Women Speak: Patricia Gualinga Montalvo is Leading the Fight for Climate Justice in Ecuador

Patricia Gualinga Montalvo is a Kichwa leader from Sarayaku, Ecuador, working on the frontlines of the fight to end oil exploitation and militarization in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Mrs. Montalvo was a key protagonist in the historic 2012 Inter-American Court of Human Rights case that found the Ecuadorian government guilty of rights violations after authorizing oil exploration on Sarayaku’s lands without community consent. She continues in her action and advocacy in Sarayaku, across Ecuador and around the world.

In light of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network’s new Women Speak initiative Ms. spoke with Patricia about the Kichwa women of Sarayaku, the historic 2012 Argentine Compañia General de Combustibles court case, Indigenous women leaders and more.

Patricia Gualinga, Kichwa leader of the Pueblo of Sarayaku, Ecuador – Photo by Emily Arasim/WECAN International

Can you begin by speaking about the Kichwa Pueblo of Sarayaku, and specifically, what it means to be a Kichwa woman in the flight for environmental justice?

Sarayaku is a Indigenous Kichwa village in the Amazon of Ecuador, with approximately 1,300 residents and organized with an Indigenous Kichwa government. We are still a culture of hunting, fishing and self-sustaining agriculture, and in recent times, we are preparing ourselves to respond to current realities.

To be an Indigenous Kichwa woman is not easy, because to make understood our way of relating with Nature and demanding environmental justice is to work in a little understood context, and yet, we have put forward our will and strength to continue forward and denounce the abuses that we are experiencing everyday, even with all the risks of being defamed and persecuted.

Your community won an historical court case back in 2012 against the Argentine Compañia General de Combustibles and Ecuadorian government. How has this ruling since impacted oil extraction endeavors, and more broadly the relationship between extraction companies and indigenous communities?

Due to the sentence of the CIDH, some points of the sentence have been implemented, such as publication in the media, economic compensation, even a not entirely concerted public apology—but there are fundamental, transcendental points that have not been fulfilled, and these are the withdrawal of a ton and a half of explosives buried in Sarayaku territory, and the free, prior and informed consultation of our people in good faith, as the parameters of the sentence establishes. These points the government has not complied with, and have been grounds for a hearing in the Inter-American Court. In addition, there is a clear interest to continue exploiting oil in Indigenous territories, including again our Sarayaku territory. The relationship of the state, oil companies and Indigenous Peoples has not changed—there are the same impositions and abuses of rights.

You have mentioned your compañeros began facing lawsuits and arrest warrants for their activist work, and yet you decided to assume the position of leading the defense of your people. As a woman, what made you step forward?  

The indignation of seeing so many violations against Indigenous peoples and Mother Earth gave me enough strength to not feel fear. It was for my family, my people, and I could not remain indifferent when the force inside me pushed me to do what I had to do.

Can you speak about what you have experienced and learned while working with your community, in regards to the importance of the voices and stories of women in movements for justice?

I always worked with leaders of my Pueblo—the majority of whom are men—and it was interesting. But when there were voices in the Assembly of my People saying that we had to support women, they asked me to be the person to do it, and I assumed the leadership of Women for six years (now I am no longer the leader). I assumed this role with humility, without imagining that it would be such a hard challenge—because to strengthen the organization of women, to organize workshops, meant that if 100 women came, 300 children came as well. And the women had their own dynamics. And in that context we are, in many cases, starting from scratch, especially to form spokespersons, respond to the media and face the arguments of industries and governments.

The march of women of October 2013 in Quito, Ecuador was unique because we denounced with strength the oil rounds, and came walking to Quito and broke the fear of the oppressive government. Simple grassroots women with their children saying we do not want exploitation in our territories—we offer life to humanity. That very much frames the discussion of conserving nature and not destroying ecosystems.

What advice do you have for women’s movements that are fighting back against new and ongoing environmental conflicts across the world?

We will continue, because we are doing the right thing, and because we have an inner strength which moves us and connects us to the Earth and the sky.  

Often what counts as ‘truth’ is socially situated. For instance, multinational corporations like Argentine Compañia General de Combustibles—with time and money on their side—have the power to scientifically determine what level of crude oil is considered toxic and even how toxicity is to be measured. How did your community resist or counteract these dominant claims to “truth?”

This is their truth, not ours—the ‘clean’ technologies that they [oil companies] proclaim do not convince a People like Sarayaku. Despite not having resources like the oil companies, the conviction to fight for what is just gave us enough imagination to reach out to the media, and to reach public opinion and allies and tell our truth. It was and is a struggle in unequal conditions. A communications struggle, a legal struggle with strategies and alliances.

In an interview in 2014 you said, “We cannot remain isolated—if we had stayed isolated, we would have lost the to the oil company.” I think this is so inspiring, especially amidst a moment wrought with such deep division. What can be done to spread this message?

We are an Indigenous People who re-claim rights and propose solutions, and who are consistent in our fight not only to save our territory, but for something bigger that benefits all of humanity. And so we cannot be isolated, we have to unite forces, fight, because it is already one global fight to avoid so much environmental disaster—which is a consequence of an obsolete model of being and relating with Mother Earth. We have to understand that we fight for the life of every human and living being, and that is why we name our call, ‘Selva Viviente’, the Living Forest.

Jessica Merino has divided her time over the last several years between Community Studies at UC Santa Cruz and exploring and reporting on women’s issues across cultures. She has interned with the White House-recognized organization Girls Write Now, Creative Time Reports and a startup social enterprise where she shared the stories of South East Asian women artisans with the international community. She is now an editorial intern at Ms., where she reports on issues related to women’s health.

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