While people in the United States protest for the rights of the Sioux Tribe in Standing Rock, North Dakota, a similar situation is taking place in the Amazon Rainforest concerning a native tribe in Ecuador.
Manari Kaji Ushigua, leader of the Sapara Nation in Ecuador visited Stony Brook University on Nov. 21, to speak about the life of the Sapara tribe and the possibility of their land being sold by the government in order to drill for oil. The event, hosted by journalism professor Pablo Calvi, took place in the Melville Library.
“There are spirits that surround the oil underground to protect the land,” Ushigua said. “If the oil is reached, the spirits will be unable to protect us and the land will become polluted.”
The Sapara are a small nation consisting of as little as 100 members in the central-South Amazon in Ecuador and Peru. There are only four living members of the tribe that still speak the native Sapara language, a language which was deemed “an oral and intangible heritage of humanity” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2001.
Ushigua wore a headdress made of feathers and a long vest containing tribal patterns, one of which he said symbolized the balance a monkey has between land and space as it jumps from branch to branch in the jungle. The other pattern symbolized the spirit of a boa constrictor and water.
Speaking in Spanish with Calvi acting as his translator, Ushigua began his talk by asking the attendees to hold hands and close their eyes to cleanse their spirits and connect with the rainforest that he and his people inhabit.
China has given money to the Ecuadorian government in exchange for access to oil in the country. In an attempt to expand this access, the Chinese bid on oil blocks 79 and 83 in Ecuador, blocks of land that the Sapara share with other indigenous people, the Kichwa and the Shiwiar.
In Sapara culture, while the body is here for a limited time, the spirit will remain long after life has finished, Ushigua said. Ushigua added that the Sapara and the Ecuadorian government can’t allow the sale to go through as it would directly affect the lives of the Sapara and ruin the land they call home.
“Our lives are connected with the trees, the space, water, and the mountains,” Ushigua said, adding that this relationship between the Sapara and the environment is what has connected them to the energy of the sun, the moon and the stars.
Ushigua said the Sapara have been reaching out to the Sioux tribesmen in Standing Rock, trying to work together to prevent similar injustices. Ushigua said he met with Standing Rock leaders at an environmental conference in Marrakech, Morocco, and since then, they have been writing letters to each other, as well as signing petitions to try and stop the use of their lands for oil.
Ushigua also welcomed attendees to visit Naku, an area of land created by the Sapara in 2013 as a sanctuary that people can visit to become one with the spirits and the land, just like the Sapara have. Stony Brook’s School of Journalism’s Journalism Without Borders program will be visiting Sapara land as part of their trip to Ecuador in Summer 2017.