By Hugues Derouard
Quechua, Awa, Shiwiar, Achuar, Shuar, Sápara, Huaorani, Siona, Secoya, Cofán, Epera, Tsa’chila and Chachi …
Ecuador, with a population of 15 million, has had thirteen indigenous nationalities officially recognized since 1998.
These peoples are the descendants of the inhabitants present in Ecuador before the country was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century. Indigenous peoples live in the Andean part of the country, in the Amazon region and on the “Costa”, the Pacific coast.
Of Ecuador’s 15 million inhabitants, indigenous peoples account for just 6.8%, according to the government’s official statistics agency.
A much higher proportion if we refer to the United Nations, which in 2004 estimated them at 43% of the population, or more than 800,000 people.
In October 1992, during the celebrations marking five hundred years since the discovery of the New World, the Indians of Ecuador – like other Latin American Indians – made their voices heard for the first time, by demonstrating against “five centuries of oppression and colonization”: they rose up and paralyzed the country so that their demands would be taken into account.
This movement was partly behind the State’s recognition of indigenous peoples in 1998.
The 1998 Constitution, which formalized bilingual education, recognized indigenous peoples as part of the Ecuadorian state, described for the first time as “multicultural and multiethnic”.
“This recognition of pluri-nationality in Ecuador today can be assessed in terms of the political and social struggles waged intensively over the past twenty years by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which have led to progress in the legal recognition of the rights of indigenous populations,” explains Hortense Faivre d’Arcier Flores, PhD in Latin American studies.
Following this new constitution, the Council for the Development of the Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador (CODENPE) was created. This organization defines indigenous peoples as “original communities or centers with a cultural identity that distinguishes them from other sectors of Ecuadorian society, governed by their own system of social, economic, political and legal organization”.
Indigenous populations are thus divided into thirteen “nationalities” (nacionalidades).
Most of them live far from urban areas, and each has its own history, language and culture.
The main ethnic group, the Quechua (or Kichwa), lives mainly in the Andes.
The Pacific coast is home to the Awa, Chachi, Epera, Tsa’chila and Afro-Ecuadorians, while the Amazon is home to the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Huaorani, Sápara, Shiwiar, Achuar and Shuar.
The Quechua are the most represented – and best-known – indigenous nationality in Ecuador. A nationality itself made up of thirteen peoples, including the Otavalos and Kayambis.
They live mainly in the Andean part of the country, but also in the “Oriente” (the Amazon plain).
They speak Kichwa, a language closely related to Quechua. They work in crafts (notably ceramics and textiles), music and the cultivation of corn, potatoes and beans.
The town of Otavalo, in the province of Imbubara, north of Quito, is famous for its colorful market.
They live in Pichincha province, near the coast, isolated in the forest since their ancestors fled the colonists. Only a few hundred families still live in the traditional way. A well-known feature is their traditional red hairstyle – which has earned them the nickname “colorados”.
“Historically, the Tsa’chila suffered from a serious yellow fever epidemic that decimated a large part of the nation. During this epidemic, the Tsa’chila shamans, through their visions, learned that the only way to save their people was for the men to cut their hair (which they wore long) and dye it red with roucou seeds (a tree that produces fruit whose seeds are a natural red dye).”
Even today, some of them continue to dye their hair. They are the origin of the name of the town Santo-Domingo de los Colorados.
Also present in Peru, this originally semi-nomadic people now live in eastern Ecuador, in the province of Pastaza, near the rivers of the Amazon rainforest.
They numbered 100,000 before colonization. Their population is now estimated at just a few hundred families, and their culture is now threatened with extinction.
Four centuries of history marked by the Spanish conquest, slavery, epidemics, forced conversions, wars and deforestation have almost totally decimated the Sápara,” notes Unesco, which has included Sápara culture on its list of the intangible heritage of humanity.
Despite these many threats, they have managed to preserve their ancestral knowledge. Intermarriage with Mestizos and other indigenous peoples (Quechua) is a major factor in their survival. But this dispersion also means a partial loss of their identity”.
Shiwiar, Achuar and Shuar
All three belong to the Amerindians called Jivaros by the conquistadors, and live in eastern Ecuador and Peru.
The Shiwiar live along the Corrientes river, in the primary forest, still isolated since no road or navigable river leads to them (the nearest airfield is a two-day walk away).
They only really came into contact with the Western world in 1941, during the war between Peru and Ecuador.
There are around a thousand of them, living in 9 communities/villages.
Achuar means “people of the aguaje palm”. In the middle of the Amazon jungle, this community has opened an “eco-responsible” hotel, the Kapawi, which has won a UN award.
The Shuar have a reputation as a warlike people, ever since they stood up to the armies of the Inca Empire and then, in the 16th century, to the Spanish colonists, thanks in particular to their extraordinary knowledge of the forest.
In the Western imagination, they remain associated with tsantzas (the famous shrunken human heads) and medicinal practices linked to the consumption of plants that induce visions.
The Huaorani are hunter-gatherers who first came into contact with the “outside world” in 1956, and have partly preserved their traditions.
They live on the Amazonian banks of the Napo and Curaray rivers, in a territory that includes Yasuní National Park.
In 2007, the Ecuadorian government launched the Yasuní-ITT initiative, an unprecedented plan to refrain from exploiting the region’s immense underground hydrocarbon reserves in exchange for a substantial contribution ($3.6 billion) from the main oil-consuming countries.
Unfortunately, this highly innovative (and controversial) approach did not last long, as the government abandoned it in 2013.
Find out more about the Yasuní-ITT initiative.
Awa, Chachi, Cofán
The awa people live not far from the Pacific coast, in the northwest of Ecuador. “Awa” means “man”. Today, they are mainly cattle breeders.
Located in the north-west, in the province of Esmeraldas, the Chachi were formerly known as the Cayapas. They manage the Cotacachi-Cayapas Reserve. Nearby, in the same province, live the Eperas, a few hundred Indians who speak the Sapiedie language.
The Cofán form a few hundred families on the border between Colombia and Ecuador, in the Amazon rainforest.
Decimated by war and disease when the settlers arrived, and then threatened by the construction of oil fields, they are now at the forefront of the struggle to preserve the environment. They manage the Cuyabeno reserve, and have also been in charge of the Cofán-Bermejo reserve since 2002. The Cuyabeno park is also home to the Secoya, whose culture is very close to that of the Siona.
After centuries of contempt and despoilment, the recognition of indigenous populations in the 1998 Constitution represents a major step forward, the beginning of a revenge on history, even if the reality does not really correspond to the declared intentions.
But these communities remain extremely fragile, threatened by the greed of the mining, oil and agro-industrial industries in the race to appropriate wealth and land.
The failure of the Yasuní-ITT initiative symbolizes the difficulty of imagining new models to reconcile development and preservation, and despite numerous mobilizations, the gradual disappearance of indigenous peoples seems inescapable.