The Awá, an indigenous nation whose traditional territory extends across the border of the modern-day nation-states of Colombia and Ecuador, have been working for decades to preserve their traditional way of life, as well as the lands and waters essential to their survival. Through the formation of the Federation of Awá Centres of Ecuador (FCAE), and with support from many national and international organizations, the Awá of Ecuador have obtained legal recognition of rights to a large portion of their traditional territory, and have worked to sustainably manage these areas according to community-determined goals.
The recognition of the Awá as a distinct indigenous group and the delineation of Awá ancestral lands by the Ecuadorian government were significant events for the Awá communities in the assertion of their territorial rights. Conservation- and human rights- oriented organizations have significantly contributed to the protection and extension of Awá rights through direct community support, as well as through the expansion of conservation areas. However, frequent disruptions by other stakeholders, statutory tenure changes, industrial pressures, allegations of corruption, threats of drug trafficking, and periods of civil war have threatened the control of the FCAE over certain areas of their territory, and endangered Awá lives and livelihoods.
The following sections will outline the history of this case and the methods employed by the Awá of Ecuador to assert their land rights and to enact their conservation and management practices. An overview of the complex history of tenure arrangements and intercommunity tensions will be presented, as well as a description of the goals and interests of various stakeholders.
The Awá are an “ancestral indigenous nation residing in the north-western region of Ecuador and the south-western regions of Colombia”. The Awá occupied their current territories for centuries before Spanish settlement in the 16th century, and have sustained their traditional governance systems throughout many waves of governmental changes and colonial powers (Danver, 2015, 115). A significantly larger portion of the Awá population occupies territory on the Colombian side of the national border, however the Awá seldom identify with a particular state, considering themselves as one ‘Grand Awá Family’ “irrespective of internationally recognized borders”. In Awá pìt, the traditional language, “Awá” simply means “the people” (Danver, 2015, 115), and imposed boundaries have not culturally separated “the people”, although they have proven to be obstacles for legal recognition and protection of rights to their traditional territory.
The Awá are also occasionally referred to as the “Cuaiquer” (Kwaiker), however this is a term employed by Spanish colonizers and does not reflect the self-identification of the nation (Danver, 2015, 115). In Ecuador, the Awá are one of the 14 distinct indigenous groups legally recognized by the government (Reed, 2011, 542). Due to the remoteness of their lands, the Awá maintained traditional practices and governance systems for centuries without extensive imposition from the national government or from settlers (Danver, 2015, 115). However, since the 1980s increased road building, colonization, and pressures from resource extraction industries have significantly threatened Awá territorial control and way of life (Danver, 2015, 115; Macdonald, 1986, 33-36; Poole, 1989, 63). Encroachment of settler society has resulted in lifestyle changes in traditional Awá communities, and migration into urban centers by many families (Danver, 2015, 115).
Despite these changes, many Awá communities have maintained their traditional practices of subsistence agriculture, intensive agroforestry, and hunting/gathering activities (Orejuela, 1999, 60), and are committed to protecting their lands and livelihoods. The Awá have complex productive systems, with varying levels of management intensity (Orejuela, 1999, 79). Subsistence agriculture is essential for growing maize and beans in small cleared family plots that are harvested in rotation and are often augmented with soil-enriching plants in fallow years (Orejuela, 1999, 61-63). Home gardens are sites of complex agroforestry, with fruit trees, tubers, sugarcane, plantains, traditional medicinal plants, ornamental plants, and various others being tended along with an array of wild and domesticated animals, including chickens, pigs, ducks, guinea pigs, and wild fowl, among others (Orejuela, 1999, 63-73). Harvest from forests, agricultural plots, domesticated animals, and home gardens provide invaluable products for nutrition, medicinal purposes, herbs and spices, clothing and sleeping mats, ornamentation, building materials, and various types of rope and baskets, each allotted for personal use or for sale in larger towns (Orejuela, 1999, 63-73). Fishing, hunting, and harvest of wild forest products are also essential components of Awá traditional subsistence practices (Orejuela, 1999, 73-77). Centuries of traditional knowledge systems and deep relationship with the land informs Awá hunting and harvesting practices, which requires thriving forests undisturbed by intensive extractive industries such as logging, oil palm plantations, and mineral extraction (Orejuela, 1999, 77-80).
Despite legal recognition of their rights, many Awá communities have faced significant pressures from logging companies, oil palm plantations, and mining companies. In addition, escalations of the civil war in Colombia throughout the late 2000s have caused significant death and displacement of Awá families living on the Colombian side of the border (Danver, 2015, 115). Awá communities in Ecuador have openly accepted Colombian Awá escaping the violence and conflict of the civil war and the War on Drugs, terrors inflicted on their lands and people by settler states.
The Awá are profoundly connected to their lands, and require thriving ecosystems to maintain their cultural practices and protect their livelihoods. The Awá are therefore deeply committed to protecting their territory and their rights to their land, despite threats from industries, settlers, government corruption, and civil war (Danver, 2015, 115).
“We hate the fact that now our forests are being viewed by others as financial commodities. The notion that outsiders can place a price on our resources is ridiculous. Our forests and our lands mean so much more to us. Without them we are nothing. Outsiders simply don’t understand this.” - Anonymous Awá Community Leader (Reed, 2011, 543)
In the face of increasing encroachment on their traditional territory, and to facilitate dealings with the state and other organizations, 22 Awá communities in Ecuador have collaborated to form the Federation of Awá Centres of Ecuador (FCAE). The institution is dedicated to collective decision-making regarding commonly held lands, representing the rights of the Awá nationally and internationally, and carrying out projects for environmental protection and community development (Danver, 2015, 115; Reed, 2011, 542; Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2004, 242).
In 1995, with the support of various national and international organizations, namely CONAIE, the Awá obtained legal land rights to roughly 100,000 hectares of their traditional lands, held by the FCAE (Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2004, 242). Since this recognition, the Awá and FCAE have worked to demarcate and patrol territorial boundaries, as well as to expand the legally recognized territory to include other Awá communities and lands (Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2004, 242; Macdonald, 1986, 33-36).
