They are the “eyes” of their communities. Watching over their forests and rivers and looking out for the safety and well-being of their people. They are youth and elders, men, and women. Patrolling the land and warding off threats to their territories, cultures, and ways of life. They are the Indigenous Guards of the Amazon rainforest. Fighting for Indigenous autonomy and self-determination – and showing the world what Indigenous-led conservation is all about.
By enacting their communites’ mandate, Indigenous guards are fighting to protect their ancestral territories from some of the key drivers of climate change, including oil, mining, and logging. These intergenerational groups use multiple strategies of territorial defense that pair their ancestral knowledge with technology, from mapping their ancestral lands to monitoring threats through tools including camera traps, GPS and drones.
Their vital work serves to protect their people’s physical and cultural survival and to keep the last bastions of wild forest standing. And the world is taking note. The conservation efforts of Indigenous guards are now gaining global recognition. Earlier this year, the Goldman Environmental Prize recognized the remarkable conservation efforts of the Indigenous guard of the A’i Cofan community of Sinangoe that stopped a gold rush in its tracks!
In the following photo essay, we share insights into their vital work and the perspectives of Indigenous leaders and guard members, who are risking their lives to defend their territories in one of the world’s deadliest regions for land and human rights defenders. Indigenous peoples and human rights defenders such as Amazon Frontlines lawyer Maria Espinosa, who provides technical and legal support to Indigenous guards, face criminalization, stigmatization, and death threats for their legitimate work.
But they’re not backing down. Through their organizing, Indigenous guards in the upper Amazon are strengthening their peoples’ struggles to advance Indigenous rights and permanently protect more than twenty million acres of the most biodiverse rainforest in the world.
“Our strength is in our word, in our ancestral medicine, in our bastion, in our spear, in our will to patrol our territory. It is in the mandate and the power of our community.”
– Mario Erazo Yaiguaje, Siona defender of the Putumayo River
“We defend our territory because it’s our life. We live and breathe because of our territory. Thanks to the work of our community guard, we were able to force mining companies out of our lands and make them respect our home.”
– Alexandra Narvaez, A’i Cofan leader of Sinangoe & Goldman Prize Winner
“The guard is an exercise of our fundamental rights as Indigenous peoples. Its legacy comes from our ancestors who cared for our territories since time immemorial. We continue this struggle today. We know that our forests and rivers maintain the balance of our shared climate and without them, all life on our planet is at risk.”
– Alex Lucitante, A’i Cofan Leader & Goldman Prize Winner
“We pair technology like drones, GPS and camera traps with our ancestral knowledge to detect and document invasions in our territory, and to collect evidence to file formal complaints to authorities and even lawsuits. Our struggle for survival goes on. As a member of my community’s guard, I know what it takes to fight, day in and day out. The most important thing is to have the heart and the will to protect our territory.”
– Nixon Andy Narvaez, A’i Cofan filmmaker & coordinator of the Sinangoe guard
“When you walk through Siona territory, you feel exactly what the elders say, that everything is alive. They teach us about the importance of our duty as Siona, to care for and protect our territory. I dream that our young people will defend our territory. And that will be our legacy. And it’s not just for us. It’s for the world.”
– Adiela Mera Paz, Siona leader of the Putumayo River
“Oil companies, miners, loggers, poachers, and foreign diseases like COVID-19 endanger our way of life and our territory. The Indigenous Guard is born from a collective decision made by our communities. As members of the guard, we protect the life and culture of our people”.
– Oswando (Opi) Nenquimo, Waorani leader