By Daniela Brik
Quito, May 26 (EFE).- Guardians of nature whose survival is threatened is how Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez define themselves.
The young indigneous pair were awarded the Goldman 2022 Environmental Prize for the legal precedent their community set in Ecuador against unauthorized extractive activities in the Amazon.
“The day on which the indigenous lands disappear, we – as members of the Cofan people – will also disappear,” said Lucitante in an interview with EFE from the Ecuadorian Amazon region, where five years ago he began a crusade against gold mining in the Aguarico River basin, a sacred zone for his community.
At the beginning of this year, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court confirmed a ruling in the Sinangoe Case supporting the right of indigenous peoples to make decisions about their territory after the A’i Cofan people filed suit over not being consulted about dozens of government mining concessions granted to companies to extract minerals from their ancestral lands.
Lucitante, a 29-year-old law student, said he views the award, which is considered to be the environmental “Nobel,” as recognition for the collective work the 300-resident community of Sinangoe did and something that “helps us to make the world aware of the daily struggle of indigenous communities.”
Born into a family of traditional healers, he warned of the “risk” facing the “indigenous nationalities of the world” due to the destruction of their ecosystems, governments’ ignoring of environmental laws and lack of respect for indigenous peoples and the resulting eradication of their cultures.
Thanks to the leadership of the prizewinners, the Ecuadorian courts nullified 52 gold mining grants authorized without consulting the indigenous communities at the base of the Andes, thus protecting about 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) of virgin tropical forest in one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world.
“We’re posing the question of who can decide about the Amazon, whether that’s the oil and mining companies that are dynamiting the forest or us,” said Lucitante, noting how they had argued their case before the country’s top court during an audience “to listen to all the nationalities about their views.”
Narvaez, 30, in 2017 became the first women to join the indigenous watch organization in her community to monitor and halt extractive activities and she also joined the Shamec’co women’s organization, which she now heads with the commitment to safeguard the ancestral lands and protect her people’s legacy for their children.
“As women, we’re at the front of the fight. We have contact with our lands, we walk the land seeking medicinal herbs, we raise our voices and tell the world that this is our house,” she said, admitting that before, among the locals, it was thought “that a woman should be in the home and not at the front of this whole process.”
Thanks to the work of the watch organization, the first patrols were mounted and detected the presence of mining machinery and camps in areas far from the rivers that wind through the indigenous lands, especially at the headwaters of the Aguarico, a tributary of the Amazon, and they raised the alarm among the 56 Sinangoe families.
After the mining operations and the government’s extractive concessions were discovered, Lucitante and Narvaez sought to get the community united and formulate a strategy to protect their territory.
The pair were recognized for their legal and communications efforts to publicize a case that received the support of 60 national and international organizations and 14 local communities.
“As a guardian of nature, as a defender of the Amazon, I can say that all indigenous nationalities are risking our lives to defend our way of life,” she said before adding that the Goldman award protects them to a certain degree because they feel that they are not alone in their struggle.
The Cofan are an indigenous people with a population of about 1,200 whose culture is deeply rooted in the earth, the rivers and forests of their territory and who depend on subsistence agriculture, hunting and gathering.
Lucitante and Narvaez decided to deliver the stipend that came with the award – $200,000 that was shared with five other prizewinners from all over the world – to a civil organization made up of four indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
This is the fourth time that the Goldman award has gone to Ecuador after being won by Luis Macas (1994), Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and Luis Yanza (2008) and Nemonte Nenquimo (2020).
“It’s within us to defend our rights, to defend the rights of nature because, as Nemonte mentioned, we’re brothers because we walk the same land and breathe the same air,” Lucitante said.