The FCAE manages 22 legally recognized Awá communities in Ecuador, a population of roughly 4,000 people (Danver, 2015, 114). The FCAE holds well over 110,000 hectares of traditional Awá territory through various forms of tenure throughout the provinces of Imbabura, Carchi, and Esmeraldas (Reed, 2011, 542; Poole, 1989, 63). The organization is committed to representing the collective interests of the Awá to meet community-directed goals for environmental protection, a community-based forest management project, capacity building, and community development (Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2004, 242).
In the face of increasing pressure from timber company representatives, and the threat of illegal resource extraction in Awá territories, the FCAE publicly denounced the Ministry of the Environment for lack of intervention and protection of their legal territorial rights. Officials from the Ministry of the Environment were reported to the Civic Commission for the Control of Corruption, although reports of corruption have persisted.
Since the late 2000s, in collaboration with many national and international organizations, the FCAE has worked with communities on plans for supporting the influx of refugees and displaced Awá due to the violence of the Colombian civil war.
In addition, the FCAE is responsible as an intermediary between Awá communities and scientific researchers requesting entry to Awá territory to preform botanical or ethno-botanical research (Borrini-Feyerabend et al, 2004, 242-243). The FCAE has set out intricate policies and agreements for scientists conducting research in Awá territory to promote awareness and knowledge of the area, while protecting the land and people from exploitative research (Borrini-Feyerabend et al, 2004, 242-243).
The Awá territory extends throughout the southwestern region of Colombia, in the province of Nariño, and into the Ecuadorian provinces of Imbabura, Carchi, and Esmeraldas (Danver, 2015, 114). These lands are located along the western slopes of the Andes, and are known as the “world’s wettest tropical rainforest” (Macdonald, 1986, 33). These unique mountain rainforests represent the last remaining intact portion of the Choco-Andean forest type in Ecuador, an incredibly biodiverse forest home to numerous endemic species.
The Choco-Andean rainforest in Awá territory has been designated as a refuge zone, an area that escaped glaciation in the Pleistocene area, and is therefore of high biological and environmental importance (Poole, 1989, 63; Macdonald, 1986, 33-36). The biological importance of this forest type has been internationally recognized, resulting in the designation of many protection and conservation zones in the area (Macdonald, 1986, 33-36).
The lands of the Awá are rich in diverse species of fauna and flora, and are frequently visited for purposes of scientific research (Borrini-Feyerabend et al, 2004, 242-243, Macdonald, 1986, 33-36). Notable species include jaguars, ocelots, spectacled bears, macaws, trogons, anturio, chandul tree, guaiacum tree, and various species of rare orchids.
Pre-contact - Awá occupying traditional territories; development of traditional governance systems
1534 - Arrival of Spanish settlers in modern-day Ecuador resulting in contraction of Awá territorial occupation, especially in coastal regions
1964-1972 - Pressures of agrarian reform laws promote colonization of “idle" lands, turning gaze of settlers, industry, and government on Awá territory
Prior to 1970s - Very little contact between Awá and outside world due to inaccessibility of territory
- Even indigenous organizations have little knowledge of Awá communities
1970s - Ecuadorian military begins to survey border with Colombia, increasing contact with indigenous people in the region
- Formal recognition of Awá as an indigenous ethnic group by government of Ecuador
1980s - Rising power of indigenous resistance movements in Ecuador due, in part, to unsteady new democratic governments
1980 - Rumours of proposed road construction through Awá traditional territory, funded by the World Bank
- Preliminary demarcation study of Awá traditional territorial boundaries begins, carried out by Awá with support and funds from Cultural Survival
1982 - Article about the Awá published in Quito’s El Comercio, increasing awareness of the Awá throughout Ecuador
(July) - La Planada nature reserve created on Colombian Awá territory
1983 (March) - First known organized meeting of 11 Awá communities, and election of Awá’s first cabildo (governing council)
(July) - Intergovernmental commission formed to study development issues along the Colombian-Ecuadorian border; early plans to demarcate the Awá Ethnic Forest Reserve
- CONACNIE added to the commission, representing indigenous interest and allowing for financial support from NGOs
1984 (September) - Cultural Survival agrees to support 5 project initiatives with the goal of obtaining legal land tenure for Awá
1985 (March) - Ecuadorian national Registro Civil sent a team to distribute citizenship cards to more than 1,100 Awá people (citizenship
cards are required to be eligible for land ownership)
(April) - Meeting of Joint Commission on Ecuadorian-Colombian Amazonian Cooperation in Bogotá
1986 - Completion of surveying and border demarcation of Awá territories (except for a small, remote area)
- Formalization and government recognition of Awá Ethnic Forest Reserve
1987 - Ecuadorian government creates a tribal management agency (UTEPA) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help protect the national border and to represent the interest of the Awá
1988 - Legal recognition of lands as the "Traditional Settlement of the Awá Indigenous Community Area" by the Ministry of Agriculture
1990 - CONAIE spearheads powerful indigenous uprising in Ecuador, with roadblocks across the country
- Throughout Latin America indigenous movements are asserting rights and recognition from national governments, gaining international attention
1993 - Awá develop a Convenio outlining the terms of the relationship and responsibilities of scientific researchers conducting research in Awá territory
Prior to 1995 - Awá considered “wards of the state” by Ecuadorian government
1995 - Awá Reserve is upgraded to legally recognized “Indigenous Territory”, granting Awá legal recognition of communal title to their traditional lands through the FCAE
- The 101,000 hectares of Indigenous Territory is recognized by INEFAN (predecessor of Ministry of the Environment)
- Awá no longer considered wards of the state with this recognition of territorial rights
- Awá plant 50m wide border of fruit trees around boundaries of their newly acknowledged territory, and start patrolling and securing their boundaries
1998 - Beginning of FCAE community forest management project
- Modifications to Ecuadorian constitution to include collective rights for indigenous people (Pushed through by CONAIE, Pachakutic, and the general indigenous resistance movement of the 1990s)
2000-2002 - FCAE launches criminal actions against timber companies for illegal entry to Awá territory
2002 - INDA legally grants 6,024 hectares of communal ancestral lands to the Awá Rio Tigre Centre
(August) - Signing of decree 2961, granting 60,000 continuous hectares of community lands for agricultural use (largely for oil palm plantations) - Including a portion of Awá territory
