Justino Piaguaje, president of the Siekopai Nation (Ecuador), is one of the most recognized voices in the struggle of the Siekopai people for the recovery of their ancestral territories, from which they were displaced during the war between Ecuador and Peru (1941-1998). In addition to the war, which displaced dozens of people and divided families (some stayed in Peru and others in Ecuador) and the struggle for the recovery of a territory that belongs to them (Kokaya, Pëkëya, and Wajoya), Justino Piaguaje and his people have for years had to face deforestation, illegal hunting and fishing and abusive agricultural use of the area in which they are located. As if that were not enough, the Siekopai Indigenous Nation is also one of those affected by the exploitation of the land and the contamination produced by the multinational Chevron-Texaco. Justino Piaguaje was one of the first plaintiffs in the international case against Chevron-Texaco at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and is one of the representatives of the Union of People Affected by Chevron-Texaco.
The Siekopai people are a nation of the Amazon rainforest, located in a territory that includes Ecuador and Peru, in the triangle between the Putumayo, Aguarico, and Napo rivers. In Ecuador, the Siekopai nation currently numbers about 800 people; and in Peru, it consists of about 1,200 members. In total, it is a nation of about 2,000 people. Historians estimate that in the past this nation had 20,000- 40,000 members, but they suffered the effects of colonization and the arrival of new diseases from abroad which caused the population to decrease drastically. This reduced number of members, the assimilation process, the forced displacement due to the war between Ecuador and Peru (1941-1998), and the constant aggressions in the form of invasions of the territory make the Siekopai highly vulnerable to extinction, both physical and cultural. Given this situation, the legal protection of the communities is one of the cornerstones for the protection of the ancestral territory.
To understand the recent history of the Siekopai people, we must go back to 1941, when the war between Peru and Ecuador broke out, and the displacement of this native nation began due to the militarization of the disputed areas. The ancestral territory of the Siekopai, Pëkëya, located on the border – a concept that the Siekopai do not have – between these two countries, was declared an area of national security interest. The years of the war, which lasted until 1998, meant the destruction of the social and territorial fabric of the Siekopai. Many families were separated, and the territory was devastated. The Siekopai had to leave their ancestral territory. Justino Piaguaje explains: “Once the peace agreement was signed, in 1998, the Siekopai of Peru and Ecuador met in Wajoya [Perú] and held the first meeting. It was led by my grandmother, who knew the Siekopai families that had remained in Peru before the war. It had been half a century since they had seen each other! With the end of the war, the hope of being able to meet and rebuild our families was reborn; so, we began to organize ourselves to consolidate our struggle and reclaim our ancestral territories: Kokaya, Pëkëya, and Wajoya. We did this through the creation of the Secoya Indigenous Organization of Ecuador and the Secoya Indigenous Organization of Peru.”
In addition to the effects of the war, this native nation, now divided between two countries, has had to face, during the last decades, the intervention of oil companies in the territory and the implementation of African palm plantations, which pose a great threat to their way of life, their cultural traditions, and their survival.
The Siekopai were displaced from Pëkëya, a territory also known as Lagartococha – because of the large number of salamanders that populate the land – in 1941 when the war broke out. Since the 1990s, this indigenous nation has been claiming from the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador the adjudication of this territory, of great importance for the native people: in Pëkëya there is the Ñañë-Jupo waterfall, where, supposedly, the god Ñañë-Paina and other important beings of the Siekopai culture lived. It is in this place where the Siekopai have their roots, along with the territories of Kokaya and Wajoya, also claimed. n fact, when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, it was to Lagartococha that the Siekopai returned to search for medicinal plants and answers.
Although in 1998 a peace agreement was signed between Ecuador and Peru regarding border control, it was not until 2021 that a resolution was issued in favor of the Siekopai, in which the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Defense were held responsible for the violation of the Siekopai’s rights. “The resolution also ordered the issuance of a title deed to the territory recognizing that the Siekopai Nation is its ancestral owner,” explains Amazon Frontlines, an organization formed by human rights lawyers, environmental activists, environmental health scientists, journalists, farmers, filmmakers, and anthropologists, who support the struggles of indigenous peoples in their defense of the right to land, life and cultural survival in the Amazon.
As the 2021 resolution had no practical effect, in September 2022, the Siekopai decided to denounce the Ecuadorian government for not recognizing them as ancestral administrators of Pëkëya. At the time of writing, the process is underway, which includes the testimony of elders, community leaders, young people, and children, and the presentation of evidence of all kinds to prove that they are the original nation of the claimed territory. “If we win, the State will appeal the decision and the case will go to the second instance. We will return to the provincial court. Then, if we win again, the State could put a cassation appeal, and in this case, we will go to the third instance, which is the constitutional court. If we lose, it will us who will appeal,” explains Justino Piaguaje.
