Contamination of the Social Fabric: Sápara Leaders’ Resistance to Oil Companies in the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Narrow Vision of Environmental Impact Studies

By Lindsay Ofrias, Princeton University §

In the shadow of the world’s worst case of oil contamination, the Sápara, a small group of indigenous people, are desperately protecting their island of pristine rainforest in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

Once a nationality numbering in the tens of thousands, only a few hundred Sápara people survive today, their population devastated by centuries of colonization, displacement and enslavement. Now they live in a precarious moment, many concerned about the contamination that has killed and sickened their neighbors farther north [1], prompting them to organize against the Ecuadorean government’s leasing of their territory for oil extraction [2].

Oil activities in Sápara territory are only in the exploration phase, but the noxious impacts of the industry are already being felt. The oil industry has pervaded Sápara communities and their territory; not necessarily through chemical contamination of the water supply (yet), but by contaminating the very fabric of social life. Violence targets the people who attempt to defend their land; sometimes as threats and intimidations, sometimes as murder.

This kind of contamination—engulfing, terrorizing risk of assault that infects mind, psyche, spirit, and daily life—sits outside of the results of environmental impact studies. Thematically and temporally, those studies (which are one of the few tools that affected people have to defend their rights) are unable to account for such menace: they examine how ecosystems will be changed once exploration and extraction takes place, but say little about the violence endured by communities, emotionally and psychologically, at the moment in which those negotiations commence.

“Sápara Territory from Above.” The Sápara nationality, which holds territorial rights in the south-central Ecuadorian Amazon, has been engaged in major mobilizations to protect its communities against new oil projects promoted by the state. Note that Environmental Impact Studies related to those projects may be requested from the Ministry of the Environment via email. Photo by Lindsay Ofrias.

More than Physical

Walking through the dense forest of a Sápara community last year, my heart leapt out of my chest as one of my hosts stopped short in her tracks. A loud cry reverberated against the trees and I realized that it was from her. My surprise hardly allowed me to halt my pace, but the two young children who were in our group froze, their eyes darting into the green surrounding us.

“This is how we are being terrorized,” my host told me, as she pointed to felled trees in our path with the tip of her machete.

“It’s the men who killed Anacleta,” my other host whispered, “They want us to know they are tracking us.”

The kids’ eyes grew wider. My chest got heavier. The sun was setting and I was worried we wouldn’t make it back to their home safely. Additionally, I felt responsible for my friend who I had invited on the trip.

About three months earlier, not far from where we were, some of Anacleta’s family members had found her naked and mutilated, sprawled on the forest floor amid discarded machetes. Recounting the story, a loved one showed me the photos: Anacleta’s neck was the color purple, looking as if she had been strangled from behind. Bruises on her body, some thought, provided evidence of rape. Other community members claimed it was suicide, domestic abuse or shamanism, but meticulously arranged beside Anacleta’s lifeless body, some reported, was a strange collection of forest cuttings, which a number of women had read as a warning; a kind of hit list. Those opposing oil extraction, women especially, saw themselves as the next target in a war that could decimate their people.

Anacleta was not herself a very well-known activist leader, but closely related to people who prominently are means that she would have been a likely target. The investigation into her death is still in process, and there has yet to be an autopsy. Regardless of who is responsible, the fact that many community members link the brutality against Anacleta to the oil industry reflects the broader “war” of unwanted destructive capitalist invasion they say they are confronting, which has claimed the life of at least one other Sápara person (Vallejo & Duhalde 2016).

Shouting was a way to tell the mysterious men in the forest that we were in a group, and unafraid of them. The hope was that we could make ourselves seem stronger than we actually were, as one might try to look larger and more threatening to a jaguar by lifting up their arms. Making it back to the house, however, did not ease our overwhelming fear. The home, which should have been a place of safety and comfort, was not.

There was no service for phones or internet, and the one radio that connected us to the closest city (a plane ride away) functioned only during daytime hours. We were not prepared should an ambush occur [3]. The community members, to the best of my knowledge, did not want confrontation nor violence, and always looked for peace.

Only a very small section of the home had walls and a door, and made of wood slats, the lock could be broken with very little force…Inside, and on the porch, we stayed vigilant through the night, our headlamps searching among the shadows cast by the moon against the leaves of the ferns and trees around us. It was an experience of waiting on edge, with no real means of defense, for something more terrible to occur that, since Anacleta’s death and possibly much earlier, people in the community had come to know well.

