Ecuador’s indigenous guards, protectors of the Amazon rainforest

In the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the cries of the native guards echo to the sound of “Guard, guard!” and “Strength, strength!”. Painted faces and spears in hand, they come together to defend their territories against oil and mining exploitation, as well as poaching.

The sun has not yet risen on the banks of the Aguarico River, in the community of Sinangoe, northeast Ecuador. They are about 300 men and women to meet this Sunday for the first assembly of the native guard.

Since dawn, these groups of volunteers have been patrolling the forest. They ensure that no hunters, miners or other oil diggers enter the jungle.

“The Guard is not a subversive group, it is not a paramilitary group as they (the government authorities) say, we are protectors of our territory, defenders of life and land”, explains to AFP Alexandra Narvaez.

Slanted eyes, brown skin and braided hair, Alexandra Narváez is a member of the Cofán tribe. Together with Alex Lucitante, another community leader, they won the Goldman Environmental Prize for their fight against mining in the Sinangoe region.

But the meeting of the day does not only bring together the Cofán. 12 indigenous communities came for the occasion. On the program of the meeting: refine their tactics for protecting the forest.

The Cofán can be recognized by their green shirts and the black paint they smear on their faces to represent animals such as the boa. The Siekopai, on the other hand, wear feathered headdresses and color their noses. Waorani women apply red paint around their eyes.

Their spears at their belts, the guards are actually more modern than they appear. They spot intruders in the forest using GPS and cameras they have installed themselves, explains Alexandra Narváez. They also monitor the intrusion of foreigners using drones.

“We have no weapons. The only symbol we have of strength, power, struggle and memory of our ancestors is our wooden spear,” she adds.

The natives have reason to worry. Mining and the project of the conservative government of Guillermo Lasso to double oil production threaten the integrity of their territories, believe the communities concerned.

The natives of the Amazon have also been fighting for years against the recurrent oil spills in the region. The latest disaster dates back to January, when the equivalent of 6,300 barrels of oil spilled into nature after a pipeline burst. A nature reserve and the Coca River were polluted.

“The threats are more numerous every day,” says Alex Lucitante. This “leads us to ask ourselves (…) what will happen to our culture and our lives”. Of Ecuador’s 18 million people, just over a million consider themselves indigenous.

The mobilization of indigenous peoples goes beyond the limits of the forest. The Native Guard thus took part in the demonstrations in June in Quito against the increase in the cost of living. Demonstrations whose balance sheet rises to six dead and more than 600 injured.

Armed with tribally made shields and noses covered in eucalyptus leaves to shield themselves from the smoke of tear gas canisters, the Cofán were on the front lines of the protests.

In the forest, they are gathered in a circle to be able to stare at each other and welcome newcomers. These will soon join existing patrols and form new groups to protect other parts of the jungle.

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