In May 2017, a group of journalism students from MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alta., spent a week in Ecuador – four days in the Amazon rainforest – taking pictures, shooting video and talking to scientists, political observers, and indigenous people. The aim was to tell the story of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station of Universidad San Francisco de Quito, near Yasuni National Park. This is an area of extreme biological diversity and great beauty – which, unfortunately, is sitting on a sea of oil.

Living on the edge of tomorrow

For Ecuador's indigenous young people, the challenge is
to balance the promise of the future with the treasures of the past

By Jazmin Tremblay

A tow boat pushes a barge past a village on the Napo river. Many indigenous young people grow up in the traditional way, but within sight of the 21st century.  (Sierra Bilton)

For the indigenous young people of the Amazon, growing up involves walking a narrow path between tradition and change, balancing a life tethered to one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions and pulled by the modernizing forces that are transforming the land.

“Civilization always wants to modernize you,” says Benite Cerda, a psychology major at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “Through it, you are exposed to other customs, other traditions. So, sometimes, customs cease to be observed because you are becoming westernized. Because you want to modernize.”

Leaving the Amazon region to live and study in urban Ecuador brings challenges. Cerda, who is of the Shuar and Quichua peoples, says he feels the pressure to preserve his culture while he embraces new technologies and opportunities.

“Preserving doesn't mean that we want to live in isolation, but to learn to co-exist.

“It’s about saving those things that we've been taught – knowledge that comes from the beginning of time. It’s knowledge that is valuable. The language, the territories, the customs, the traditions, that is what we should preserve.”

Yet, the encroachment of mestizo society – the European-aboriginal blend that constitutes much of modern urban South America – is something many anthropologists fear will erase indigenous communities altogether.

 “People migrate,” USFQ anthropology professor Consuelo Fernandez-Salvador says. “People marry with mestizo society. So, little by little, some of these groups might disappear because of their basic contact with mestizo society.

“All they want is for their communities to become urban towns.”

Front lines

The opportunity to leave home and study in the city is something to which many indigenous young people aspire. Yet, only a small percentage of Amazonian students are able to attend university, through scholarships or grants from oil companies, which are limited and difficult to procure.

Larry Guitquita, a Huaorani student, who studies psychology at USFQ, worked for an oil company, which is funding his education.

The oil companies provide jobs. And that helps so many people in the community educate their children, keep their families and sustain their homes.

“The people who are employed in my village are employed because there is oil,” he says. “Then, there are other people, like myself, who have the privilege of having our university paid for."

Being part of the first generation to go to university, and to live in both societies, these young people have found themselves on the front lines of the political, social, economic, and environmental forces with which their communities are dealing.

“We're not isolated from the urban centres anymore,” says Pablo Mamallacta, who also studies at USFQ. “We are losing that connection (to nature) slowly, due to the process, which we call racial whitening, through the relationships fostered with those of mixed race. So, I think, we're building a new kind of culture.”

This new culture brings benefits and drawbacks to Amazon communities, whose members often have little say about development projects that are brought to them.

“Indigenous people have to be constantly negotiating and trying to make the best,” Fernandez says. “If you actually think that having a Coke, having some rice, is the good life – then what happened?”

Although most people in Amazon communities are surely aware of the risks of development and oil drilling, they welcome it for its economic and social benefits.

“The oil companies provide jobs,” Mamallacta says. “And that helps so many people in the community educate their children, keep their families and sustain their homes.

“But there is also a negative aspect, such as pollution – pollution in the jungle, where so many children play, where your family works. Once there is oil, your produce will not be able to leave the area. You won't even be able to grow plants in those places.”

A wharf at Puerto Francisco de Orellana. Known locally as Coca, the city is the point where indigenous and modern cultures meet. 
(Sierra Bilton)

Friendly state

Maria Cerda, who studies International Relations at USFQ, grew up in Llanganates National Park, which straddles the Andes and the upper Amazon. Her community has recently begun discussions with mining companies. She says the conversation often begins with the government breaking the ice for the companies.

“They start the dialogue process after they’ve granted access to the companies. But in the end, the deal is already done; the access has already been granted. They can do what they want.”

