One woman against the Big Oil Companies

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One woman against the Big Oil Companies

Alicia Cawiya is an activist from Ecuador. She protested against the big oil companies to save Ecuador’s Yasuní people. She talks to Linda Etchart.


'Women have the power,' says Alicia Cawiya © Elle Enander/

On 3 August 2013, Alicia Cawiya, Vice-President of the Huaorani Nation of Ecuador, stood up to talk to the country’s Constituent Assembly in Quito. It was live on national television.

Her President, Chief Moi Enomenga, told her what to say - to agree to oil drilling in her homeland in the Amazon River.

Moi signed agreements with Chinese oil companies and gave them the right to drill for oil on the land of the Huaorani, Taromenane, and Tagaeri peoples, in the Yasuní national park.

But Alicia decided not to say what her President wanted her to say. She spoke against the oil companies and for her people and their culture. She spoke first in her Huaorani language and then in Spanish. She told the Ecuadorian government and the oil companies to stay away. ‘There are seven companies on Huaorani lands but now we are poorer...’ she said and the Assembly applauded. ‘The animals are now in danger of extinction. Who is to blame? Not us… We want conservation. We want respect for our lands. We want to live the way we want to live.’

He said he would kill me

The National Assembly voted for the oil drilling by 133 votes to108 but Alicia won the hearts of the Assembly and the country. She was on the front page of the newspapers. Now women listened to her and the country respected her in politics as she spoke for the rights of her people.

But now she also had big enemies including President Moi. Alicia says Moi wanted to kill her.

‘Moi and the young Huaorani men around him were angry with me. He said he would kill me. He said that when I went back to the rainforest, my brothers would kill me. But when I went back, the people welcomed me. They were happy that I was helping them.’

‘I said to Moi: “Why do you not agree that you are on the side of the government? You should help the people who voted for you.’

With Gloria Ushigua, the President of the Sápara Women’s Association of Ecuador, she wrote to Liu Jieyi, the Representative for China to the United Nations. She protested to the Chinese state company Andes Petroleum for not respecting human rights.

Where did Alicia get her courage from?

She was born in the Ñoneno community in the Yasuní lands. She is the granddaughter of a Huaorani warrior, called Iteca. The Huaorani were the fiercest of all the peoples in the country.

Missionaries raised Alicia as a child before her grandmother brought her back to the forest. Missionaries had the job of making the people ‘civilized’ so the oil companies could move in without any protests.

Alicia says that she was politically active at the age of 13, and a leader at the age of 18. This was unusual in traditional communities in the Amazon where men were always the leaders.

‘I followed my grandmother. Women at the time could not make decisions. But my grandmother said that because both men and women wanted to stop the oil companies, why not do it together?’

Amazonian women began to act by themselves when their men said yes to the oil companies.

‘The men were in control, and they decided to sell the Huaorani lands to foreigners – to some Americans,’ says Alicia. The neighbours of the Huaorani now think the Huaorani are lost because they accepted the Western lifestyle and the dangers of alcohol.

Activist Amazon women

The women seem stronger, says Alicia. ‘The women said: “We have the power, we are mothers, we grow food, we can look after our lands.” From then we trained ourselves. We saw how other organizations worked, how other women were learning, going to classes, organizing themselves. We agreed that we must protect the rainforest, or the oil companies would win. So off we went.’

The first indigenous Amazonian peoples’ march from Puyo to Quito was in 1992. Alicia was on that march. And so Shuar, Kichwa, Sápara, and Huaorani women had a five-day 250-kilometre Women’s March to Quito in October 2013. They wanted no oil drilling on their lands.

‘We walked until our feet hurt. We wanted to take our message to Quito so that the people in the capital would realize that the Amazon women would defend their rights. We do not want our rivers contaminated, the big companies should not kill us for oil... We now have new illnesses because of the oil. Our children are worried that we will go to prison. But we shall protest even as we grow old.’

Alicia started the Huaorani Artisanal Women’s Association, because she wanted women to have more money. It is very difficult for her and other women to be active politically. They have to find food, look after the children, and travel around the country and the world. Most of them live many days’ journey into the rainforest by river. ‘It is not easy for us… Sometimes the women decide not to travel because of their husbands, who are not happy about their political activities because they think they are maybe not telling the truth about where they are going. It is difficult but we have succeeded. Before, the women said nothing and the men made the decisions. It is different now. Women work the same as men to protest.’

Linda Etchart is a lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, and Kingston University. She writes for Latin American Voices, Latin American Bureau/Practical Action Publishing


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).