2003-2006 - Administrative and field work continue for Awá in order to obtain title of more of their traditional territory
2005 - Guido Rodríguez illegally enters Awá Balsareño territory for logging and is evicted by the community
2006 (March 2) - Ministry of the Environment grants 99,337 hectares of territory to the Awá people, after 30 years of struggle
(April) - ASONE sends letter to former president Alfredo Palacios, requesting newly granted land rights to the Awá be changed (allegations of drug trafficking)
(December) - INDA resolves to revert the Rio Tigre land, granted in 2002, back to state control in response to demands from farming associations
2007 (January 12) - modification of 2006 land grant to include a “co-management” regime between the Awá and the Afro-Ecuadorian communities (Parish of Ricaurte-Tululbí, Canton of San Lorenzo, Province of Esmeraldas)
(March) - Guido Rodríguez returns to Balsareño Awá territory for logging and is once again evicted by the community
- Collaboration between FCAE and 3 Colombian groups to create plans against the threats of civil war violence and rainforest destruction
Late 2000s - Colombian Awá people caught up in ongoing civil war between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
2007-2009 - Dozens of people killed and nearly 1,500 Awá forcibly displaced from their traditional lands due to civil war along
2008 - Launch of Socio-Bosque program in Ecuador (national precursor to REDD+)
In attempt to secure the northern border with Colombia, the Ecuadorian government turned its attention to Awá territory for surveying and consolidation projects in the late 1970s (Poole, 1989, 63). These activities, as well as increased arrival of settlers and industry into Awá territory inspired communities to collaborate to defend their lands. At the time, “idle” lands were considered open access for colonization by settlers or industry, including most areas subject to the low-impact subsistence practices of the Awá (Macdonald, 1986, 33-36). In order to assert their territorial rights, the Awá therefore had to prove the specific boundaries, occupation, and use of their claimed territory (Poole, 1989, 63).
The process of obtaining land rights for the Awá began with the extensive exploration and demarcation studies of Awá territory throughout the 1980s, supported by national and international organizations such as CONAIE and Cultural Survival (Poole, 1989, 63; Macdonald, 1986, 33-36). As exploration initiatives were carried out, more Awá communities were discovered and incorporated into the project, strengthening land claims of individual communities through collaboration as a cohesive institution through what would eventually become the FCAE (Macdonald, 1986, 33-36).
In 1984, with the goal of obtaining legal land rights for the Awá, international NGO Cultural Survival sponsored the following five initiatives (Macdonald, 1986, 35):
In addition to surveys of territorial boundaries, the Awá were required to prove their lands to be in use in order to prevent loggers and colonists from encroaching on lands perceived as “idle” (Macdonald, 1986, 33-36). In order to assert their use of their traditional lands, the Awá cleared a 12-14m-wide strip of land along the perimeter of their territory, and planted fruit and hardwood trees in the cleared area (Poole, 1989, 63). In addition, at least 4 tree nurseries were initiated prior to 1988 in strategic areas vulnerable to entry from colonizers (Poole, 1989, 63). Throughout these processes, many land disputes with settlers and industrial representatives had to be settled, and agreements made between opposing parties claiming land rights (Poole, 1989, 63).
Between 1986 and 1988, various levels of state government formally recognized the land rights of the Awá, and over 100,000 hectares of their territory were designated as the Awá Ethnic Forest Reserve under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Poole, 1989, 63), and the ‘Traditional Settlement of the Awá Indigenous Community Area’ by the Ministry of Agriculture. Throughout this time, although formally recognized as a distinct indigenous group, the Awá were considered “wards of the state”, and their land use rights were therefore dependent on compliance and authorization by various ministries of the Ecuadorian government (Borrini-Feyerabend et al, 2004, 242). The formal recognition was a significant accomplishment, but the Awá and allies continued to push for more legitimate and unlimited rights.
In 1995, under the FCAE, the Awá Ethnic Forest Reserve was upgraded to a legally recognized “Indigenous Territory” under INEFAN (Instituto Ecuatoriano Forestal y de Areas Naturales), the predecessor of the Ministry of the Environment, “shifting from state patrimony to local autonomy”. With these newly granted rights, the Awá were no longer considered wards of the state, and held exclusive, non-transferable, communal title to large portion of their traditional lands through the FCAE (Danver, 2015, 115; Borrini-Feyerabend et al, 2004, 242). Since this designation, the Awá have fiercely demarcated, patrolled, and defended their territorial borders against large-scale extractive industries, including illegal logging (Borrini-Feyerabend et al, 2004, 242). In addition, as administrative and legal projects have continued, the land-base controlled by the Awá through various types of tenure has grown to over 120,000 hectares through legal recognition by various government ministries.
Despite significant gains in territorial control, there have also been major setbacks for Awá communities. For example, in 2002, INDA (National Institute for Agrarian Development) legally granted 6,024 additional hectares of land to the Rio Tigre Awá Centre, increasing the recognized land base of the FCAE. However, in response to complaints from farming associations defending their interest to use these lands for oil palm plantations, this designation was reversed in 2006, returning a portion of the territory to state control.
Similarly, in August 2002, in a joint effort by the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Foreign affairs, and palm oil companies a portion of Awá and State Forestry Heritage lands were reclaimed for agricultural use. Through Decree 2961, a portion of Awá land rights were overwritten as a total of 60,000 hectares of land were designated for agricultural use to “legitimize the land that oil palm companies acquired illegally”. This change is a clear example of the continued power of the Ecuadorian state over traditionally held lands, despite legal recognition of the Awá’s use rights. In addition, this event highlights the threat of large industrial projects and government complicity in environmental degradation.
In March 2006, after decades of persistent struggle and demarcation projects, the Ministry of the Environment granted an additional 99,337 hectares of land to the FCAE. However, a month following this designation, a letter denouncing the Awá as responsible for drug trafficking and coca plantations in the San Lorenzo region of the province of Esmeraldas was sent by ASONE (Asociacion de Negros Ecuatorianos) in order to contest the recent tenure changes. In response to the letter, in January 2007, the Ministry of the Environment altered the 2006 land designation, initiating a regime of “co-management” between the Awá and the Afro-Ecuadorian communities in the area, affecting 771 inhabitants in 5 Awá communities, and 17,493 hectares of traditional Awá lands.
