Meet the Indigenous Eco-feminists of the Amazon

In Ecuador, indigenous Kichwa women are resisting corporate interests that threaten their land.

For episode two of A Woman’s Place, Kassidy Brown and Allison Rapson traveled to Ecuador and ventured deep into the Amazon rainforest. There, issues of indigenous rights and the rights of women intersect in many ways. Corporate exploitation of indigenous land directly affects women who rely on natural resources for important aspects of their culture and daily lives.

Even though Kichwa women stood up to Big Oil and won, they still have to be vigilant.

This is one reason why Brown and Rapson sought out Nina Gualinga, a member of the Ecuadorian Kichwa tribe, internationally known for her indigenous rights activism. “In every episode we tried to address a different angle of feminism and a different way that it could be expressed,” Rapson said. For Brown and Rapson, Gualinga represented the power of eco-feminism, which combines environmentalism with feminist theory.

“We were struck by lots of things, but really it was just understanding her relationship to Mother Earth,” Rapson explained. “It’s a very personal relationship, and fighting for the planet, for them, is like fighting for a really powerful woman who needs their protection.”

The episode explains how, after oil companies began exploiting their land for fossil fuels, the Kichwa people protested, sued the government, and convinced the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to force oil companies out of Kichwa territory. But even though Kichwa women stood up to Big Oil and won, they still have to be vigilant. For Gualinga, and other Ecuadorian women interviewed for this episode, the capitalist system that threatens their land is also a key element of the modern patriarchy.

“It’s the kind of capitalism where big oil is coming in with a very masculine approach,” said Brown. “With the worst form of masculinity—aggressive, not listening to the community leaders, and not hearing what the people want.”

“All people have both feminine and masculine attributes. It’s not that all men are bad and it’s not that all masculine expression is bad,” Rapson said. “It’s that we are living with the remnants of an outdated and antiquated system.”

Gualinga says another obstacle indigenous women face is the stereotype that their communities are “primitive.”

Gualinga says another obstacle indigenous women face is the stereotype that their communities are “primitive.” So when she brought Brown and Rapson to her village of Sarayaku, Gualinga showed them how Kichwa people have mixed modern technology with ancient traditions. The village uses solar panels for electricity—and Rapson explained that they even have their own “tech center”—while things like traditional teas and beauty products are still made by hand.

“It’s incredible to walk around the forest with Nina. She would pull this flower and tell us about how this oil would clear up your skin,” said Brown. “Then she would pull another thing that I would never recognize out of the rest of the foliage and say ‘This is great for your hair, it will make it longer and stronger.’ They have what they need there.”

This is part of the reason protecting their land is so important to the Kichwa.“It’s kind of like someone coming into your town and saying ‘I’m going to destroy your grocery store and your bank and your beauty salon,’” explained Rapson. “‘I’m going to literally take every aspect of your life—everything involved in how you live every day-to-day moment—and I’m going to get rid of all of that.’” Because when Gualinga and her fellow tribe members talk about protecting their environment, it’s more than just land. It’s protecting their history, their traditions, and their culture.