Social Issues

Remote Ecuadorian indigenous community waging land title struggle

By Patricia Armijo

Sinangoe, Ecuador, Feb 8 (EFE).- A small indigenous community in Ecuador’s Amazon region that last week won a major court victory granting it authority to block extractive concessions now is trying to secure title to land it says has been plundered for decades.

Sinangoe – located in the vast eastern province of Pastaza and made up of some 50 families from the A’i Cofan ethnic group – has spent years trying to fight back against the government’s encroachment on its ancestral land, Alexandra Narvaez, a member of that hamlet’s community guard, told Efe.

According to the activist, demarcating territorial boundaries is a crucial step in protecting land that has been passed down for generations.

“All of our grandparents lived here,” she told Efe, adding that her indigenous community ended up being “displaced to the interior of the mountains” after being colonized.

That Amazon community, which lives sustainably on the banks of the Aguarico River, has been asserting its land-title claims before different government entities.

The A’i Cofan argue that the government stripped away much of its ancestral territory without consent in 1971 when it created the Cayambe-Coca National Park, an ecological reserve that includes both high altitude sierra and the hot, humid rainforest of the Amazon basin.

The Environment Ministry now puts that indigenous group’s territory, which also extends into Colombia, at just 13,000 hectares (50 square miles).

The A’i Cofan, however, say that expanse is only one-fourth of its real size and has launched a program in tandem with organizations such as Amazon Frontlines and Alianza Ceibo that is aimed at mapping their entire ancestral land at the headwaters of the Aguarico River.

Through more than 15 excursions involving the use of an app known as Mapeo Mobile, the A’i Cofan and their allies estimate that the true extent of that group’s ancestral land is 63,000 hectares.

All of the necessary documentary evidence has been presented to the Environment Ministry, but after an initial meeting no further progress has been made on the issue, Nicolas Mainville, a biologist and head of Amazon Frontlines’ territorial defense program, said during a media visit to Sinangoe.

Nevertheless, indigenous communities won a major victory last Friday when Ecuador’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling that for the first time recognizes their right to have the final decision over oil, mining and other extractive projects that affect their lands.

San Francisco-based Amazon Frontlines hailed the ruling, saying the “court’s decision deals a major blow to President Guillermo Lasso’s plans to ramp up resource extraction throughout the Amazon as part of their Covid recovery economic plans, as indigenous lands cover 70 percent of the mineral-rich Ecuadorian Amazon.”

Sinangoe, which says it intends to push hard this year to achieve its latest objective, is waging a struggle for its rights even as it tries to resolve serious issues surrounding educational access.

Last year, after a school attended by more than 60 children collapsed, the community was unable to build a replacement structure when the Environment Ministry denied authorization on the grounds that it would be located in a protected area.

“Our worry is where our children are going to study,” but the government is deaf to our concerns, Narvaez said.

Some children are receiving instruction in a small community center in Sinangoe, but most must travel long distances due to the collapse in late 2020 of a footbridge over the Aguarico River.

“No one does anything. As soon as they inaugurated (the bridge), it fell and they left it there,” community leader Wider Guaramag said of a situation that has forced people to cover long distances on foot or even use small boats.

Lengthy walks to reach a school in the nearby town of Puerto Libre have led many children to abandon their studies altogether.

According to Narvaez, only four children out of 10 who enrolled this year at the school in Puerto Libre are still attending class. EFE

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