Ultimately, the struggle for legal recognition of traditional territorial rights has been a complicated, arduous journey, and continues today. The Awá assert customary rights to an additional 5,500 hectares of land that has not been legally recognized by the state, and must continue to protect their legal lands from reversion to state control.
Throughout the decades of work to establish and protect legally recognized Awá territory, there has been much collaboration between Colombian and Ecuadorian national agencies, Ecuadorian government ministries, national and international NGOs, and the FCAE. In 1985 the Joint Commission on Ecuadorian-Colombian Amazonian Cooperation held its first meeting in Bogotá, and initiated the “Working Group for Binational Cooperation in the Preservation and Support of the Awá-Coaiquer” (Macdonald, 1986, 35). This group worked to represent the interest of both countries, to protect the rights of the Awá, and to enact community development projects along the border regions (Macdonald, 1986, 35). The goals of the Commission and the working group included the demarcation and formalization of indigenous lands, as well as the collection of census data from Awá populations (Macdonald, 1986, 34-36). In addition, the working group promoted participation and input from indigenous groups, including ONIC (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia) and CONACNIE (Consejo Nacional de Coordinación de las Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador) (Macdonald, 1986, 35-36).
Due to the unique mountain rainforest ecosystem and high biodiversity of the Choco-Andean rainforest, many international groups have conducted scientific studies in Awá territory (Borrini-Feyerabend et al, 2004, 242). In 1993, in order to control entry, monitor visitor conduct, protect specimens, and gather scientific information about their territory, the Awá, through the FCAE outlined a set of regulations to be followed by all groups conducting scientific research in Awá territory (Borrini-Feyerabend et al, 2004, 242). These regulations are known as the Convenio Reglamentos para la Realización de Estudios Científicos en el Territorio de la Federación Awá (Convenio), and outline specific requirements to which researchers must conform (Borrini-Feyerabend et al, 2004, 242).
The Convenio includes the following requirements:
In addition to environmental protection and research, since 1998 the FCAE has also initiated community-based forest management projects in order to provide supplementary income to Awá communities without succumbing to large-scale industrial extraction and illegal logging pressures. Three main terms were highlighted to protect the interest of Awá communities and to regulate extractive processes. Firstly, all management projects must be “administered and led by FCAE”. Second, the use of heavy machinery for timber extraction in Awá territory is prohibited. And third, the economic benefits received from forest management practices must be “equitably shared on the basis of agreements that the communities will establish with FCAE”.
The first forest management project undertaken by the FCAE was based on an area of 1,980 hectares of communal forest in Mataje, home to a high diversity of endemic wood species. A forestry team of young Awá workers was trained throughout the process, with the goal that the education and experience gained would allow them to become forest managers in the future. The team surveyed and identified botanical species throughout the area and prepared a Community Forestry Management Plan following the Ecuadorian forestry regulation, as well as the regulations set out by the FCAE. The plan outlined a very low intensity extraction of 5-7 trees per month using aerial cables in order to minimize environmental impacts of management practices. Harvested timber was marketed directly to a company in Quito, without the use of intermediaries, in order to maximize profit returns to the FCAE community. In addition, the goal of the forestry team and FCAE was to eventually obtain certification from the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) in order to broaden the international market for their product. The original goal of the FCAE was to obtain FSC certification by 2003, however, no updates on the status of this project could be retrieved. As of 2002, similar plans were intended to be instated in the communities of Guadualito, Balsareño, and Pambilar, although no further information on these projects was found.
As traditional stewards of these lands, the Awá are deeply connected with all biotic and abiotic features of their territory. They have maintained kinship ties with their lands and have fiercely defended them against the encroachment of exploitative resource extraction industries. The Awá are committed to maintaining control of access to their traditional territories to prohibit devastation from industrial logging, oil palm plantations, and mineral extraction. Environmental protection in Awá territories is inextricably linked with the preservation of livelihoods and rich cultural traditions. However, as a nation of dispersed communities with distinct needs and goals, there have been tensions in Awá communities on account of select families succumbing to the pressures of logging companies, and allowing the sale of timber from Awá lands. Such cases highlight the need for enforcement of anti-logging policies by government powers, along with the initiation of programs for economic benefit of the Awá. The Awá are a legally recognized indigenous group in Ecuador, and have the support of many national and international organizations to protect their rights.
As an institution created to represent the interest of Awá communities in Ecuador, the FCAE is also committed to maintaining territorial control for cultural, environmental, and community protection. In order to improve livelihoods in Awá communities, the FCAE has directed community-based forestry initiatives and low-intensity tree harvest projects to ensure modest economic benefits and capacity building in Awá communities. The FCAE is affiliated with numerous national and international organizations in order to protect the rights of the Awá people.
As marginalized citizens without the same nationally recognized territorial rights as indigenous communities, Afro-Ecuadorians have faced displacement and destruction of their lands. Between 1999 and 2007, “tens of thousands of hectares” of land were confiscated from Afro-Ecuadorian communities in the Canton of San Lorenzo for the establishment of industrial oil palm plantations. In that time, 40,000 hectares of forests were felled for such plantations, with Afro-Ecuadorian communities forced to abandon their traditional homes. Due to this destruction of territory, the Afro-Ecuadorian communities have frequently moved onto nearby lands traditionally held by the Awá. In 2007, the Ministry of the Environment initiated a co-management agreement between a local Awá community and an Afro-Ecuadorian community in the Esmeraldas province. The communities co-manage 17,493 hectares of land in the Parish of Ricaurte-Tululbí, in the Canton of San Lorenzo. There have typically been no significant conflicts between the two communities, while they are each working to maintain their livelihoods and cultural practices. Unlike the Awá, these communities do not hold legally recognized traditional land claims and have few connections to international agencies.