“The Amazon’s Chernobyl.” Ecuador’s northern Amazonian region is one of the most contaminated places on earth due to decades of oil extraction by the state and transnational corporations, causing many to refer to the catastrophe as “the Amazon’s Chernobyl.” Photo by Lindsay Ofrias.

The Power of Fear

The next morning, thankfully all of us safe, I felt embarrassed to end my visit and return to Quito early. My hosts surprised me, however, by thanking me for validating their fear.

Numerous social forces work to minimize and delegitimize the fear that consumes communities confronting extractive industry—scholars have shown this to be the case in many places around the world (e.g. Auyero & Swistun 2009; Jain 2013; Masco 2008). In order to maintain operations when there is such resistance, powerful interested parties work hard to convince the public that fear of toxicity and other industrial-related harms is something pathological (Goldstein & Hall 2015; Stawkowski 2017). In whichever case, those who are on the frontlines of these battles must constantly grapple with how to manage their lives against such hostile dynamics [4].

For Sápara resistance leaders who have lost family members to assassination, have received death threats, have returned home after hunting expeditions to find their chickens slain and hanging by their necks, or have been paid visits by strange visitors who do nothing explicitly harmful but torment them with their presence and chillingly vague stories about why they have come, it becomes harder and harder to go on with daily tasks. No matter one’s gender, age, or physical strength, few who experience or witness such things retain the will to go anywhere alone since Anacleta’s death, be that to tend gardens, take walks or forage in the forest, or visit nearby relatives.

The consequences of all this are two-fold. First, on the ground, what’s required for social reproduction can hardly take place. Second, many resistance leaders are in such grave danger that they are often forced to flee their territories.

The women who hosted me in their territory, for instance, have grown more and more transient. They are constantly worried about the upkeep of their forest gardens while they seek respite in cities. Staying in cities provides them relative safety, as well as greater opportunities to advocate for their indigenous nation before powerful governmental authorities.

Those very governmental authorities, however, have questioned their legitimacy as leaders in myriad ways [5]. Meanwhile, an erasure of the oppression and violence committed by the state against them is fodder for social and political discourses that link their so-called “migration” to the cities to the allure of “modernity” and the promises of “development” [6].

This is beneficial to the oil industry: without requiring the mess of (more) assassinations, resistance leaders are less and less a physical obstruction to the quest of a few to suck crude profit out of Sápara territory. Moreover, the mere presence of indigenous peoples in cities gets woven to fit a story about “progress” desirable to everyone—including those who have yet to move away from the forest—as a means to excuse destruction done to indigenous territory, indigenous nation, and indigenous persons in the process.

“Map 1: Blocks 79 and 83.” Contracts signed between Andes Petroleum Consortium and Chinese Consortium allow for oil exploration and extraction in an area that overlaps with Sápara, Kichwa and Shiwiar lands, with Block 83 additionally cutting into Yasuní National Park and affecting groups “in voluntary isolation.” Contamination and other impacts are likely to reach Shuar, Achuar, and non-indigenous communities in the surrounding region. Map by Geografía Crítica Ecuador.

Toxicity that Defies Measurement

It is important to keep in mind that this systematic undermining of indigenous social fabric is what is taking place prior to the extraction of oil from the leased blocks. It is something that is so easily forgotten because the arguably two best tools for fighting oil companies, environmental impact studies and toxic tort lawsuits, are based on the hypothetical or real occurrence of a biophysical event, usually an oil spill, to build a case for those who are, or might soon be, negatively affected by said event.

The violence against Sápara resistance leaders occurring today is before any such “event” and thus does not get factored into the equation. Likewise, environmental impact studies and toxic tort lawsuits respond to specific “events,” not to the cumulative oppression, violence and intimidation that is unfolding.

The reliance on those tools of numerical modes of measurement, meanwhile—such as estimations of how many fish in a particular species might be harmed, or how likely a person exposed to oil toxins might be to develop respiratory illness—are unable to capture the harms inflicted on psyche, on spirit, on community [7]. Their concern with numbers and things that are more amenable to being compartmentalized and quantified means that much is left out. The toxic climate of fear and intimidation descending on Sápara communities is not only resistant to such reduction, but also falls far outside the temporal purview of such measurements, which only see trouble once an environmental standard is broken [8].