In discussions about mineral exploration, Cerda says, a mining representative told her community that the indigenous people had ownership only of the surface of the land, and what was underneath belonged to the state – meaning, if minerals were found, they would be excavated. For the people who live on the land, all that is left to do is negotiate the best possible terms.

“Extraction of oil affected the health of the communities,” she says. "Too many people came in from the outside and they brought different ideas from those in the community. But they didn't know how to gel their beliefs with the indigenous beliefs.

“There was, for me, conflict. They came into our territory and started buying land. Then, once our people didn't have land anymore, they didn't know how to work, and started begging.”

The introduction of new ideas about the value of money and the nature of wages has also caused tension and cultural disruptions, Cerda says, as aboriginal people are forced onto unfamiliar ground when they deal with the government and the oil companies, “who don’t see the social piece, the cultural piece.”

“If they were going to extract (in Quito), it would be much more complicated than extracting in the Amazon, because Amazonians look much more vulnerable, because they don't look like people who can defend their rights.

“Or simply because the government doesn't care.”

Changing deals

Negotiations between oil companies and indigenous groups are never simple, and can vary greatly from one aboriginal community to the next. However, negotiations and types of demands are beginning to change as communities have more direct contact with oil companies and less communication with the government, Fernandez says.

“These notions of modernity, wanting education, and wanting health ... That motivates these groups to start thinking that the oil companies are here and we might as well negotiate. So, they think, ‘OK, we can negotiate having a school, a health centre or a road.’ ”

Unfortunately, she adds, negotiations are not always successful and sometimes these negotiations don’t bring larger benefits to the community.

Guiquita describes the relationship between his Huaorani community and the Chinese oil companies as “childish.”

Many murals like this cover exterior walls of the capital city of Quito, celebrating indigenous culture.  (Sierra Bilton)

“For example, in the community, they have enough to eat, but they know they have oil. And they’ll say, ‘Give me $1,000 and you can take what you want.’

“And what are they going to do with that money? They’ll spend it on things that they don’t need. And that’s what they do. They are practically bought out.

“They give us the money and it’s settled.”

The advance of development has a lot to do with the lack of implementation of laws designed to protect both indigenous people and land rights.

In 2008, Ecuador added the Rights of Nature to its constitution. However, economic interests have triumphed several times in conflicts over oil development in the Amazon region.

“There are laws that are meant to protect,” says Aluaio Tapuv, a USFQ student studying human rights. “But, in practicality, very often, those laws aren’t enforced. It’s only in theory.

“But, they always have a double standard, because, in the end, oil generates money. And, with that money, they can augment, in many cases, the economy in Ecuador. Too often, fights and struggles arise over money, and between oil and the communities.

“As a result, the communities don’t have the support or the help of the government of Ecuador.”

Precarious position

Conservation laws tend to be shunted aside when oil is involved, Fernandez says. And this weakens minority political power and, as a result, political dissent.

Here, we have this thing, our responsibilities to our communities. By the very virtue of us being indigenous, it carries us; it calls us. We are raised in this way.

“They are still weak to negotiate, because the state has come in very strong, and said, ‘We’re going to do local development and you’re not going to negotiate with the oil companies.’

"In a way, that works, but in a way, it’s like neutralizing them. Because it’s like saying, ‘You don’t have to worry about that. We’re going to do it.’ ”

This leaves indigenous communities in a precarious position.

“In one way or another,” Cerda says, “I know that exploration will find something, because the government needs resources and will exploit minerals until it no longer can, until there’s nothing left.

“Because it needs the money; because we are all burdened by debt. Yes, they will explore, and, yes, they will extract. And, yes, it will affect us … So, they are now within their rights to do with these lands as they please.”

Many of the indigenous students at USFQ say their aim is to go home and use their education to bring change for the better to their communities.

“Here, we have this thing, our responsibilities to our communities,” Cerda says. “By the very virtue of us being indigenous, it carries us; it calls us. We are raised in this way. I spent my entire childhood linked to my little house on the land. So, the idea of not returning is very hard for me. It's even hard for us to be here in the city, in an environment that is totally different from our own. And here, there are always problems with exclusion.

“But, beyond that, it's just the desire of wanting to return to one’s roots.”

Many of the Quito murals express political ideals, acting as a mute but powerful form of resistance.  (Sierra Bilton)