Scientists from all over the world have celebrated the Choco-Andean ecoregion and Awá traditional territory as an important refuge zone and biodiversity hotspot (Macdonald, 1986, 33). Generally, researchers are concerned with maintaining biological diversity and environmental protection in the area, and often credit the Awá with protection of their traditional lands (Dasmann, 1988, 488). In order to conduct research on Awá territories scientists must follow all regulations set out in the Convenio, and obtain permission from the Ecuadorian government to collect specimens (Borrini-Feyerabend et al, 2004, 243).
WWF (World Wildlife Fund) supports the Choco Ecoregion Project that works to conserve biodiversity and protect the last remaining area of the unique ecoregion. In addition, WWF supports La Planada conservation area adjacent to Awá territory, in Colombia, and has offered to expand the area to join with Awá conservation initiatives under the WWF “Wildlands and Human Needs Program” (Macdonald, 1986, 36; Dasmann, 1988, 488).
Cultural Survival is a US-based organization committed to the protection of the rights of indigenous people worldwide. This organization has supported multiple initiatives of the FCAE and CONACNIE, including the initial projects of land demarcation to acquire land rights for the Awá in the 1980s (Macdonald 1986, 33-36; Poole, 1989, 63).
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE, Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador) was formed in 1986 based on initiatives of the 1980 National Council for the Coordination of Indigenous Nationalities (Consejo Nacional de Coordinación de las Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, CONACNIE). CONAIE is a private, non-profit organization committed to the protection of indigenous rights in Ecuador, and has played a significant role in the struggle to acquire national recognition and land rights for the Awá (Poole, 1989, 63). The organization works to unify indigenous nations from across Ecuador, creating networks of support and shared experience and expertise to inform indigenous people of their rights within the nation, and strategies to assert those rights (Reed, 2011, 531). In addition, CONAIE frequently represents indigenous nations at the national level, and works to obtain support from international NGOs for local indigenous-led projects, as well as to spread awareness of issues relating to indigenous people in Ecuador (Poole, 1989, 63). CONAIE played a key role in the national recognition of the Awá as an indigenous people of Ecuador, in the formation of the FCAE, and in the process of obtaining land rights for the Awá (Poole, 1989, 63).
Large timber companies have increased pressure on Awá people to force illegal sale of timber or to allow illegal entry to their territory for logging. Certain companies have been forcibly removed by Awá communities for attempting illegal logging in protected areas. Representatives from large timber companies often have deep connections in various levels of government agencies, and are frequently able to escape prosecution for illegal logging activities.
Palm Oil Companies/Plantation Owners
Palm oil companies have interest in transforming Awá rainforest territory into oil palm plantations for mass extraction. Through governmental influence or pressure, palm oil plantation owners likely swayed the 2002 designation of 60,000 hectares of land as agricultural land, including a portion of land previously demarcated for use by the Awá. Significant income as well as governmental influence give this stakeholder much power.
Ecuadorian Government Agencies
The Ministry of the Environment is “responsible for monitoring forestry management and extraction” throughout the country. The Ministry has enacted many unpopular changes to tenure rights, including removal of exclusive rights of the Awá to certain areas of territory. In addition, according to Awá community representatives, the ministry has been unwilling or unable to take action against illegal logging practices and has been publicly denounced by the FCAE for lack of action. The Ministry of the Environment has a responsibility to uphold legal tenure agreements, however allegations of corruption from non-industry groups cast a suspicious shadow on ministry decisions and activities regarding extractive processes.
Created in 1964, the Ecuadorian Institute for Agrarian Reform and Colonization (IERAC, Instituto Ecuatoriano de Reforma Agraria y Colonización) was dedicated to expropriating idle arable land from large landholders for redistribution to local farmers and indigenous people, considered “squatters” without legal tenure. IERAC initiatives limited a maximum amount of land to be held by a single owner, as well as a minimum land area to be granted. In addition, specific regulations for land ownership were outlined, outlawing “absentee ownership” of large tracts of land. Redistributions of land carried out by the IERAC were controversial, with the agency simultaneously backing indigenous people and mining companies, or removing land from indigenous people that did not have adequate funds to repurchase their traditional lands. Throughout the first decade of the Awá demarcation project, the IERAC actively supported work toward the formal recognition of Awá territorial rights (Macdonald, 1986, 34-35). In 1994, the IERAC was eliminated as part of changes to legislation on land ownership in Ecuador, and the responsibilities of the agency were transferred to INDA (National Institute for Agrarian Development).
The National Institute for Agrarian Development (Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Agrario), INDA, was responsible for the 2002 changes to land tenure in the Rio Tigre Awá Centre. In 2010, this institute became part of the national Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries (MAGAP, Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganadería, Acuacultura y Pesca). This restructuring process has revealed overlapping land rights granted by various government agencies, including lands held by the FCAE, resulting in tensions between land rights holders in various regions. MAGAP is responsible for regulating agricultural production in Ecuador, with a focus on production, competiveness, sustainability, and added value for local communities. In addition, MAGAP is responsible for forest plantations and reforestation projects in disturbed areas. This Ministry is charged with balancing economic benefit from various agricultural and plantation practices with environmental impacts of these industries.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was responsible for the initiative to consolidate the border with Colombia in the 1970s and 1980s. This project increased national and commercial attention to traditional Awá lands, resulting in the need for the Awá to assert their territorial rights (Poole, 1989, 63). In an effort to protect border control and to streamline efforts of support for Awá communities in the region, the Ministry created UTEPA (Unidad Técnica Ecuatoriana del Plan Awá) in 1987. Despite the obstacles of limited funding, working in remote areas and dealing with overlapping land claims from settlers, UTEPA has been dedicated to supporting Awá rights and initiatives in the region. UTEPA has helped to obtain foreign aid for the Awá, and to reach agreements with Colombian officials regarding cultural and environmental protection in the border regions.
In partnership with the Egocreanet corporation, two farming associations claimed 4,000 hectares of forest in the Rio Tigre Awá Centre: Asociación de Trabajadores Autónomos San Vicente, and Asociación de Desarrollo Comunitario Vista Hermosa del Río Tigre. These claims resulted in the removal of a recently-granted 6,000 hectare portion of Rio Tigre Centre lands from FCAE control, and reinstatement of state control over the lands by INDA in 2006, resulting in significant frustration and unrest from the local Awá community. These designations opened protected Awá forestland to industrial agricultural practices, reversing conservation efforts and raising suspicions of corruption among certain Awá individuals.
