María Belén Noroña

Indigenous Adaptation to Mining-Related Infrastructure in the Amazon Rain Forest of Ecuador 

by María Belén Noroña, PhD candidate, Department of Geography

Kichwa women and child, with researcher Belén Noroña, second from right.

My research studies how indigenous populations adapt their ways of living, also known as livelihoods, to the expansion of mining-related infrastructure, such as gold and oil, while struggling to keep access and control over territory in the Amazon region of Ecuador. Adaptation occurs as national economic interests undermine indigenous traditional rights over territories and resources. Local opposition has intensified as extraction has increased in the last 10 years, and communities have become concerned by the repression and the criminalizing of protests. In fact, top-down policies that include unequal terms of negotiation and forceful removal of communities have left people with no other option than to be better prepared for any of these scenarios.

Last summer, I worked with two Kichwa communities, one that holds titles and one that does not hold titles to the land, both resisting oil and gold pressures respectively. Understanding adaptation trends is particularly important given that an average of 250,000 Kichwas in the region (INEN, Census 2010) will likely undergo similar changes in the near future, in which the ability to adjust to these developments in their own terms will be decisive for their survival.

Using research methodologies such as participatory mapping, soundscapes, and photo-ethnography, I gathered qualitative information that not only allowed me to get insights on adaptation but also to discover how academia and applied research intersect in ways that affect theoretical production and affect grassroots strategies at the community level. 

My preliminary findings show that socio-spatial relations based on reciprocity and solidarity are central for livelihoods still dependent on forest resources and agriculture. Strong communitarian ties generate economies that although directly dependent on land could survive in its partial or total absence for a period of time. The ability to act as a community and to rely on internal and external networks improves the communities’ chances of avoiding fragmentation, emigrational trends, and poverty. 

Local understandings of land are based on nurturing networks that include land, symbolic forest resources such as the cassava and certain forest lianas, other indigenous communities and external allies such as educators, scholars, NGOs and art organizations, among others. These individuals and groups have been working with the community in ways that empower political organization while avoiding being identified as political actors opposing extractivism. 

Kichwa women cooking for community members engaged in communal work.

Participatory methods have allowed the community to visualize the importance of reciprocity and solidarity, and clarified the indigenous relationship to land, allowing community members to strategize better in case a forceful removal of the population takes place. On the theoretical side, indigenous views of territories as nurturing networks challenge current understandings of indigenous territoriality as fixed spaces delimited by borders.

A second aspect of my findings shows that communities that hold titles for the land, such as the second community I worked with, negotiated oil extractive compensations through small cash payments and the building of modernizing infrastructure aimed to “upgrade living conditions up to city standards.” Resistance to modernization is seen in the decision of families and the community to not use infrastructure for the purposes it was built for; instead, the community finds useful but selective uses for infrastructure, thereby rejecting modernization. On the other hand, families are increasingly taking advantage of the growing public transport along the Napo River, which connects families with markets and cities and increases the time male members spend engaged in wage labor in nearby centers, affecting local consumption.

The methodologies I used deserve also a few lines; methods such as soundscapes have allowed me to understand how indigenous populations diagnose the health of their territory and resources as mining companies increase their presence. Indigenous people actively listen to the forest to predict rain, biodiversity, and spirits of the forest, for example. In recent years, listening to the forest has brought new sounds that include machinery, high-speed motors on large rivers, sounds related to wells pumping and the arrival of police and militarized forces. Indigenous systems of communication include early emergency notifications among community members using horns that communicate a wide range of meanings. 

Finally, preliminary research has allowed me to submit a paper for publication to the Journal of Latin American Geography (paper under revision). And I will be going back to the field to complete my doctoral research with a Fulbright-Hays grant from June–December 2017. CLLAS, Global Oregon, and the Conference of Latin American Geographers have supported my preliminary research through the last two years.      

—María Belén Noroña is a Ph.D candidate and graduate teaching fellow in the UO Department of Geography,