As a woman, I often heard that my role was to stay at home, do housework, care for the children, and await my husband. I wanted to change those rules. When the assembly sought recruits for the indigenous guard…I lifted my hand.
SUCUMBIOS, Ecuador ꟷ Colonization forced my people to live in a single territory; but even within our indigenous community, we remained threatened by large companies. In 2017 we became aware of 30 mining agreements on our land, and 20 more to be granted. We held a community assembly to decide a course of action, ultimately forming the “indigenous guard.”
The guard would protect the interests of our population and keep watch for people from the outside (known as “cucamas”). These people poisoned our river, threw dynamite, hunted without permission, and polluted the environment. When the leadership asked the assembly who wanted to join the guard, 14 comrades stepped forward. I defied gender stereotypes and raised my hand.
Five years later, my colleague Alex Lucitante and I won the acclaimed 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize – an international award celebrating “grassroots environmental leaders who take significant action for our planet.” Alex and I spearheaded a movement resulting in a historic legal victory against the gold mining operations.
As a girl, Alexandra confronted gender norms and “machismo”
My grandfather used to say we had an obligation to care for the territory which allowed us to survive and live with each other. My father served as a leader in our [indigenous] community, but I could not understand the true meaning of my grandfather’s words.
His phrase rose to the forefront of my mind as the years passed and I became aware of the world around me. I soon discovered the obstacle which prevented me from standing in service like my father did. That obstacle was machismo [a strong or aggressive masculine pride].
As a woman, I often heard that my role was to stay at home, do housework, care for the children, and await my husband. I wanted to change those rules. When the assembly sought recruits for the indigenous guard, my mind whispered, “This is my opportunity to show people women can also raise their voices.” I lifted my hand and told everyone I wanted to defend our territory against threats – legal and illegal.
In my home, I faced a different reaction. My husband warned me he would end our relationship. He gave me two options: our home or the fight against the mining companies. Without hesitation, I chose the guard because our children’s future depended on it. I said I would do this, even if it meant leaving our house.
I also faced criticism from my colleagues. They called me a bad wife and mother because I took on a “man’s job.” I began to feel overwhelmed, but when I looked at my children or other women submissively catering to their husbands, it fueled me to keep fighting.
Woman takes on grueling physical and emotional journey, gets death threats
When my companions and I left for our first tour, we remained on the move for a week without pause. We crossed rivers, flows, and endless kilometers of water. With little to eat or drink, and our bodies wet and shaky, I felt myself reaching the verge of collapse. Exhaustion set in. At one point I fell and injured myself with a spear.
My mind began to wander, thinking I would never see my daughter again. With no end in sight, I silently said to myself, “I can’t take it anymore. This is my limit. I’ll stay here.” My nephew Nixon and other colleagues chanted encouraging words to motivate me. I fought forward.
Those words still echo in my ears, “Come on, comrade, you can do it! We can do it! You have proven yourself an invincible person. You can’t leave us to continue on our own.” They inspired me to keep moving but above all, they reminded me of my initial cause. Finally, on the last day of the pilgrimage, I saw my daughters again and everything I experienced had meaning.
Still, the fight went on, and I faced new threats. As we battled the mining companies, external parties issued a warning: members of my family and I could be hurt if we stubbornly continued to protest. My father pleaded with me to leave the guard. He felt his own life was in danger and worried about being alone. On the verge of crying, with tears in his eyes, he begged me to resign.
I did not want my loved ones to suffer on my behalf. While all of this caused me great pain, I refused to stop. Some days, feeling defeated, I cried too, but my children encouraged me to go on and they filled with me strength.
Alexandra Narváez and Alex Lucitante win international Goldman Environmental Prize
One day, I received a call from Amazon and Alianza Ceibo. They told me my good friend Alex Lucitante and I had a Zoom meeting with Mr. David Corrado [Program Officer for North America and South & Central America with The Goldman Environmental Prize]. David quickly informed us we won the famed international award for our fight against the mining companies and our action in favor of the environment.
Alex and I hugged and cried, recalling the path we traveled to get to this moment. Our entire pilgrimage gained greater meaning. I also felt victory as a woman in my fight not only against the mining operations but against machismo. Great hope filled me, and I used that to united more indigenous associations to defend our territories.
We also developed a Women’s Association which plans strategies and projects. They want to create tourism opportunities, to reveal to visitors why we defended our territory. We will tell our story and of our ancestral rites; reveal our sacred waterfalls, offer our foods, and showcase our dance, clothing, and handicrafts. The Woman’s Association also considers ways to generate sources of income to contribute to the education of our children.
I am filled with satisfaction seeing five more women in the indigenous guard knowing they followed in my footsteps. The guard has begun to expand its work beyond protecting the territory to discussing the children of our community. We want to teach them to maintain our ideals once we are gone.
Indigenous activists fight power structures, claim land, and preserve history
I always understood my fight included two purposes: facing the mining companies as well as the male chauvinist system. As women in this indigenous community, we must consider the future for our children and homes while also preserving our clean waters. We must protect that which allows us to feed and dress ourselves, and to maintain our sacred rites.
In this way we never forget who we are and who we can be in the context of the ancestral memories which live on in our spirit. I never joined the guard for a salary. I did it for the conviction to fight for what is right. While the newspapers asserted our efforts as a war against the government, that did not reflect our intentions. We are not a subversive group; we simply want to defend our territory and our land.
We do not carry weapons. Rather, we honor the legacy of our ancestors. The spear and the baton give us strength to keep walking and cultivate knowledge. We focus today on “mingas,” or planning care strategies and mapping our territory. Using GPS, we recently created deeds for 63,000 hectares (over 155,000 acres) of land.
We demand the government formally acknowledge and award us this land because we inhabit it. It belongs to us.
Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.
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