Over the past few decades, Awá communities and the FCAE have received support and aid from multiple international sponsors for various projects, including the following projects: Belgian-sponsored bilingual education programs; medical clinic construction from the French organization Pharmacists without Borders; the donation of amphibious vehicles for sustainable logging projects by the British Military; support and promotion of sustainable forestry practices by the British Overseas Development Agency (ODA).
Colombian Awá Communities
Although they do not hold legally recognized rights to lands held by the FCAE, the Awá communities of Colombia have been significantly affected by the events in Awá territories south of the border. In support of traditional practices and environmental conservation, regardless of national borders, the protection of Awá lands are important for community wellbeing for all Awá communities. Proposed projects to connect FCAE lands with reserve areas in Colombia, such as La Planada Nature Reserve, would greatly benefit the Colombian Awá communities (Macdonald, 1986, 34-35). In addition, the significant casualties and displacement of Awá families caused by the ongoing civil war in Colombia has resulted in many Awá seeking refuge in Ecuadorian communities. The stability and maintenance of land rights by the FCAE positively benefits the Colombian Awá through direct support as refugees, or through the extension of protected areas, however the Awá in Colombia have no direct power over such decisions.
Colombian Office of Frontier Affairs
Although not responsible for direct decision-making regarding FCAE lands, the Office of Frontier Affairs in Colombia has expressed an interest in extending the Ecuadorian Awá project into Colombia (Macdonald, 1986, 34-35). Officials from this agency have frequently met with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Relations in order to control drug trafficking, social unrest, and environmental degradation along the border (Macdonald, 1986, 34-35). For these reasons, the Joint Commission on Ecuadorian-Colombian Amazonian Cooperation was created in 1985, and served as a catalyst for the Awá land demarcation projects (Macdonald, 1986, 34-35). This office would greatly benefit from control and stability in the border regions, including the FCAE lands, due to the prolonged conflict with various rebel forces and with issues of drug trafficking.
In 2007, in response to changes in land tenure in the San Lorenzo region, ASONE (Asociacion de Negros Ecuatorianos) sent a letter to the Ministry of the Environment denouncing Awá communities on allegations of drug trafficking. In response to this letter, in 2007 the newly granted land rights were amended to include a co-management agreement between the FCAE and the local Afro-Ecuadorian community. A representative from the FCAE has claimed that this letter was sent to create the impression of an ethnic land dispute, concealing the interests of land traffickers and palm oil companies. The FCAE representative ensures that no ethnic conflicts exist between Awá and Afro-Ecuadorian communities, who are each striving to protect their land rights.
The initial projects of land demarcation by the Awá were prompted by rumours of a proposed highway project running through traditional Awá territory in 1980 (Poole, 1989, 63). The prospect of highway construction drew the attention of settlers and industry representatives working in forestry, agriculture, and mining (Madonald, 1986, 33). Road construction promised to improve accessibility to these remote areas, facilitating large-scale resource extraction (Poole, 1989, 63). The Awá fiercely defended their territorial rights, with support from various organizations, in order to protect their lands from degradation due to industrial forces (Danver, 2015, 115).
The achievements of the Awá and the FCAE, with all local and international partners, in gaining recognition and land rights as an indigenous community in Ecuador are remarkable. The FCAE is committed to balancing environmental and cultural protection, with revenue from low-impact forest harvest and community-based forestry initiatives. The FCAE has used connections with national organizations, such as CONAIE, and international organizations, such as Cultural Survival, in order to raise awareness of the goals and needs of the Awá, and to retrieve funding and support for various projects. The strategies employed by the FCAE appear to be effective and have resulted in international recognition, as well as in the obvious success of the protection of roughly 120,000 hectares of traditional lands.
The successes of the Awá and the FCAE have not been without difficulty and conflict, due to the various stakeholders claiming interest in Awá territory. Notably, Awá families have been frequently pressured by logging companies to illegally purchase timber. Certain families have accepted such illegal offers, resulting in strife within communities and the FCAE. In addition, despite legally recognized title, there have been many instances of illegal encroachment on Awá lands by logging operations. When detected, these illegal operations are often forcibly evicted by Awá communities, such as in the Balsareño forests in 2005 and 2007. In addition, Awá communities have forced court cases against illegal logging operations, however these are not often won due to the power of large logging companies and the corruption of local judges. Unfortunately, the Ministry of the Environment has not offered adequate support to stop these violations or to prevent pressure from company representatives on Awá families. FCAE representatives and friends of Awá communities have accused the Ministry of the Environment of corruption in blogs and officially to the Civic Commission for the Control of Corruption. Due to the power and corruption of the Ministry as well as the influence and financial assets of large logging companies, the FCAE is often left to defend its lands without the support of government officials who are legally responsible to uphold tenure rights.
In addition to timber harvest, Awá forests are threatened by deforestation for the creation of agricultural lands, such as for oil palm crops. Such crops are also replacing food crops in agricultural areas, limiting the supply of local food in the region, increasing dependence on imported goods. Oil palm plantations in the area have also introduced significant levels of insecticides and fertilizers to rivers in the region, spreading toxins throughout the watershed and into protected FCAE lands. The destruction of the Choco rainforest in the region, as well as the secondary impacts from forestry and agricultural projects have resulted in population reductions in fish and game animals the Awá require for their subsistence lifestyle. In addition, such reductions in biodiversity and habitat destruction are directly in opposition with the environmental conservation goals of the FCAE, and of various other organizations working in the region.
Finally, the location of FCAE lands in a border region has also caused significant threats to Awá lives and livelihoods. In the Nariño province, home to the Colombian Awá, there are notable drug trade routes, as well as production sites growing poppy and coca crops (Danver, 2015, 114-115). Violence from both sides of the conflict in the War on Drugs in this region has significantly impacted Awá communities, resulting in death and displacement of well over 1,500 Awá. The persistent violence throughout southwestern Colombia since the mid-1960s continues to impact Awá communities on both sides of the border, and the FCAE has worked to accommodate the hundreds of Awá refugees that have arrived in Ecuadorian Awá communities (Danver, 2015, 115).
