Autor: Beatriz Perez-‐Soto, written on March 18, 2019
When I was invited to be a guest speaker at the Universidad Metropolitana of Machala in Ecuador, my host asked me if I wanted either to go to the Peruvian border “to say I have been to Peru” or to visit a local tribe community. My choice was clear, I was so excited to have the opportunity to visit this Amazonian tribe based in South Ecuador at sea level. It was my first trip to Ecuador and I was elated to have this amazing opportunity.
After the conference and talks and when the week was sadly coming to an end, we drove to the location of the tribal site. On the road trip, I detected that the beautiful and fertile land was abruptly sliced by a huge quarry. I learned that foreign companies have been exploiting these amazing mountains with no limits. We all know that Ecuador is the Eldorado of banana trees and gold and copper mines nevertheless it is still a land having much to offer.
Doing some research about the group, I came across the UNOP organization that published some background info about the 'Shuars’ lands assigned to Canadian and Chinese companies. Those companies harnessed the resources of the land and the tribe was forced to endure persecution and violence. Therefore, the Amazon Land battle still persists. Although current president Moreno seems to be more open for dialogue, the Shuar movement wants to create political and diplomatic pressure for the respect of human rights and protection of the environment and ancestral lands in Ecuador. According to their beliefs, their lands are inherited from the past generations and borrowed from the future ones, and therefore need to be protected from degradation.
According to other sources, Shuars are considered a minority; however, they have won battles against local governments and today they claim their rights and their land. In 1964, they founded the Shuar Federation, to defend indigenous communities from the 1964 agrarian reforms that actively promoted the colonization of the Amazonian region. The Shuar Federation was one of the earliest indigenous resistance organizations in Ecuador, and their achievements have been made it a model for other groups. Their education programme has enabled Shuar to reassert themselves and take pride in their cultural inheritance. Strategic adaptation to changing realities gives them an improved chance of long-term survival as a people and their initiative may be followed by other groups.
Sources: https://minorityrights.org/minorities/shuar/; https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/14920/EC
More interesting facts published in this blog are relevant to knowing the Shuars’ cultural heritage:
But who are the Shuars? Their ethnic background says Shuars belong to the Jivaroan ethno-linguistic group and live in the upper Amazonian region of Ecuador as well as in Peru. They are the second largest indigenous community in Ecuador. Preserving an abundant and rich cultural legacy, the community’s religion and beliefs system is based on respect for the nature and for their ancestral lands.
During our almost three-hour journey, we finally arrived at the village where the family community has settled for over 40 years now. The ancestral amazon tribe is settled in 470-hectare of land expanding to a rich mountain of gold mines and thermal waters near the southern coast of Ecuador.
The grandparents of Marcia Lequi came looking for water and they arrived to the southern coast. Marcia is one of the chief tribe members with a total of 10 families, each family has a leader, and they have all 10 children each and she kindly agreed to tell the story of her community during an interview. “The community is only one big family, like you and other many people have come to us trying to help us and is true we have received some help though, telling us how we have to proceed improving and do things better to preserve our cultural heritage and our land”.
This community arrived by the coast more than 40 years ago. The community migrated from Amazonia. Marcia’s grandparents moved to Mocaye and lived in Bucal for over 20 years, apparently occupying more than one piece of land, the tribe members were spread out in different locations as they were looking to own great pieces of the discovered land. Finally, Marcia says “we found land when L. F. Cordero was named president. From that moment, our indigenous tribe declared their position as strongly as our grandparents did when they left Bucal. All the tribe did, by moving to the coast near the Naranjal region, they found this region where they were able to settle in thanks to God.”
When Marcia’s grandparents arrived to this Naranjal new land, they lived in a township up there, they stayed approximately two years, and she says: “then they moved to the wild mountain region, and from there they moved again to this place to work as workers”.
“At that time, they were many land invasions, therefore in order to protect our lands, my brothers, sisters and parents decided to establish a cooperative organization, and they all followed the initiative.” Marcia says that they were very well organized and they shared in fairness the land among all the tribe’s members. One member had a piece of land up in the mountains, another one another piece, she adds: “however we never thought that the land where we just moved would be so rich with all these thermal waters and other resources”. Apparently, this unexpected discovery had an unpredictable impact with reactions on the nearer village community. Marcia adds: “When our neighbors grasped that we were fortunate to have an abundance of natural resources such as hot waters pupping up from almost everywhere in our land, troubles started to surface. From every hole we would dig, a hot water field would come out”. She described it as a blessing from the spirits they believe in.