Toxicity, though, is not just a chemical compound. Toxicity is not just found in the physical matter of crude oil and its byproducts, causing cancer and other kinds of bodily illnesses. Toxicity pertains to anything that is harmful; to anything that acts like a poison [9]: that’s why “toxic masculinity,” “toxic mortgages” and “toxic relationships” exist in many popular lexicons. In the case of the Sápara, and for many other indigenous nationalities and communities across the world, a climate of toxicity is produced by the oil industry before crude is ever even extracted from the ground. While the georgraphical, biophysical environment might not yet be harmed, the social environment unquestionably is.

“Map 2: Oil and Sápara Territory.” Sápara territory, outlined here in yellow, has been carved into a number of “oil blocks” for extracting crude profit, of which Sápara leaders and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) argue has taken place without proper community consultation. Map by Geografía Crítica Ecuador.

Stopping at Nothing

Racism against indigenous peoples is a poison that has not only denied the Sápara their right to self-determination, but has also blocked efforts to account for and respond to the violence that is killing them. While the extraction of oil promises to bring benefits to some, racism tries to justify the horrors it causes to others.

Environmental impact studies are an embodiment of that racism whenever there is omission of the harm that the people affected by a project experience. In Ecuador, it is wealthy government ministers and rich companies (usually managed by individuals of lighter skin) who are deciding what counts as an “impact” and what does not, thereby justifying the fate they are deciding for the Sápara.

More specifically, those impact studies reflect how, in practice, indigenous peoples are only guaranteed the right to consultation and not consent when it comes to extracting oil from their territory: they propose means for preventing or minimizing potential impacts, rather than allowing for halting a project altogether (CDES 2016).

This is why, in the struggle for justice, the issue of Free, Prior and Informed Consent has become a focal point of action: it is a legal mechanism meant to ensure that communities are given sufficient information about an extractive project before it begins, in which they can make a decision to say no without fear of repression. International treaties signed and ratified by Ecuador, as well as the constitution, grant that right.

But governmental officials have argued that acquiring consent for a project is not a requirement—communities, they say, must only be included in the discussion (Melo 2013, in CDES 2016, p.12). This is why many indigenous activists are more and more organizing against the consultation process, understanding that the state has not complied with the laws that do exist that respect their rights and dignity.

The toxic climate of fear and intimidation that is eating away at the Sápara people’s social fabric and community wellbeing even prior to oil extraction beginning must be accounted for if we are to acknowledge the true cost of this arrangement. Unless Sápara people truly have a say in what happens to their territory, toxicity will seep into everything, killing from every angle.

Sápara leaders, who have faced all kinds of danger, continue to stand on the front lines, refusing more violence and destruction. The extent to which the rest of us stand with them is a test of how much racism and the discourses praising development have contaminated our thinking.

“Delivering Demands for Dignity and Life.” Female indigenous leaders from the Amazon organize in front of the presidential palace on March 11, 2018, preparing to submit a list of demands to President Lenín Moreno who has approved oil operations in their territories without their consent. Their mandate is available in Spanish here. Photo by Lindsay Ofrias.


Greatest thanks go to the brave Sápara people who have invited me into their lives, have shared their stories with me, and have given me permission to publish this article. I am also very thankful for Theresa Miller who provided superb editorial guidance, and for the insightful help I received from George Byrne, Amelia Fiske, Ivette Vallejo and Meryleen Mena (any shortcomings are mine alone). This work also would not have been possible without the tremendous support I have received from my dissertation committee, João Biehl, Carolyn Rouse, and Carol Greenhouse, and funding I have been granted from Princeton University’s Anthropology Department, Program in Latin American Studies, and Center for Health and Wellbeing.


1. The world’s worst oil related disaster in history, scientists have noted, is in Ecuador’s northern Amazon region where corporation Chevron-Texaco has admitted to intentionally dumping billions of gallons of toxic wastes into the environment. In an ongoing lawsuit now 25-years-old, more than 30,000 farmers and indigenous peoples have been seeking corporate accountability and a full remediation. Updates on the legal case may be followed here.

2. In late January 2014, under President Rafael Correa, two contracts were signed between Ecuador and Chinese Consortium Andes Petroleum, allowing for 20 years of extraction should exploration prove to be economically and technically viable. Later, when Ecuador’s Secretary of Hydrocarbons declared it completed free, prior and informed consultation with the communities to be affected, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) argued that the process did not adhere to the constitutional mandate nor the international standards (Vallejo 2014). Today, under the new government of President Lenin Moreno there are many questions about what is going to happen with the oil blocks, and many Sápara people hope that Moreno will respect the rights of indigenous peoples as he has at times promised. For more information, see this statement from the Sápara Women’s Association.

