Throughout 2021, the Siekopai Nation achieved the first important advances in its ongoing struggle for territory reunification. The Siekopai are an Indigenous transborder nation with territories settled in the Amazon of Ecuador and Peru, fighting to reclaim the rightful ownership of their ancestral lands.. 

In Ecuador, the population census of the Siekopai Nation counts only 723 people. Territory defense strategies are crucial to protect the community, after having survived decades of territorial dispossession, family separation, and cultural and physical extermination caused by evangelization, rubber exploitation, the border war between Ecuador and Peru, colonization and now, the lack of legal recognition of these territories.

Here, we provide an overview of the three main fronts of the Siekopai struggle, their victories, and the processes to reunify currently underway.

Kokaya: putting an end to colonization 

Justino Piaguaje, leader of the Siekopai Nation territories, remembers when his grandparents “walked for weeks to the border, they arrived beaten, they had to sleep in the mountains, they suffered a lot to stop the colonization that was coming at that time.” One of these territories that Justino’s ancestors traveled through is that of the community of San Pablo de Katësiaya, known as “Kokaya,” of which the Siekopai Nation obtained the formal adjudication of 191 hectares in 1990. 

In that 191-hectare space, a group of settlers invaded this ancestral territory fourteen years ago, initiating the process of occupation, deforestation, hunting, fishing, and agricultural use of the area. These activities, which were identified and documented thanks to community monitoring work, significantly affected the forest that had been protected for hundreds of years.  

This situation generated deep concern among the Siekopai nation. Justino explains that the Kokaya land is the gateway to other larger ancestral territories, so it was crucial to stop the advance of colonization. On several occasions, the Siekopai nation demanded the departure of the invaders and reported the damage to the state authorities, but received no response.

Deforestation recorded in the Kokaya area. Around 20 hectares of territory were affected. Photo: Luke Weiss.

In 2015, the Siekopai Nation initiated a legal battle that went through three different judicial bodies over the course of six years, demanding that illegal poachers, miners and settlers be forced to vacate Siekopai ancestral territory,  that land rights be respected, and that justice be served. During this time, the community endured unjustified delays in the justice system.

Despite obtaining several favorable rulings since 2019, the invaders extended their occupation of ancestral territory and proceeded to enact damage. There was no state institution that acted to issue evictions, including the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of the Government, even though being aware of the environmental damage done by illegal occupation of the territory.

Faced with state ineffectiveness, the Siekopai Nation decided in its Assembly to evict the invaders, exercising their rights to self-determination and self-governance to protect their territory. To do this, they gave the invaders a formal eviction notice to abandon the ancestral territory within thirty days. Once the deadline had elapsed, on July 7, 2021, the Siekopai community proceeded to peacefully evict the invaders who had usurped their lands since 2015, marking a historical moment that brought together more than 50% of the entire nation.

Later, on August 23, 2021, the Siekopai Nation traveled 350 kilometers from their territory to the city of Quito to demand the legal process to evict the invaders be definitively resolved. One hundred and fifty people from the Siekopai Nation mobilized outside the Constitutional Court– in a first it’s kind mobilization. 

Seven days after this mobilization, the Constitutional Court finally resolved the pending case, confirming that the Siekopai Nation is the ancestral owner of this territory, and that the invaders should be evicted. The Court rejected the appeal filed by the invaders, and  ratified the first and second rulings that recognized the territorial rights of the Siekopai Nation.

Currently, the Siekopai Nation continues to press the authorities for the complete liberation of their territory. They continue to monitor the territory in search of poachers, and have begun the reforestation of affected areas. This victory is very significant for the Siekopai and their collective territories. 

“This victory has filled us with dignity and self-respect. Only with unity can great struggles be overcome, you can resist, and with time you can achieve justice. That, for us, is the meaning of Kokaya,” said Justino Piaguaje.

Pëkëya – Lagartococha: The systematic dispossession of the State

The second case study is regarding the territory of Pëkëya, better known as Lagartococha, located in the province of Orellana. The Siekopai Nation has petitioned the Ecuadorian State for the adjudication of this territory since 1995, during when they were displaced by the border war with Peru in 1941.

The Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense (MDNE) knowingly used Siekopai territory and its trails, for defensive tactics during the border conflict with Peru. However, when the Siekopai attempted to return, they were not permitted, as it was considered a military security zone.