The objections started by the small village members against the Shuars, Marcia adds. Some of the arguments used by the villagers against the Shuars included that they should go back to their former lands to the Eastern side of the country. Not only issues of identity and land were raised but also the villagers wanted to steal their houses, their land, they wanted to kill the Shuar’s family, Marcia says: “our kids running on the hills were in danger threatened to be killed.”
This conflict lasted for almost 10 years, it was considered as a fight, even a war, the approximate dates are 1972 to 1982. After the long dispute, the Shuars were able to keep their land, therefore they decided to set the boundaries of their land. Marcia adds:” the most important was that we won the battle and that we had our land and we were protected by law.” They efforts paid off when Shuars decided to protect themselves, the community was strongly unified, they decided to bring a lawyer to help them to inform them about their rights and how to be respected as a tribal indigenous minority and community land owner.
Marcia says that “unfortunately our innocence and our lack of value for money, nor the idea of how much the water sources could be worth, made our position extremely weak facing the Hispanics. We never thought that this hot water would have so much value, what could it be worth? I mean value for other Hispanic people, the value of the hot waters was value for money, we never thought that could be so valued. Before the conflict arrived and so the Hispanics, we were sharing all the waters with the local inhabitants of the area, we were bathing together, all neighbors were coming, there was no question about the site and the abundance of what was under our fit. Positively, we shared a lot, food, joy and events.”
After a while, the same issues we had with the local neighbors came back, they claimed that they wanted to get the lands we were in. They try to buy us with material things, unfortunately my uncle, who was the oldest of the family, was seduced by what they brought: meat, food, TV (we did not have TV), good things that could improve our lifestyle says Marcia. They even showed us what beds were, how a home could be according to their criteria. Our bed is called “Cuca.” Marcia explains that there was a powerful gentleman who came and offered all these comfortable and unaffordable things to their community, he offered many beautiful things, Marcia adds: “he even gave us electricity for free during 5 months, anything we would ask they would provide it.” The gentleman and his team offered some money to my uncle, when he visited him, he would always manage to get him drunk, he told my uncle that he was a millionaire. Therefore, the gent proposed my uncle to buy our land for a lot of money (that’s what he alleged Marcia says). The end of the story was: “he gave my uncle 300 dollars, a TV, a bed and many other things that you can wish to have in a home, my uncle seemed to be so satisfied with the deal.” The rest of the community did not accept anything from them, even my two brothers who were studying abroad, refused any kind of deals with the gentleman and his team. My brothers were less naïve than my uncle who did not know what the value of money was in this new world to him.
Moreover, my uncle decided to go for the deals alone and started selling “solares” (parcels of land), so he did, one after the other. When uncle had enough, he stopped and we were left with a tiny piece of land. My poor uncle after being trapped and ripped off, he was confused, he did not know what to do, to be with them, or to be with us. It was hard to make a decision for him as he was alone, had no wife no children, he even admitted that he did no longer care about our community land.
The rest of the family/tribe met for a tribal council and decided to take the lead and fight for what was left. The council team knew nothing about money, and the value of it, nor payment issues, at that time, but one thing the tribe council knew for sure was that we did not want to lose our land. Therefore, in order to protect what was left of our heritage based on thermal spring waters. In order to be financially more independent, we decided to set an entrance fee to anyone who would like to visit the site and bath in the pristine waters, thus we started with a minimum fee of 50 cents.
When the neighbors from the nearby village, “the ones who were ready to take our lands” “oh yes” exclaims Marcia, they heard that we were asking for an entrance fee, they were extremely outraged by our decision. We tried to explain that it was a way of protecting our assets and that it was a rule for anyone who would like to take benefit of staying in our community, bath and enjoy our medicinal water sources, had to pay. Marcia concludes: “Believe me, the pressure started to be quite high between us.”
The idea of making foreigners or any person external to the community to pay, came from Marcia’s husband who is Hispano (Hispanic), he suggested it to the community, and the tribal council accepted. At that time, we did not have any money to pay an attorney, the eldest brothers were going often to Quito to find out about our rights and trying to find an attorney who would help us to protect our heritage and keep it, was highly challenging with no money. Lawyers told us that we could not do much to win the battle against the local neighbors who wanted our lands with the current laws, however these statements did not stop us to pursue, and we finally started a case which lasted for years and recently two years ago (2016) we finally won the case.