Ultimately, due to the variety of stakeholders, the location of territories along an international border, the economic potential of various aspects of the lands, and the underlying traditional territorial rights of the Awá, the power relations relating to FCAE lands are extremely complicated. This section will assess uses of power by a selection of the main actors in the region – the Awá, FCAE, CONAIE, the Ecuadorian State, and industry representatives.
Despite the various obstacles facing Awá communities in the governance of traditional lands, they have used various methods to increase their power and recognition of their rights. Most importantly, the creation of the FCAE has allowed for dispersed Awá communities with low populations to collaborate on various initiatives, to set common goals, and to associate with larger institutions, including government agencies. The creation of the FCAE would not have been possible without support from CONAIE and international organizations such as Cultural Survival. Notably, CONAIE provided Awá communities with support and expertise for dealing with government agencies, representing the Awá at the national level before the creation of the FCAE. CONAIE and other organizations have used their substantial international awareness and influence to create platforms for the FCAE to voice concerns, and to help secure funds for FCAE projects.
With regards to tenure arrangements, Ecuadorian government agencies have employed many land redistributions and ambiguous definitions that obscure the specific rights of the FCAE to its lands. In a report on relations between indigenous nations and the state in Ecuador, Pablo Reed noted that “while numerous indigenous communities now hold land titles to their ancestral lands, the state has retained the sub-surface mineral rights, making the state and not the communities the ultimate authorities in deciding whether drilling, mining and extraction permits are to be handed out” (2011, 531). Such ambiguities provide rights to indigenous people superficially, while maintaining state control for extractive purposes. Although I was unable to locate the specific details of land rights held by the FCAE, Reed’s cautionary note hints to an alarming reality that may be applicable to FCAE territories. However, with conservation projects underway and the attention of international organizations, the FCAE may have adequate power to stop large-scale mining developments on its lands.
In addition to the underlying power of the state, government agencies have frequently been accused of corruption regarding illegal logging operations and oil palm plantations on FCAE lands. These instances are clear examples of the immense power of industries in the region, and the instability of government agencies responsible for the defense of land rights. In attempts to counteract these collusions and to ensure environmental protection, FCAE representatives have published blogs through the World Rainforest Movement outlining the hardships of the FCAE and demanding action against corruption.
|High Power, Low Interest||High Power, High Interest|
|- Government Agencies
- International NGOs
- Timber Company Representatives
- Palm Oil Company Representatives
|Low Power, Low Interest||Low Power, High Interest|
|- Scientific Researchers
- Colombian Office of Frontier Affairs
- Farming Associations
- International Sponsors
- Afro-Ecuadorian Communities
- Colombian Awá
In the Power/Interest Analysis figure above, I have considered 'power' as the relative influence a stakeholder group can exercise over decision-making processes in territories held by the FCAE. Since the FCAE technically holds exclusive land rights to these territories, it is a considered a 'High Power' group. The FCAE is the body responsible for representing the collective values and goals of Awá communities with regards to their lands, and has the legal authority, recognized by the Ecuadorian government, to enact community decisions for the territory. In terms of interest, the FCAE represents the interests of the Awá, whose culture, identity, and livelihoods are deeply connected with their lands, making the FCAE a 'High Interest' stakeholder.
In the 'High Power, Low Interest' group I have included stakeholders who hold legal authority (government agencies), popular national or international influence (NGOs and CONAIE), or financial and personal influence (company representatives). Although government agencies may receive revenue from processes occurring on FCAE lands, the persistence and survival of these agencies is not dependent on the outcome of management of these territories, making this a 'Low Interest' stakeholder.CONAIE and international NGOs may be dedicated to defending cultural or environmental causes, however they are also not dependent on the specific outcome of management of FCAE lands. The large company representatives will likely have significant economic funds and influence at various levels of government, or in pressuring Awá communities directly. In addition, they have interest in these lands due to the high economic potential they hold. However these stakeholders are considered 'Low Interest' since they are able to carry out extractive businesses for profit in other regions, their livelihoods are not directly tied to Awá traditional territory or lands held by the FCAE.
In the 'Low Power, High Interest' group I have included stakeholders that are not officially organized in governing bodies (Awá), or that have no legal rights concerning the lands in question (Colombian Awá, Afro-Ecuadorian Communities). Although they are undoubtedly a 'High Interest' group due to their deep traditional connection with their territories, as individuals or families the Awá do not hold significant influence or power over their lands, in comparison to the 'High Power' groups. This is evident in the accounts of certain Awá families succumbing to the pressures of logging companies for the illegal sale of timber. As an organized collective through the FCAE, the Awá hold legal rights and strength in organization, however as individuals or families, despite traditional tenure, the Awá are considered a 'Low Power' group. Similarly, without holding legal rights to the land the Colombian Awá and Afro-Ecuadorian Communities have no legal avenues to voice their concerns over the fate of FCAE lands, making them 'Low Power' stakeholders. However, due to their connections with the land and dependence on the success of FCAE conservation strategies for their livelihoods, these are also 'High Interest' stakeholders. (*Note, Afro-Ecuadorian Communities in the San Lorenzo region have co-management rights to a section of FCAE lands, however this is the only legal rights held throughout the significantly larger total territory of the FCAE. For this reason, these communities are still considered 'Low Power' relative to the power of the FCAE over all the lands in question.)
Finally, in the 'Low Power, Low Interest' group I have included stakeholders who have no direct ties with the specific territory in question. In terms of interest, each of the stakeholders included in this group is capable of maintaining their livelihoods in another region or in different ways. In terms of power, the stakeholders in this group hold no legal authority over the lands held by the FCAE. Scientific researchers and international sponsors may support conservation/community initiatives in the region, however they have no legal authority, making them 'Low Power' stakeholders. Although able to petition government agencies, farming associations and ASONE have relatively low power, since they have no traditional or legally recognized claim to FCAE lands. (These two groups have enacted changes in tenure through letter-writing to government agencies, however in comparison to the entire FCAE territory and the relative power of other stakeholders, they remain in the 'Low Power' group.) Representatives from the Colombian Office of Frontier Affairs may meet with Ecuadorian officials to negotiate activities in the border regions, however the Colombian officials hold no legal rights over the processes and tenure arrangements of lands within Ecuador, therefore this is a 'Low Power' group.
