(Top image: Miguel Payaguaje on a canoe in the river. Photo byAliya Ryan)
The dispossession of the Siekopai nation’s heartland
Siekopai territory was traditionally centered in a flooded forest and lake-filled area of the Amazon which now straddles the Peru–Ecuador border, known as Pë’këya. The Digital Democracy team has been honored to be a partner with the Siekopai people, along with Alianza Ceibo and Amazon Frontlines, as they have worked tirelessly to recover their ancestral territory. In this blog post, we share some of the history of this area, and two of our team members share reflections on their participation in the process.
Hernán Payaguaje, Siekopai leader and General Coordinator of Alianza Ceibo describes what happened to his people:
“The Siekopai nation historically had a big extension of territory and large populations. Unfortunately, we have suffered territory dispossession, our population has been reduced for many reasons such as illnesses and slavery, and we continue to face many forms of abuse. Now, the Siekopai is known to be a minority group with a small territory.”1
Today, the Siekopai nation is at risk of cultural extinction, with their population only numbering around 810 members in Ecuador and 1200 in Peru. For decades, the Siekopai have been struggling to obtain land rights over some of their ancestral lands, especially Pë’këya. Recognition of these rights would give them back a sense of security and a geographical center for their culture, livelihoods and self-governance, after centuries of forced displacement and assimilation. As Hernán reflects “a very reduced territory doesn’t guarantee our rights, our existence, our development as a culture, that’s why the state needs to recognize our rights on the territory.”1
Pë’këya, also known as Lagartococha, lies in Northeast Ecuador on the border with Peru. “Pë’këya is the nucleus of Siekopai spirituality, memory, and knowledge. A space of mobility, connection, rituality, and cultural education. A realm of inestimable cosmological, mystical and historical value. A source of medicine, construction materials and foods.”2
In the 1940s Pë’këya became one of the frontlines in the war between Peru and Ecuador and was heavily militarized. Siekopai living there were forcibly moved either east into Peru or west into Ecuador, and homes they tried to rebuild there in subsequent decades were destroyed and their resources were stolen. In the 1970s, the Ecuadorian government created a National Park, the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, overlapping Pë’këya. Three protected areas were also created on the Peruvian side, the Güeppí Sekime National Park and the Airo Pai and Huimeki Communal Reserves. To understand more about the history and profound impact this dispossession had on the Siekopai, as well as the deep bonds they have with the place, see “Reclaiming Stolen Indigenous Land: The Siekopai’s Struggle for Survival”, by our partners Amazon Frontlines.
Community mapping to fight for territory rights
After decades of community organizing and struggles to reclaim their sacred territory, the Siekopai filed to the Ministry of Environment a formal petition five years ago to provide them their land title, grounded in a communal mapping process of Pë’këya. Hernán describes the work: “We began to work in Lagartococha, collecting historical information to show that it is our ancestral territory so that the state guarantees the territory rights for the Siekopai. To do that, we all, young and wise elders, shared experiences, history and ancestral knowledge of the territory, collecting historical and relevant points in Lagartococha.”1
Hernán and others trained their young people to use GPS devices, camera traps, drones, and other tools to create maps of the land, and videos and cameras to document its history and significance. They also used Mapeo Desktop to map and gather stories about the area.
Reflections from Digital Democracy’sGregor MacLennan on training the Siekopai to use Mapeo
I participated in the first trip of Digital Democracy to the Siekopai communities in Ecuador, in 2016. It was an exploratory trip, to help them discover which processes and tools could be used to map and document their stories and knowledge, and see how far we could get with them.
I can still vividly remember my wonder and amazement upon arriving in Lagartococha. It was my first time in a flooded forest — and it was so different from anything else I had seen before! There was no boundary between river and forest, just a maze of trees standing in the dark river floodwaters. River dolphins greeted us as we passed dozens of deep, beautiful lakes; giant caiman peeked out from the undergrowth along the river and huge paiches (arapaimas) churned up the calm, slow-moving waters as we disturbed them with our arrival. I was amazed and excited by the beauty and the mysterious aura of the landscape. Moreover, these impressive places were also the home of many stories and traditions, which the Siekopai were determined to preserve and transmit to their youth.
In these flooded landscapes, lakes, rivers, and ancestral paths following rare passages of dry ground stand out as very relevant elements, and satellite imagery can be very useful to identify them. So, the focus of the first tests with Mapeo Desktop and satellite imagery was mapping and identifying these elements, and documenting the place names and stories associated with them. I remember how we organically jumped from me showing Hernán how Mapeo Desktop was working to having elders and other community members easily pointing at the satellite image in Mapeo Desktop and naming the lakes that appeared in the image, despite never having seen them from the sky before! It was amazing, and it showed how powerful satellite imagery can be.
The technology facilitated a discussion - elders working with youth to explore satellite imagery shared their knowledge, traditions, rituals, and stories of different places on the map. This image reflected what the project was about - starting a process of remembering and sharing with younger generations. But it didn’t end there, the Siekopai also had their youth travel to the relevant places to make sure the knowledge was embedded in them and alive. The mapping process, the use of cameras, GPS devices… this was also a valuable trigger to start a process of cultural sharing and remembering, a way to have youth talk to their elders and hear what they had to say.
From a technical side, a very crucial takeaway from that trip was seeing how the ease of use and accessibility of Mapeo Desktop and satellite imagery allowed the mapping process to be done entirely by the community, without translation to other languages or intermediaries needed to enter the data into GIS software. Hernán learned very quickly and was entering all the information that the community had to share into Mapeo, all in the Siekopai language. Another takeaway was realizing that tablets and phones felt more accessible and less intimidating than laptops to people that were illiterate or not familiar with the technology: Elders who had never used a smartphone or laptop were soon interacting with the maps, exploring the places they recognized in their territory.