From the Federation of Women of Sucumbíos, the Siekopai Nation and the Amazon Frontlines team attended the hearing convened by the Ombudsman of Ecuador in October 2021. Photo: Ribaldo Piaguaje 

But that was not the only form of dispossession. In 1979, the Ecuadorian State declared this territory a “Cuyabeno Wildlife Protection Reserve” and, more recently, in 2008, established use and management agreements in 200,000 hectares of this territory with other Kichwa indigenous communities. All this without consulting the Siekopai Nation, to whom they only want to award 5000 hectares in a swampy area, also generating an interethnic conflict. 

For these reasons, in 2019, the Siekopai Nation requested the Ombudsman of Ecuador (DPE) for a defense investigation against the Ministries of Environment and National Defense for the violation of their territorial rights.

Two years later, in September 2021, the DPE convened a hearing in which several Siekopai elders gave testimony of when they lived in their territory and the abundance they perceived, in contrast to the precariousness they felt in their new places of residence. They also discussed their relationship with the spirits of the water and the forest.

From the Federation of Women of Sucumbíos, the Siekopai Nation and the Amazon Frontlines team attended the hearing convened by the Ombudsman of Ecuador in October 2021. Photo: Ribaldo Piaguaje

But that was not the only form of dispossession. In 1979, the Ecuadorian State declared this territory a “Cuyabeno Wildlife Protection Reserve” and, more recently, in 2008, established use and management agreements in 200,000 hectares of this territory with other Kichwa indigenous communities. All this without consulting the Siekopai Nation, to whom they only want to award 5000 hectares in a swampy area, also generating an interethnic conflict.

For these reasons, in 2019, the Siekopai Nation requested the Ombudsman of Ecuador (DPE) for a defense investigation against the Ministries of Environment and National Defense for the violation of their territorial rights. Two years later, in September 2021, the DPE convened a hearing in which several Siekopai elders gave testimony of when they lived in their territory and the abundance they perceived, in contrast to the precariousness they felt in their new places of residence. They also discussed their relationship with the spirits of the water and the forest. Pëkëya was the refuge of the Siekopai when the COVID19 pandemic reached them and took away the wisest elders of the Nation. Pëkëya was the source of their ancestral medicine, and with which they avoided, once again, succumbing to extinction.

BASILIO PAYAGUAJE, SIEKOPAI TRADITIONAL AUTHORITY

“There were many lizards in that river, but since our people were wise, they drank yokó and yaje. They were blowing on the oar to open the way, to get in touch with the animals, with the lizards so that they could pass through there.” 

GILBERTO PIAGUAJE, COMMUNITY AUTHORITY AND TRADITIONAL BOTANIST

“I am a witness to the manner in which my uncle submerged himself in the water, and after two hours, he came out with the corn. We look beyond what you, white people, can see. It is not only flora and fauna, itt is much more.” 

OBDULIA OCOGUAJE, SIEKOPAI WISE WOMAN

“We lived through the division of our families. A river does not separate me because I know that this territory is mine”.

MARUJA PIAGUAJE, SIEKOPAI WISE WOMAN

“The map of the Siekopai territory is forever illustrated in my memory. It is not because we fell in love with the lagoons and the land, it is because we know that is where we come from.”

Wise men and women,and elders of the Siekopai Nation gave their testimony at the hearing before the Ombudsman’s Office of Ecuador. Photo: Ribaldo Piaguaje

To these testimonies were added the reports of experts in biology, anthropology, and law, supported by Amazon Frontlines, who presented evidence that showed that this territory belongs to the Siekopai Nation and that the State ministries have systematically violated the rights of the indigenous nationality.

On October 14, 2021, the Ombudsman issued its resolution in which it established the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Defense for the violation of the rights of the Siekopai Nation and established reparation measures that must be complied with urgently. It also ordered the issuance of a property title over this territory, recognizing that the Siekopai Nation is its ancestral owner. The territory has not yet been recovered, but the resolution of the Ombudsman’s Office will allow the Siekopai Nation to sustain its fight for the recovery and reunification of the territory before the courts.

