“In my youth, I had a significant dream about the area of the Alta Amazonia, the place where I later based my project,” the Italian photographer Nicola Ókin Frioli tells BJP. “One day I met someone who confirmed I had a kind of calling to this area and advised me to go.”
Ókin took his first trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon in January 2015, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Alto Cenepa War, a conflict that broke out between Ecuador and Peru over disputed territory from 26 January to 28 February 1995.
“It was a war of the governments, not of the natives. Yet they participated anyway as civilians in support of the inexperienced military,” explains Ókin. “For the indigenous people, particularly the Shuar and Achuar, it was a resistance because their territory was in danger.”
Now, the indigenous communities are facing another imminent threat – that of large-scale mining. Rich in copper and gold, the Shuar and Achuar territories are in danger of being exploited and its inhabitants risk being forcibly removed; in the province of Pastaza y Orellana, where Sáparas Kichwas, Saraguros and Cofanes live, the threat comes from the mining of oil. “The extraction activities would not only destroy the jungle, but they would also deprive the natives of their lands as well as their identities and traditions,” says Ókin. “We cannot forget that for the Amazonian Indians the jungle protects the spirits of their ancestors, and that the Indians proclaim themselves as guardians of them.”
“For years I searched for books, read the chronicles of explorers, and studied texts with an anthropological focus,” says Ókin. But the majority of the research for this project had to be done in the field, he says, there with the Amazonian settlers.
Despite their remoteness, these communities do have frequent contact with the outside world. The Rute Transamazonica – an asphalt road that crosses the Amazon – is their sole communication link. “In reality it’s a small world; everyone knows each other and I only had to make contact,” says Ókin.
However, it wasn’t always straightforward. “It is a world that is wary of outsiders for fear that they might belong to a mining or oil company [depending on the area]; therefore to have access, permission is required from the community leaders,” he says.
Although he sometimes had friends to accompany him, Ókin admits he occasionally took risks without being totally prepared to navigate alone in the Amazon – following long paths through the jungle, relying only on the directions given to him, and sometimes having to enter communities without permission. Yet he says the biggest challenge was the jungle itself: “Most insects and animals are dangerous to humans. The most common you can find are the smallest – ants that can give you seizures, tarantulas, various types of snakes, and anacondas.” But, he adds, these are difficulties that can be overcome once you begin to understand the jungle.
Ókin returned to the region three times and, in total, spent around six months there. This allowed him to develop trust with the communities. “Over time, I made the genuine friendship with [Vicente Numi Tsakimp] the president of the PSHA [Shuar Arutam People’s Federation], thanks to a friend [Tania Laurini],” he says. “He supported me a lot and in a short time I was accepted. I managed to get written permission for free transit, introducing me as a photographer interested in telling the story of the resistance against large-scale mining.”
Ultimately Ókin hopes that through his images their struggle will become known outside Ecuador, in addition to raising awareness about the importance of preserving the jungle; a vital source of oxygen and water, both essential for our survival.
“Until recently, there was very little information on this situation although it is not new. I believe the most well-known incident was the toxic damage left behind from the Texaco oil company, which entered Ecuador in 1964 with an extraction concession from the government,” says Ókin. “According to environmentalists, Texaco produced in a decade the most serious environmental disaster caused by oil in history. In Ecuador, there may be NGOs and environmental groups operating on the ground, but there is relatively little exposure about it abroad.”
“I hope that this project will also make people aware that these communities are the guardians of the Amazon,” adds Ókin. “Though they defend their territory and nature, they also defend it for a collective future.”