Reflections from Digital Democracy’sAliya Ryan on a trip to Pë’këya in late 2016
Traveling to Pë’këya was one of the most formative experiences I had in my first year at Digital Democracy, and a huge privilege. The trip was organized by the Siekopai as part of the ongoing mapping work they were carrying out, and was also an opportunity for them to more firmly establish the area and its stories in the minds and bodies of the young.
There were many highlights on the trip, even the journey itself, traveling downriver for hours on the wide Aguarico river until reaching the river Lagarto in the late afternoon and then twisting and turning upriver between its narrow, vegetation-filled banks. We had to get out of the canoe on a number of occasions to wade through shallows or push the boat through the weeds. As we journeyed we saw turtles basking in the sun, eagles watching from above, monkeys playing and feasting in the trees and signs of massive paiche under the water’s surface. Hernán translated stories from the elders about the black water lakes we passed, and epic moments in his people’s history.
One day I joined a group of Siekopai who were reopening one of the ancestral paths that used to cross the watershed between different river basins. They knew its start and end point, and it took all day using a compass, GPS, offline maps and directions from elders too frail to make the journey themselves to find the shortest route through, following the areas of higher ground, with the young Siekopai putting themselves in the literal footsteps of their ancestors to cut the path anew. On the trip, the group came across many resources important in Siekopai culture, including a flower used in traditional Siekopai cooking, which none of those present had ever seen before, but which they had heard about and recognised by its scent and appearance. They gathered up a basketful to take back to their grandparents.
Most Ecuadorian Siekopai now live much further upriver, in an area with not only a very different ecosystem and hence different resources, to those found in Pë’këya, but which has also been heavily impacted by oil operations, palm oil plantations and the agricultural frontier that increasingly corners their territory. The depleted forests and contaminated rivers to which they have access there do not compare to the rich forests and waters of Pë’këya, where hunting and fishing resources, in addition to seeds, fruits and medicinal plants that form part of Siekopai daily culture, are found in abundance. On another day I accompanied a group of women on a trek through the forest in search of a particular tree, the bark of which plays a critical role in Siekopai ceramic making. Along the way the women stopped to gather palm fruits, liana ropes, special sticks for fishing lines and others for fashioning kitchen utensils - all of which were rare or absent from their current titled areas. And when they found the tree they knew it, not by sight, as they had rarely seen it before, but by biting it, tasting and feeling the texture of the bark and recalling the embodied memory passed on through the generations.
Much of the mapping work in Mapeo was done in the community, working with the elders to document the stories and place names associated with the territory and tracing the rivers from satellite images. However, the Siekopai also wanted to include the precise locations of a few significant sites, such as old villages and places where yage ceremonies took place. They knew the approximate location of these places, on which river or lake they were, and roughly how far up, but it took days of walking, various failed attempts, and hard work cutting paths through the dense tangled forest to find the locations, which they identified due to geographical markers, the presence of certain palms their ancestors would have planted, and by archaeological evidence including broken pottery shards.
The Seikopai culture is an oral culture - the elders held all cultural knowledge, including spatial knowledge, in their minds and bodies. For many years they were only able to pass on stories and information about important places, rituals, and resources in Pë’këya orally. However, knowledge was not fully embodied until these lands and waters could be visited. As the Siekopai youth Wilmer Piaguaje states, “Pë’këya is the soul of the Siekopai…There is everything that is important for a Siekopai person…that territory has power and value for what’s in it. Many stories I grew up with are from there and they are not only story, they explain who I am as a person and what my family is…I was denied the right to live there, and I see my children grow without understanding what it’s like to be a Siekopai, without a Siekopai soul because the soul is there.”2
“The mapping process”, explains Hernán, “helped recover the memory of the ancestral territory.”1
For 2 years, the Siekopai conducted intensive mapping work. As Hernán explains, “Mapeo helped us include information that we thought to be useful about Lagartococha - historical information, information about the territory use, such as hunting, fishing, and collecting plants. It was intense work. We built a map with all the information - ancestral paths, lagoons, historical sites, sacred places, salt licks… to show it to the Ecuadorian State and get our property rights.”1 So, in 2017, they filled in a formal land title claim and delivered the maps and accompanying documentation to the Ecuadorian State.
Hernán sees the potential of the work - “maps became our spears in the fight for land rights and are also a way of transforming oral stories into documents, maps and other visual tools that enable our culture to be shared, and can also be used as educational tools” for the children and youth, to help ensure that the ancestral historical memory of the Siekopai nation is kept alive and transmitted to future generations”. However, the recognition of the Siekopai’s rights over their ancestral territory in Pë’këya is currently the most pressing and urgent concern, and it would enable their culture to feel secure and flourish, and would also set a precedent supporting indigenous territorial claims across Ecuador.
Latest events - The Siekopai took the Ecuatorian State to court
Despite the Siekopai’s demands being supported by international law and Ecuador’s constitution, five years on the Ecuadorian government has still not recognized their ancestral right to the land. On the 8th of September 2022, the Siekopai went to court to demand that the Ecuadorian state recognize and title the Pë’këya area of their ancestral territory with the support of Alianza Ceibo and Amazon Frontlines. We join our voices with those of the Siekopai and others to demand that the Ecuadorian government return Pë’këya to the Siekopai.
👉 If you too want to contribute to the Siekopai and Amazon Frontlines’ efforts, check this site.
- Hernán Payaguaje’s presentation at the Technodigenous conference, June 2021.
- Reclaiming Stolen Indigenous Land: The Siekopai’s Struggle for Survival, Amazon Frontlines, September 2022.
- Seikopai digital participative mapping, Digital Democracy, July 2016