Expert testimonies from biologists, anthropologists, and lawyers were collected by Amazon Frontlines, who presented evidence that proved the Siekopai Nation’s rightful ownership over the territories in the face of systematic rights violations by the Ecuadorian State and its ministries.

On October 14, 2021, the Ombudsman issued its resolution in which it established the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Defense for the violation of the rights of the Siekopai Nation, and established reparation measures that must be complied with immediately. It also ordered the issuance of a property title over this territory, recognizing the Siekopai Nation as its ancestral owner. The territory has not yet been recovered, but the resolution of the Ombudsman’s Office will allow the Siekopai Nation to sustain its fight for the recovery and reunification of the territory before the courts.

Wajoya: river of warriors

The Siekopai Nation is a transborder community, and the conflicts that occur in theirin the Ecuadorian territories are also replicated in the Peru.

In Ecuador, the system for designating protected national forests and national parks have limited the rights ofIndigenous Peoples’ rights in the use, administration, and protection over their own ancestral territories, violating the Constitution and international rights.. Therefore, they function as systems of dispossession, endangering their lives. In Peru, there is a perhaps even worse situation under the program of Permanent Production Forest (PPF) and their complex contracts for use.

Meeting with officials from the National Forestry and Wildlife Service, the Directorate of Agro Loreto, and DIGESPACR to solve the problem of overlapping the Permanent Production Forest (PPF) on Secoya territory and other indigenous peoples of Peru.

The Secoya population in Peru is around 900 people living in their ancestral territory located in the Loreto region, bordering Ecuador and Colombia. The right to obtain and register titles over ancestral territories is recognized in Peru, however, in the San Martín de Porres, Mashunta, and Vencedor Wajoya communities the process has been extremely difficult even after years of insistence.

The factor complicating registration is that the Peruvian State instituted the Loreto PPF within Secoya territory unilaterally and without consultation. In this way, it declares these spaces as property of the State, renders ancestral property unrecognized, and violates the rights of the nationality.

Another regulation that endangers the rights of the Secoya communities is a law that establishes that ownership can only be recognized for land that is suitable for livestock or for agriculture. However, the vast majority of the ancestral territories of the Secoyas are rainforests that do not qualify.This legislation subjects the communities to conditions and limitations that violate their territorial rights. For this reason, this ruling has been described as discriminatory because it is based exclusively on agricultural criteria, and disrespects the worldview of the Indigenous Peoples.

In 2021, the Secoya Nation of Peru carried out two urgent actions to guarantee its territorial rights. In October 2021, authorities of the Nation made a trip of more than three from the Peruvian Amazon to Lima to speak with the Ministries of Agrarian Development and Culture, as well as with the corresponding state agencies. They demanded urgent solutions to the registration of their titles, and succeeded in obtaining the personal commitment of the Heads of these Ministries of State to resolve this grave situation.

Following this, on December 16, 2021, the Secoya communities, with support from the Legal Defense Institute, IDL, Alianza Ceibo, and Amazon Frontlines, filed a claim against the titling system of ancestral territories in Peru for being unconstitutional and violating the rights of the Secoya Nation, formally requesting that the property titles include all ancestral territories.

“For us, the Amazon is not just a forest, but a historic and sacred place. Our grandparents fought a lot for this territory. That’s why it’s called Wajoya, River of Warriors. We demand that the integrity of the territory be recognized,” said Roldan Yapedatsa Ankutere, Apu of the Wajoya community, during a press conference for the lawsuit that seeks to protect more than 120 thousand hectares of Peruvian rainforest benefitting other Indigenous peoples in the region.

However, the Judge who initially heard the lawsuit declared it inadmissible, prompting a ruling that has been appealed before the Superior Judges in the city of Iquitos, Loreto region, who have already taken cognizance of the case. However, this first response showed that the ignorance of the rights of Indigenous peoples reaches even justice operators.

The fight continues… 

Kokaya, Pëkëya, and Wajoya are the three most visible fronts of the Siekopai Nation’s struggle for the recovery of its territory. Although there is still a long way to go with legal battles and collective actions, 2021 represented a breakthrough following decades of struggle. It was also an enormous feat of resilience in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic after the loss of many elders. These important  advances mark significant victories in the long battle for territory reunification.

Amazon Frontlines

Amazon FrontlinesDefending indigenous rights to land, life and cultural survival in the Amazon rainforest.

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