Rosa Elvira Chuji Gualingai, 50, came to the city to pressure the government. Watching the traffic outside her office window, she says, “I can’t get used to this lifestyle.” The indigenous activist, leader of the Shiwiar community of Kurintsa, was raised deep in the Amazon rainforest, surrounded by towering ceibo and palm trees. With no roads, the only way to travel is up to six days by boat or to charter a plane. With little electricity and no plumbing, the Shiwiar bathe in the nearby rivers and live mainly by hunting and fishing. But this way of life is under threat, as the Ecuadorian government sells rainforest land to oil companies.
The country’s well organized indigenous movement, however, has a history of giant slaying – it held demonstrations that helped overthrow presidents in 2000 and 2005. To protect the Amazon from the latest round of oil development, indigenous groups held rallies, closed down highways and marched for over two weeks from the rainforest to Quito, the capital. After months of protest, the government scaled back its plans – at least temporarily.
Ecuador’s partially nationalized oil industry has long helped the government pay for social programs and poverty relief. But with a global drop in oil prices, Ecuador’s much-needed oil revenue plummeted from 12.1 to 5.4 percent of GDP between 2013 and 2016. The center-left President Lenin Moreno, elected in 2017, launched an ambitious campaign to recover lost income by expanding oil production in the Amazon. This included auctioning 16 blocks, each up to 2,000 square kilometers, of the Southeast oil fields, which encompass Kurintsa. It also included the development of oil fields in Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse regions of the planet and home to two uncontacted indigenous communities.