Amid sacred songs from elders, a ceremonial plant brew known as “yoko” and face paintings with the red achiote fruit – this is how a historic appeals hearing for land rights began on Indigenous land in the Amazon rainforest last week.

On May 30th 2023, three judges from an Ecuadorian provincial court traveled to the Siekopai community of San Pablo de Katëtsiaya in the Amazon rainforest to hear oral testimony from elders and youth on their sacred connection with their ancestral homeland, known as Pë’këya. For decades, the Siekopai nation has been fighting to recover their ancestral territory, from where they were displaced over eighty-two years ago. In September 2022, the Siekopai took their battle to the court to face off with the Ecuadorian government over the violations of their rights and its failure to deliver a land title for their land. 

The Siekopai people are now awaiting the court’s ruling that could determine their very future as a nation. The judges are set to deliver their verdict in the coming weeks. Failure to protect the Siekopai nation’s rights to their ancestral territory could intensify threats to the community’s cultural survival. Victory would set a precedent for Indigenous peoples across the Upper Amazon, fighting to get their land back after centuries of genocide, dispossession and erasure. 

In this short photo-essay, we share a window into the historic day, the first time a judicial hearing was held on Siekopai land – and a major step forward in their struggle to get their #landback in the Amazon rainforest. 

Siekopai authorities welcome judicial authorities from the provincial court of Sucumbios, marking an important milestone in the Siekopai’s struggle and a giant step forward for intercultural dialogue in Ecuador.

Over 300 members of the Siekopai Nation from across the region traveled by canoe to participate in the hearing

Yadira Ocoguaje, the granddaughter of the great Siekopai spiritual leader Don Cesareo, paints judge Dr. Carlos Aurelio Moreno Oliva using the red achiote fruit (bixa orellana) and traditional designs symbolizing strength and the spirits of nature.

Elders perform a spiritual cleansing of the hearing space and offered the judges a ceremonial brew made from the vine of a plant known as yoko.

Photos and paintings displayed around the hearing space recall the legacy of past family members who fought tirelessly to recover their ancestral land after being forcibly displaced by the military conflict between Ecuador and Peru in the 1940s, and ultimately corralled by evangelical missionaries into small rainforest villages downriver from polluting oil operations

During the hearing, a three-judge panel listens to oral testimony from Siekopai elders and youth about their profound connection to their territory

“Respecting our right to this territory means that the youth will be able to reconnect with our people’s legacy” – Siekopai grandmother, Maruja Piaguaje

Amazon Frontlines lawyer, Maria Espinosa together with Siekopai community members, Yadira Ocoguaje (left) and Cesar Piaguaje from the Siekopai Nation, recall the legacy of spiritual leader Cesareo Piaguaje, who fought for decades to recover his people’s ancestral homeland.

“Our struggle isn’t for a piece of land, but for the guarantee to continue living as Siekopai. We are asking you to return this land, which is the origin of the Siekopai culture.”-Yadira Ocoguaje

During the hearing, after presenting moving testimonies about their connection to Pë’këya, Siekopai children perform what a return to their ancestral homeland Pë’këya could look like.

Over 20 amicus curiae briefs in support of the Siekopai Nation were presented by by experts including an ex-judge from Ecuador’s Constitutional Court, ethnobotanists, historians and Indigenous communities such as the A’i Cofán of Sinangoe (pictured) and the Waorani of Pastaza, two Indigenous groups who won major legal victories against the Ecuadorian government.

“Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment has unjustifiably postponed the delivery of a land title to the Siekopai Nation. The lack of guarantees condemns the Siekopai to cultural extinction and violates their territorial rights as recognized in Ecuador’s Constitution and international law.” -Maria Espinosa, Amazon Frontlines Lawyer

Territorial maps created by the Siekopai Nation through a community-led mapping process were among the evidence presented to the judges. These maps include documentation of historic and sacred sites, and important rivers and lagoons.