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Defending Ancestral Lands Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Jacinta Isaacs, Australia Sep 30, 2005
Human Rights   Opinions


Defending Ancestral Lands

The community of Shiwa Yaku in Ecuador`s Napo province in the canton of Tena is facing a battle not only for their land but also for their freedom and personal security. Members of the Nueva Jerusalen community are currently threatening to launch an assault on Shiwa Yaku, a Kichwa community of 181 members (24 families), who are fighting a legal battle to reclaim their ancestral land. A local non- government organization, Coordinadora de Comunidades Kichwas de la Amazonia (CORCKA), is spearheading the campaign.

The battle over the 158 hectares of contested land emerged after the arrival of colonists in 1940 and thereafter the government’s agrarian reforms, of the 1960s and 1970s, in which the state refused to recognize the citizenship and land rights of the nation’s indigenous people. Instead, the land was sold under various private land titles without the consent of the land’s traditional owners. The discovery of gold on the community’s territory in 1990 only strengthened the resolve of wealthy businessman Gerardo Moscoso to tighten his grip on easily exploitable resource-rich land.

This land is not only central to Shiwa Yaku`s way of life it has also been an intrinsic part of its historical, cultural and spiritual heritage for more than 110 years. Even the community’s name Shiwa (palm trees) Yaku (rivers) signifies the importance of the tierra (land) to this most unique of cultures.

The community takes all its food, medicinal plants and resources for building homes and tools from the surrounding landscape. In particular, Yuca and plantano (banana) are two plants of prime importance to the community that were also cultivated and protected by the community’s forefathers.

Shiwa Yaku community member, Julia Andy, explained the land’s significance to the community in a recent interview, ´´This land is important for us to live, to cultivate the ground and medicinal plants, to do our traditional activities in the same way that our ancestors did. This land is very important for us and we will fight until the end. ``

In fact, the community was recently forced to turn to the land once more, undertaking a minga (community activity) to uncover gold in its search to cover the legal defense of its land.

Despite the presence of numerous national and international laws in support of indigenous and collective rights (though further changes in law are required) the community has faced continual aggression from competing communities and private mining interests.

The Political Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador advocates the conservation of community land, the maintenance of ancestral possession of community land and the right of communities not to be moved from their land. Furthermore, communities should enjoy the right of protection of ritual places, plants, animals, minerals and eco- systems.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also affirms the right to property, both individual and collective.

Finally, The International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention Number 169 on Indigenous and Tribal People of Independent Countries advocates the protection of collective social, cultural and religious values while also recognizing the right of possession of property that indigenous people traditionally occupied.

Indeed, for Shiwa Yaku, the land’s history and ancestry are of central importance. It is with their forefathers and the futures of their children in mind that they continue to fight and in doing so; lay the framework for a landmark case- a case that they hope will see the return of traditional land to indigenous people for the first time in Ecuador’s history.

As Gabriel Cerda Grefa, the community’s president, explained; ´´We are defending the land for our children. They also struggle for the future. They will continue to struggle for their land like their parents, to have respect and to stop outsiders manipulating us and losing respect for the rights of the Kichwa people.``

Shiwa Yaku community member Carlos Ashanga Andi agrees; ``We need to reclaim this land for our children, for the futures of our sons and daughters and for our grandparents who have worked here for years looking after our mountains, looking after our medicines and looking after our environment.´´



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