After the neighbors’ defeat, they claimed back one of the “solares” they have bought for about 500 dollars to my uncle. We found out that my uncle never received any money, however, we thought that with this money he could have built a house, unfortunately he did not know what the value of money was representing, at that time, he was such an innocent man, Marcia adds.
Our case was on the national news, a journalist came, and a paper was published. We also had some visitors from a university in Guayaquil, they named our site “The hot spring waters of the Shuar’s community”, they came when we were in the middle of the conflict, they helped us by giving advice, sharing ideas, they told us that the hot spring waters were a treasure and that we had to protect it for Community-Based-Tourism development. These experts carried out some soil assessments to find out and show us all the water that could come out of the mountain. Marcia declares that Shuars community did not know the significance and value of the treasure they had, they were using the waters as a source to fulfill their private needs such as wash clothes, bathing, they did not even have built the pools. Marcia describes it as just a fall, a small waterfall that they were even drinking from and upmost enjoying the warmth temperature of the water. She pursues: “we did not value what we had and did not know what we had until the people from Guayaquil came and told us.” We also hosted some Canadians, they stayed with us for eight months, during the conflict period, they were respecting everyone, they helped us on environmental issues, including setting up the spaces to build the pools. Canadians also taught us how to protect our environment by managing our waste, collecting all the garbage that we had in our river. When we started collecting and cleaning, we were surprised by all the garbage and waste we had accumulated, as we never thought that we would have to collect our proper waste. They organized workshops for us to help us and train us about sustainable tourism practices. During the workshops, they showed us how to present ourselves, how to welcome tourist to our site, they taught us also how to separate the organic waste, and to recycle it. Canadians gave us a great example of protecting our lands and after when they left is when we really started taking care of our environment despite the fact that the local neighbors did not approve our new practices. We also received some help and advice with workshops from Guaya, which helped us a lot too. Only a few of us were able to attend and be assisted but we have been involved and caring more and more about our community and our precious waters adds proudly Marcia. This is how the site looks like today on a Saturday morning:
Marcia explains: nowadays, we do remain confident and stick to our goals, which are trying to improve our community’s tourism offer by working, even with such poor income, nevertheless we have tried to improve the situation and with no other external help. The major of the Naranjal community has been in power for 8 years now, and he claims to have helped “the Shuar community” by building a parking space in concrete for the visitors coming to the area. Unfortunately, our community has completely disagreed with this action which has destroyed the scenery of the location. However, whatever happens the entrance fee goes directly to our community, we are working and moving forward with new projects and one of them is to build another pool on the site.
We are currently seeking for an institution to help us. This touristic complex was formed first by the Shuar community enterprise and now it has been a year that our family has its proper official organization. Each family has named one leader who represents them as a member of our tribal corporation, we are a total of 10 tribal families. As per these changes, we have decided to take things further and move forward on our different projects.
Marcia represents her own family as the Tribal Family Chief. It is easier during the meetings to have only one family chiefs’ representative. She explains how they started with an entrance fee at 50 cents per person, then decided to reach one dollar, then after they reached 1.50 dollar. The entrance fee was also increased to 3 dollars, then when they saw that tourists were interested, and gradually they realized the great value of the site, hence that it was the only place nearby the coast of this country to offer such a resource with hot spring thermal waters. We were at 3 dollars fee for 10 years, since October 2018, we decided to increase the fee up to 4 dollars. We offer a service of medical and natural thermal waters to our visitors, we also offer drinks such as coffee, tea and water, we also offer beauty products for the skin made of our rich mud.
Marcia states: “My community, my family are saying that 4 dollars is too expensive, they say that people don’t come because of that. We know that there is a lot of competition, but what we offer is very unique.”
I would like to thank you my host Professor Jessica Lalangui for having introduced me to the Shuar community and made this interview possible.
The next step is to launch a fundraising campaign to help this community to build a museum in order to protect their cultural heritage and also make their site more attractive to tourism. Many pieces of their art have been kept by the entire community and they will be assembled for this project. By assisting this community, we are helping them to wide their vision into the future and show them also the existence of sustainable practices and products in tourism that they can apply to their site in order to ensure a prosperous future, making them independent and secured economically, financially and inclusively.
The outcome of this experiential and inclusive voyage is enabling me to partaking to a better future for this indigenous community. Hence hoping that this could be an example that any individual could be following in collaboration with Universities or institutions that are willing to support this type of actions.
Beatriz Perez-Soto, Guest Speaker for research projects Economic and Business Sciences Faculty
Department at Universidad Metropolitana UMET, sede de Machala, Ecuador