Social Issues

‘Ecuador’s Greta Thunberg’ brings remote community’s struggle to big screen

By Fernando Gimeno

Sarayaku, Ecuador, Aug 10 (EFE).- At the age of just 20, Helena Gualinga has become the voice of the Kichwa-speaking Sarayaku territory of the Ecuadorian Amazon and that people’s “Kawsak Sacha” (Living Forest) philosophy.

Centered on the idea that human beings should live in harmony with nature, that worldview has been brought to the big screen in a documentary narrated by that young indigenous woman who is known in that remote region as “Ecuador’s Greta Thunberg.”

In “Helena Sarayakumanta” (Helena of Sarayaku), the activist narrates – in Kichwa, Spanish and English – the story of one of Ecuador’s most emblematic native peoples and recounts their struggle for their ancestral territorial rights.

“‘Kawsak Sacha’ is the essence of Sarayaku’s struggle. It means ‘living forest.’ We see the forest as something that’s alive, as a living being, a legal entity,” Helena told Efe in an interview prior to the documentary’s premiere in Sarayaku, a village and territory in the eastern province of Pastaza.

A large crowd gathered for the screening, with even young children peering out of windows to watch the latest creation of filmmaker Eriberto Gualinga, a Sarayaku native whose productions have served as a vehicle for community members to express their demands in their own words.

During the 80-minute film, Helena communicates Sarayaku’s desire for “Kawsak Sacha” to be legally recognized by the Ecuadorian state and for the awarding of territorial rights that shield that community from potential threats.

Along with those demands, the community also continues to insist that the Ecuadorian state fully enforce a historic 2012 ruling by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

That decision, which set a key precedent in the recognition of the rights of the indigenous peoples to their traditional territories, affirmed that Sarayaku’s existence was threatened by the state’s imposition of an oil project without previous consultation or consent.

“We’ve always known that the Amazon, and particularly the indigenous territories, have been crucial to preserving the world’s biodiversity and protecting the forests,” Helena said. “That’s why the rights of indigenous peoples are so important, so we can continue to do this work.”

The documentary is aimed at “sharing Sarayaku’s struggle and life there, as well as explaining what Sarayaku is and why it’s such an exemplary and symbolic community,” said the young woman, who has been tasked by the territory’s elders with communicating its concerns to the outside world.

“It’s a very united community that has raised a lot of young people who want to continue these steps our leaders took before,” said Helena, who has a Swedish father and a Kichwa mother and divides her time between Sweden, Finland and the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Eriberto Gualinga, the documentary’s director, said for his part that Helena is “the Ecuadorian Greta (Thunberg),” adding that he capitalized on her return to Sarayaku from Finland for a visit with family and friends to film the documentary.

“Helena was the right person to tell the ‘Kawsak Sacha’ story,” he said, noting that she provides the vision of someone who lives outside of Ecuador yet has her heart in Sarayaku.

The filmmaker said of the relationship between the rainforest and human beings that neither is more important than the other.

“That’s what we’re showing in the videos, that in the forest there are other beings that protect the forest. That’s what they’ve shown us, that the forest is alive, from the biggest (creatures) to the smallest. And death lies ahead if that relationship is severed,” Eriberto Gualinga said.

“Although “Helena Sarayakumanta” premiered in March at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (Washington DC) and also has been screened at various locations in France, Belgium and Ecuador, Eriberto Gualinga said he is still holding out hope that it will be shown at commercial movie houses or even on streaming platforms.

“If in fact there are those possibilities, where it can reach more people and where Sarayaku’s message can have a greater impact,” the director said of a film that is still on the festival circuit and will next be screened at the 16th edition of Chile’s Muestra Cine+Video Indigena. EFE


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