to this day: one of the main points that brings its agenda together.

The oil economy came after the rubber cycle; in 1963, the U.S.- based Texaco extended investigation past the Aguarico Waterway, attacking the Siekopai region. Eventually, additional operators would arrive, escalating the process of dispossession and aggressive behavior up until the present day. The entry of settlers and indigenous people from outside the region, particularly the Kichwa, would be one of the most significant social and environmental effects of expanding the oil frontier and the road infrastructure that goes along with it. Thus, the streets would work with the entrance of land dealers.

As a condition for obtaining a title to the land, the colonists were required to deforest half of the forests and replace them with pastures or monocultures as part of the state-sponsored, military-controlled colonization. The Siekopai’s land adjudication situation is crucial right now. Over 100,000 hectares of the Siekopai are protected by the Cuyabeno Wildlife Production Reserve, of which only 42,614 have been designated by the state.

From evangelicals to the Oxy oil company, missionaries, whether Catholic or evangelical, have always been a part of the dynamics of dispossession and territorial control by outsiders. The latter took action in conjunction with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), which entered the country in 1952 as part of a collaboration between the United States and a capitalist modernization process linked to extractive capital, colonization, and rural development. A project with a scientific appearance was proposed by SIL, formerly known as the Wycliffe Bible Translators Corporation: the research of indigenous languages. Jorge Trujillo, an anthropologist, puts it this way: To the point of submitting the indigenous peoples to the dictates of the bureaucratic apparatus and eliminating any form of autonomous and organized expression of the indigenous people, the missionaries would seek a real and effective control over them.”

Through the Practical Services Program, the Summer Institute of Linguistics missionaries contributed to the destruction of indigenous cultures in this manner. In the 1970s, American companies like Texaco and Occidental (Oxy) adopted these methods and approaches. The second case is described by attorney Judith Kimmerling as ” They say they will respect the culture and want “welfare forever” at first, but once oil is being extracted, the company changes its mind.

In 1996, Occidental became the concessionaire of Block 15, where it operated for ten years until the end of its contract, at which point Petroecuador, a state-owned company, took over oil operations. Despite the fact that Ecuador had already signed ILO Convention 169 and even incorporated this right into the 1998 Constitution, the businesses should have followed the free, prior, and informed consultation procedure. The Secoya Indigenous Organization of Ecuador (OISE) condemned the company’s non-compliance and abuses in 1998 as the preamble to an endless list of violations of the Siekopai’s rights.

Occidental responded by using a strategy of persuasion and division within the organization until it signed a “Code of Conduct” that made it impossible for the Siekopai to veto the company’s environmental and community projects. The agreement was limited to providing specific community infrastructure, such as community houses, basketball courts, restrooms, and scholarships for school attendance. In addition, it offered training in dressmaking, mechanics, agriculture, and Siekopai ethnography.

Firms that deal in palm oil and oil: damage and disarticulation Over time, community and environmental projects run by Occidental neutralized the actions and made it easier for oil to be extracted. The majority of the projects were only abandoned in favor of the “Ecuador Estratégico” shares of the public company when they were transferred to the state-owned Petroamazonas. Similar to Oxy, the state company put a strong emphasis on client-focused intervention, disregarding the Siekopai’s expectations regarding their territorial issues and conflicts with the colonists.

The oil company Andes Petroleum entered block 62 simultaneously as a concessionaire in 2006: China National Petroleum Corporation (55 percent) and China Petrochemical Corporation (45 percent) were both state-owned companies in China. The acquisition of Canadian EnCana’s assets completed the operation. Justino Piaguaje, the Siekopai nation’s president, stated, ” The activities of the Chinese organizations in our region have impacted a few networks that feed from the AriPokoya estuary, whose waters are currently turbid. The company did not disclose the Environmental Impact Study and dug deep canals without first consulting the communities.

One more area of attack and dispossession of the Siekopai region has been related with the agro-modern capital of African palm organizations. The state gave Palmeras del Ecuador a concession for 9,850 hectares in the ancestral territory of San Pablo de Kattsiaya in the middle of the 1980s, when León Febres Cordero was in charge. The upper Shushufindi River basin has been reached by monoculture plantations ever since.

Poor waste treatment and the widespread use of agrochemicals have tainted the rivers and other water sources within the Siekopai territory. The ichthyofauna, one of the primary food sources, has vanished due to the contamination, which has affected the availability of essential water for families. Agro-industrial monoculture surrounds the four Siekopai communities, which preserve the region’s last tropical forest.

Preservation or eviction? Deterritorialization and protected areas Another factor in the Siekopai’s deterritorialization is conservation, which is contradictory. The Cuyabeno Fauna Production Reserve (RPFC) was established in 1989 by the Ecuadorian government without consulting the ancestral peoples who inhabited these areas. The Siekopai were not a part of the boundaries, goals, or management plans for the protected area that were established or implemented. Consequently, the uprooting and ousting of the locale’s native people groups were made for the sake of protection.

The nearby A’i Kofán people moved to the Siekopai territory as a result of the RPFC’s creation. Zábalo was the name of the community that the A’I Kofán established there, and they later signed a land use and management agreement there. However, the environmental authority was unable to stop successive reserve invasions by land traffickers and settlers, so the state’s promise to preserve the territories never materialized. Nea a (Ro de Aguas Negras) was one of the most well-known cases.

The Aguas Negras sector was affected by colonization processes due to a lack of boundaries, control, and inclusive negotiations with the Siekopai. According to Justino Piaguaje, “we could temporarily evict the settlers after making the corresponding claims.”

The Siekopai reached an agreement to establish camps and hunting and fishing trails after a period of ongoing conflict. When the settlers decided to return to these areas, they did not honor this agreement. Celestino Piaguaje describes how people observed colonization’s expansion: Due to the fact that the sector would be designated a protected area, the officials prevented us from delimitating our territory. They assured us that the State would guarantee that there would be no invasions, so we should not be concerned.

Resistance and struggle for reterritorialization The behavior of Ecuadorian state authorities over the past three decades has been marked by deception, broken promises, and negligence. As a central means of processing their demands and defending their collective rights, the Siekopai nation has filed legal actions. But these efforts haven’t worked: Frequently, those in charge of the evictions are required to comply with court orders.

In one of the most illustrative instances, the Siekopai were forced to remove settlers from 200 hectares of the San Pablo de Kattsiaya Community in 2008, when they arrived. In a similar vein, in 2015, they presented a claim of vindication against the invaders in the form of a writ of protection. The settlers were ordered to leave the area right away after the Provincial Court of Sucumbos confirmed the territory’s ancestral nature three years later. However, the decision had not been implemented as of 2022. According to Piaguaje, “the dispossession of ancestral territory has been for us the result of this invasion process and the lack of timely action by the authorities.”

They have formally raised the free adjudication and legalization of 90,000 hectares of their ancestral territory in the sectors of Pkya (Lagarto Cocha) and Sokoro (Zancudo Cocha), within the Cuyabeno Wildlife Production Reserve, since 2017, in response to the ongoing siege and the few guarantees provided by the State. With the Zancudo and A’I de Zábalo Kichwa communities, this claim has sparked new conflicts. I was left here, with my sister on the other side, because of the war. Roque Payaguaje declares, “I want to go back to live with her, I want to go fishing in Pkya, and we want to continue being siekopai.”

In a similar vein, Maruja Payaguaje, who is currently 79 years old, explains that Pkya is the reason she exists because it was planted and cared for by her grandparents: We cannot forget this land because it is spiritual, which is why I say I am here. However, when it comes time for me to die, I will return to this location to attain the immortality that our grandparents always promised.

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