Based on literature produced by FCAE representatives and community allies, as well as my own impressions of the power dynamics in this case, this section will outline recommendations for FCAE projects, as well as similar community forestry initiatives.
With regards to allegations of corruption, and the redistribution of FCAE lands (for agricultural use or for co-management), FCAE members have petitioned the international community and the FSC social forum to reach out to Ecuadorian government officials with demands to control corruption and illegal logging practices occurring on FCAE lands. Throughout the history of the Awá campaign for territorial rights, national and international awareness and support has proven to be invaluable. I believe that attracting attention from various interested parties with common goals of community support and environmental protection is essential for the defense of Awá territorial rights. The most accessible online resources about the FCAE are blog posts by FCAE representatives spreading awareness of their land conflicts. These types of blogs are therefore essential for the continued awareness and support for Awá communities, with the help of organizations such as Cultural Survival and the World Rainforest Movement providing platforms for FCAE representatives to voice their concerns and pleas.
Despite extensive research, I was unable to locate a definition of the specific land rights the FCAE holds, or much information regarding events in the area since 2007. It is unclear whether this is due to a language barrier, to reduced activity of the FCAE, or to any other reasons. Regardless of the justification for this information deficit, I recommend the FCAE to continue to reach out and collaborate with organizations and interested parties nationally and internationally in order to defend their territorial rights. Especially in the current age of social/environmental awareness and social media, I believe the concerns of the FCAE would attract significant attention and support internationally.
In general, for projects intended to legitimize traditional territorial rights of indigenous people under state law for the purpose of cultural and environmental protection, it is absolutely essential for “land access and security [to be outlined] in terms consistent with [indigenous] social and political organization and cultural notions of space” (Bruce, 2003, 279). In other words, the specific traditional laws and worldview of the indigenous group must inform and be incorporated into the legal documentation outlining their rights. Any legal documents or rights acknowledged by the nation-state must conform, as much as possible, to traditional governance systems and practices held by the indigenous community.
Furthermore, plans for the instatement of extractive programs, such as forestry operations, by indigenous land rights-holders should be part of “an integrated system for family and community maintenance”, not solely as a source of income for the community. In working toward environmental and community goals at once, forestry practices must be community-driven and align with community-determined values and goals of a specific people and region. Forestry operations must be carried out with transparency, allowing for input and participation by community members at all levels, and to ensure realistic expectations in the community.
Finally, two key elements have stood out in the case of the FCAE lands that have allowed for successful protection of territorial rights. First, the physical demarcation of community lands through the clearing of land and planting a distinct border of fruit and hardwood trees was an essential element of success in this case. This strategy represents a clear assertion of control and right to traditional territories and allowed for connections to be made with remote, previously unconsolidated Awá communities. Second, the creation of the FCAE as a representative organization was essential for the dispersed Awá communities to collectively address government agencies, multiplying their individual power through collaboration.
Due to the international attention and high ecological importance of the Choco ecoregion, there are numerous institutions working to protect swaths of land on or around traditional Awá territories. Many projects are dedicated to buying back lands for protection, while others are committed to connecting existing ecological reserves to maintain important biological corridors for habitat connectivity. Many projects also take into account the importance of community involvement and the protection of indigenous land rights, employing various strategies to promote community involvement and benefits. A brief description of a handful of such projects is provided below, however there are many additional examples not provided here.
Almost directly adjacent to FCAE lands on the Colombian side of the border, 1,667 hectares of land is protected under the La Planada Nature Reserve (Macdonald, 1986, 34-35). Initiated in 1982 by the Colombian Foundation for Higher Education (FES, Fundación para la Educaión Superior) and WWF, La Planada is primarily a research station and serves to protect the vast amount of endemic flora and fauna in the “unmodified tropical rainforest” from clearing, colonization and development projects (Macdonald, 1986, 34). In addition, La Planada’s secondary goal is to “integrate natural resource conservation and management with economic development of the surrounding communities”, most of which are those of the Colombian Awá (Macdonald, 1986, 34). La Planada is frequently celebrated as the nucleus for the initiation and consolidation of ecological reserves throughout the region, including the Awá Ethnic Forest Reserve (Dasmann, 1988, 488).
From 1994 to 2002 the UK-based Rainforest Concern connected lands protected by the FCAE to the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve further south to create a biological corridor between the two conservation areas. This program consisted of purchasing 30,000 acres of land from private owners for protection. As a continuation of this project, the Australian-based Rainforest Rescue began a southern phase of the project to connect the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve to the Mindo Nambillo Ecological Reserve. Initiated in 2004, this project has protected at least 1760 hectares of land, however further developments on the project have not been reported.
In 2014, Rainforest Trust helped establish the 1,141-acre Dracula Reserve in Northwestern Ecuador in the Choco rainforest region. This small reserve is home to numerous species of rare orchids, large mammals such as the puma, rare amphibians, as well as endangered species of monkeys and birds. In 2018 Rainforest Trust has raised funds to expand the Dracula Reserve to a total of 2,616 acres, connecting it to protected Awá lands held by the FCAE. Developments on this proposed expansion are not yet documented.
The Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF) has funded a project by Altropico, running from August 2017 to September 2019 to “develop an interconnected altitudinal bio-corridor between the Awá territory, Golondrinas protected forest and the ecological reserve El Ángel”. The project has proposed to connect various existing reserves in a provincial “Area for Conservation and Sustainable Use” in order to improve protection of habitat for endangered species in existing areas, and allow for augmented protection in new areas. In addition, the project aims to aid in the consolidation of Awá territories, the protection of Awá territorial management and governance, and the facilitation of stakeholder coordination. Information developments on this project have not yet been released.
The Sirua Foundation owns and manages 10,000 hectares of land acquired through private purchase as the conservation area of the Awácachi Corridor. Along with local partners and Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the Sirua Foundation is committed to environmental protection through the employment and training of local forest rangers, supporting community tenure issues, and promoting local education and community development programs.
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