CIVICUS discusses Indigenous peoples' environmental activism and civil society's hopes for the upcoming COP28 climate summit with Fausto Daniel Santi Gualina, a leader of the Indigenous Sarayaku people of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
What does it mean to be part of the Sarayaku community?
The native Sarayaku people are part of the Kichwa nation of Pastaza province, in the Bobonaza river basin. According to our history, we are descendants of the Tayakkuna, who navigated the courses of the Bobonaza, Marañón and Pastaza rivers, naming each of the places and territories we inhabit today.
According to the prophecy of our wise elders, the Sarayaku people are a people of struggle who will never surrender to anyone. Sarayaku are the ‘people of noon’, like the flower that blooms at noon. We feel strong, generous and peaceful, and are the holders of a lot of wisdom about nature. We have been pioneers in the defence and vindication of collective, territorial and nature rights. We are currently working in unity to achieve true territorial governance – the planning, administration, conservation and use of territory – implementing life plans with self-determination and inhabiting the territory together and in harmony with human, spiritual and non-human beings.
What inspired you to become a community leader?
I come from a humble family with a great culture of work and leadership, which instilled in me the importance of studying. I got a degree from Cuenca State University and did two specialisations: one in climate change and cities, and the other in leadership, governance and public administration.
From a very young age, I held positions such as class president and student council president. I was the first person to hold the position of Youth Leader with the Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza, my province. All these experiences shaped me to become a leader of my people, Sarayaku, on several occasions. I have taken part in Indigenous peoples’ struggles both by supporting the Sarayaku vs. Ecuador case – over the exploitation of Indigenous land by an oil company – before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and by participating in national-level Indigenous mobilisations.
I was coordinator of several projects, such as one on territorial governance in the communities of the Bobonaza river basin and another on free, prior and informed consultation with the Sarayaku people. Later I took on public positions such as president of the board of the Indigenous Fund of Ecuador and advisor to the Andean Parliament, and I participated in several international events on climate change, an issue that cuts across our community.
What environmental problems does your community currently face?
The environmental concerns of our people currently focus on deforestation and extractive activities such as mining and oil activity. For more than 50 years, private interests have been polluting land and aquatic ecosystems. This has had enormous socio-environmental consequences, including drought, disease, poverty and social conflict.
For some time now we have been living in conflict with an oil company that invaded our territory. We experience threats and harassment from both the company and the state. Every day more and more of our leaders and social activists are being threatened. Many have been kidnapped and some have been killed. But none of this silences or stops us, as we fight to save our territories, our living space.
We also face the problem of the lack of recognition of the territorial rights of Indigenous peoples by the state of Ecuador. Since the Sarayaku people were officially organised 45 years ago we have engaged with the state by bringing forward proposals on issues such as territorial legalisation, bilingual education, intercultural health and the recognition of collective rights in the Ecuadorian constitution. All the achievements we have made have been the result of the tireless struggle of our comrades.
But our rulers decide on extractivist public policies according to their own interests. The participation of Indigenous peoples in conservation funds is nil. Indigenous peoples are the forgotten ones of public policies.
What priority issues do you expect to see addressed at the COP28 climate summit?
One priority issue is financing. It is essential to work on financing through climate funds that are exclusive to Indigenous peoples, something that has been lacking until now.
It is also important to recognise integral territorial rights – the right of Indigenous peoples to their living spaces, as these maintain biodiversity intact and are carbon sinks: they contribute to tackling the climate crisis in a natural way. These territories must be recognised and declared free of all extractive activities in perpetuity.
There should be participation by Indigenous peoples in official negotiations, and it would be good to have regional roundtables to discuss what is specific to each region.
We are facing an unprecedented climate crisis. Only with the participation of all those working at local, regional, national and international levels will it be possible to establish and sustain serious commitments. This is why the participation of civil society in COP28 is so important. I really hope that the host government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has the will to welcome civil society. Otherwise it would be a setback and would only cause delays in the implementation of global commitments on climate change.
What are your expectations regarding the outcomes?
I don't have high expectations. We are dealing with a host that has given enormous space to those with economic power. The UAE is an oil country and the president of this COP is the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, one of the largest in the world. All this puts the outcomes at risk.
I think COPs are being used as a stage to show that oil companies are committed to managing the climate crisis, when in fact we all know this is not the case. It’s simple: if the production of fossil resources is not reduced, it won’t be possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the climate crisis will continue its catastrophic and irreversible course.
Indigenous peoples, with or without the recognition and support of states, have been contributing to the response to the climate crisis. We will continue to do so, but for our work to have real impact we need a global coalition of Indigenous peoples and civil society to form. We must develop our own COPs to show our commitment and present the initiatives we work on pragmatically every single day. We are the hope of the world.
Civic space in Ecuador is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.