From 1964 to 1990, the multinational company Texaco (bought by Chevron in 2001) operated in Ecuador. It extracted millions of barrels of oil and caused unprecedented ecocide: toxic spills of oil and other chemicals, contamination of soil and groundwater, uncontrolled fires, and so on. The affected communities, including the Siekopai, sued the company, which has always refused to take responsibility. “Despite the fact that, in the exploitation agreement, the transnational company committed itself to use the safest technologies of the time, this never happened. In Ecuador, Texaco decided not to use a technology that it had patented and that considerably reduced the negative impacts of extractive operations, although it was already in use in the United States. The transnational company deliberately decided to apply obsolete techniques, which brought them greater economic benefits. During the years that Texaco was in Ecuador, it drilled and operated 356 oil wells and opened at least 1,000 pools in the jungle, some clandestinely, where the waste of all kinds was dumped,” reads a report by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility of the government of Ecuador. Although the communities that sued won the trial in Ecuadorian territory and Chevron-Texaco agreed to pay a millionaire indemnity to the affected people, the multinational appealed and denounced Ecuador before the Court of The Hague, where Chevron-Texaco was exonerated of its responsibilities.
What is the spiritual value of Pëkëya?
Why is this place so important for the Siekopai nation? Our ancestors had to flee Pëkëya because of the war, but our grandparents were coming back sporadically, always very careful not to be discovered by military groups. Pëkëya is our ancestral territory: All the pacts between our ancestors and non-human beings were signed there, therefore, Pëkëya is the cradle of our mythology. There you can find the path to immortality and the higher world -discovered by our ancestors by taking yagé-; and the place where the god Siekopai lived, and so on. All our cultural legacy is there, and it is for this reason that we have to be linked in this territory: it is sacred to us. Here[el lloc on viuen les comunitats Siekopa’ai actualment], we are surrounded by oil activity and palm monocultures. The territories were given to us by the Ecuadorian government through concessions. These activities threaten our cultural existence.
How does African palm monoculture affect you?
It affects us in several ways. For example, the African palm monoculture in our territory covers some 20,000 hectares and has an extraction plant where the oil extracted is processed. The water resulting from the processes is placed in pools, but as it rains a lot in the Amazon, these pools often overflow and the water ends up in the river. It is toxic water and many fish die; fish that we consume. This is one of the impacts. On the other hand, the roads used for this activity make it possible for settlers to reach our territory to fish and hunt illegally. We have been monitoring the area for some time and have detected poachers. When we have found them, we have warned them, applied self-justice, and taken away their weapons and goods. In the coming months, we have prepared a powerful campaign to stop these practices and in defense of the territory.
The Siekopai nation is part of the Ceibo Alliance. What is the purpose of this organization?
The Ceibo Alliance is made up of four nationalities of the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador: the A’y Kofan, the Siekopai, the Siona, and the Waorani. We are people with low population density and we have created this alliance to seek support among ourselves. The organization executes and the alliance seeks financial support for activities in defense of the territory.
What are the main economic activities of the Siekopai nation?
On the one hand, we have people who are dedicated to professional services: teachers, nursing assistants, etc. There is also an important part of the population that is dedicated to accompanying tourism processes, through which we explain aspects of our cultural identity to the people who visit us. Others are dedicated to the cultivation of coffee and fish farming. This last activity is what I do. We have a women’s association that sells Siekopai black chili, cassava, etc. We do all kinds of activities!
When the pandemic caused by Covid-19 broke out, you returned to Pëkëya.
We went to Pëkëya to look for answers and alternatives. When the first cases of Covid arrived in the community, we thought: if it is a disease that comes from outside, they will have the solution [with this they, Justino refers to white and Western people]; but we saw that it was not like that. At the health center, they gave us paracetamol pills that did not work. Two elderly people from the community died. And here we realized that Western medicine would not save us. We organized an expedition to Pëkëya to collect ancestral plants used by our ancestors. For a few weeks, they went house to house to gather the elderly people’s testimonies and to tell us what we had to pick. So we went to Pëkëya. It was an alternative that worked. [The territory of Pëkëya is considered a wildlife production reserve and is a protected area by the Ecuadorian state. While this implies that they are working for the conservation of the territories, it also makes it difficult for the Siekopai to return and control this land].
You were and are one of the familiar faces in the case against Chevron-Texaco.
I was one of the first signatories of the lawsuit, I was eighteen years old when I signed. I have always been involved in this fight for justice to be done, despite the adversities we have had to face. In Ecuador, we won in every instance; and we have demonstrated ad nauseam that the contamination produced by Chevron-Texaco continues to affect us. The land continues to emanate toxic substances and people continue to die! In the Hague Tribunal, the Ecuadorian state lost against Chevron-Texaco, but we had already won, because it was demonstrated that we were right. Chevron-Texaco is trying to avoid paying compensation to the 30,000 people affected by its activity in the Amazon.
How do you see the Siekopai nation in twenty or thirty years?
I am afraid because I am witnessing how we are losing the wise people of our community because they are dying, and I see how we are becoming more materialistic. We are losing our spiritual part because of the use of technologies and social and economic pressure. However, I am also optimistic, because I see how some young people are reclaiming the Siekopai identity and taking up the leadership of the cause. In recent years I see more young people active, more engaged in the leadership of the Siekopai communities.
Comment on the use of technologies… How do the Siekopai use them?
Technologies have many advantages and disadvantages. We must know how to use them and take advantage of them in a way that benefits us. Technology has allowed us to see the strength of our territory and has allowed us to improve our communication with the world. We are a very small nation and we suffer many threats, so it is important that people know about us. Now we feel that the community helps us, and we have friends all over the world who accompany us in our processes of struggle. It is our window to the world.