3. Should we be attacked tonight, I was instructed, run into the forest, and we will find you. It might take us a couple weeks to walk to safety, but we will do it. My hosts, in fact, had done it many times before, but it never came without its own dangers. They were themselves still grieving the loss of a friend who died on one such journey from a snakebite, curable but only when quickly treated with anti-venom.

4. Global Witness is one non-governmental organization that, alongside campaigning for accountability, has been working to record and raise awareness about the grave threats that environmental defenders face.

5. For example, the Ecuadorian government, in numerous occasions, has refused to officially recognize the democratically-elected Sápara leaders legitimated by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (who are against oil extraction), and have instead granted that recognition to individuals who have been friendly with the Secretary of Hydrocarbons.

6. It is worth emphasizing that there are varied reasons why there is movement to the cities. The desire to live an urban lifestyle is only one of them. Indigenous organizing has historically fought against oppressive ideologies that, on the one hand, reject the authenticity of indigenous people who live urban lifestyles, and, on the other hand, deny indigenous peoples’ right to protect their territories from unwanted ‘development’ (see, for instance, Bessire 2014 and Tuhiwai Smith 2012).

7. This is not to suggest that calculating harm related to exposure to chemicals used in oil extraction is something straightforward—it is fraught with its own challenges, as many scholars have noted (in the case of Ecuador, see Sawyer 2004).

8. Amelia Fiske’s (2017) analysis of Environmental Impact Assessments of oil production in the Ecuadorian Amazon demonstrates how the EIA relies “on numerical values in order to make comparisons and determine the comparative importance of impacts,” while underlining how the making of those numerical values is not an objective exercise” (Fiske 2017: 67).

9. David Pellow (2007), for instance, argues that racism is a poison in both a figurative and literal sense: racism “fills the water and land literally, and it invades our bodies like the chemicals that TNCs manufacture and pump into our atmosphere everyday. Toxic chemicals are the embodiment of racism (and gender and class violence) because they are intended to produce benefits for some while doing harm to others” (Pellow 2007: 46).

Works Cited

Auyero, Javier and Swistun, Debora Alejandra. 2009. Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bessire, Lucas. 2014. Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

CDES. 2016. “La consulta libre, previa e informada en el Ecuador.” Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales. Quito, Ecuador.

Fiske, Amelia. 2017. “Bounded Impacts, Boundedless Promise: Environmental Impact Assessments of Oil Production in the Ecuadorian Amazon.” In ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures. Kirk Jalbert, Anna Willow, David Casagrande and Stephanie Paladino, eds. Pp. 63-76. London & New York: Routledge.

Goldstein, Donna and Hall, Kira. 2015. “Mass hysteria in La Roy, New York: How brain experts materialized truth and outscienced environmental inquiry.” American Ethnologist 42(4):640-657.

Jain, S. Lochlann. 2013. Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Masco, Joseph. 2008. “‘SURVIVAL IS YOUR BUSINESS’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America.” Cultural Anthropology 23(2):361-398.

Pellow, David. 2007. Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice. Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press.

Sawyer, Suzana. 2004. Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Stawkowski, Magdalena. 2017. “Radiophobia had to be Reinvented.” Culture, Theory and Critique. 58(4):357-374.

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Second Edition. London: Zed Books Ltd.

Vallejo, Ivette and Duhalde, Corinne. 2016. “Chamanismo, petróleo e itinerarios legales inconclusos en la Amazonía de Ecuador.” In Apus, caciques y presidentes: Estado y política indígena amazónica en los países andinos. Alexandre Surrallés, Oscar Espinosa and David Jabin, eds. Pp. 215-234. Copenhagen, Denmark: IWGIA-International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs.

Vallejo, Ivette. 2014. “Petróleo, desarrollo y naturaleza: aproximaciones a un escenario de ampliación de las fronteras extractivas hacia la Amazonía suroriente en el Ecuador.” ANTHROPOLÓGICA 32(32):115-137.

Lindsay Ofrias is a PhD candidate in anthropology and a recipient of the Lassen Fellowship in Latin American Studies at Princeton University. Her research focuses on environmental justice, petro-politics and social movements.

This post is part of our thematic series: Toxic Bodies.