By Carlota Houart, September 2023
The Piatúa River is born in the Llanganates Mountains of Ecuador and runs through the Amazon rainforest. It is thought to be millions of years old and home to a vast diversity of animal and plant species, some of which have not yet been scientifically identified. It is also one of the last free-flowing rivers of the Ecuadorian Amazon to have so far escaped negative human interference (e.g., from mining, pollution, or deforestation). The Piatúa’s riverbanks have been inhabited by more than twenty Kichwa communities for multiple generations, and there are ancient signs of human presence in the area found in petroglyphs carved on rocks along the course of the river. The river’s stones are, indeed, one of its most striking features: the Piatúa is known in Kichwa as Mayu waka rumi, “the river of sacred stones”, and it is believed by the local Kichwa communities to be a sacred, living being with healing powers, inherent wisdom, and its own guardian spirits.
Yet, since 2014 the Piatúa has been threatened by a project from Ecuadorian energy company GENEFRAN S.A. (now called Elit Energy) to build a hydroelectric dam in the river. This project, which was originally approved by the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition of Ecuador, was quickly opposed by members of the Kichwa communities of Santa Clara (who have intimate cultural, historical, and spiritual relationships with the river); activists and environmental organizations; and other river lovers (such as practitioners of water sports like kayaking and rafting). Members of the communities denounced the project as having been pushed forward without their free, prior, and informed consent; and complaints were raised against the environmental impact assessment conducted by the company, which was found to be very inaccurate by different scientific experts and – according to local activists – actually based on data from a different river altogether. The hydro dam would have significant impacts on the river, leading to the loss of an estimated 90% of its water volume and creating flood risks in adjacent rivers; seriously threatening its precious biodiversity; and putting at risk the livelihoods of the local Kichwa communities, as well as their spiritual and cultural ties with the Piatúa. Furthermore, although the project is apparently part of Ecuador’s “green transition” plans, local activists claim that it is actually linked to existing plans to build a new oil extraction zone in the region (Block 28) and a new mining site in a nearby community, thereby constituting a source of financing for these extractive activities.
In response to the threat to the Piatúa, an activist group called Piatúa Resiste was formed in 2018, mobilized by young activists from Santa Clara and composed of Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies. Operations for the dam construction began in 2018, but they were instantly faced with peaceful resistance by the activists and members of the communities, and the case was taken to the courts. Making use of Ecuador’s constitutional chapter on Rights of Nature, the lawyers in support of the communities and of the river argued that both the rights of the Kichwa people and of the Piatúa itself were being violated.
The court case was permeated by political tensions and struggle, including the arrest of the judge originally responsible for denying an action of protection in favour of the communities and of the river, who was found to have taken bribes in order to push the hydro dam project forward. In connection to this event, the Provincial Court of Pastaza temporarily suspended the project, instructing the energy company to redo its environmental impact assessment and to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of the Kichwa communities of Santa Clara. Nevertheless, political elections in early 2023 saw the mayor of the municipality who originally paved the way for the hydro dam re-elected, causing renewed concern among the activists and opposers of the dam that the project might still be pushed forward.
Their latest strategy, in a combined effort between Piatúa Resiste and PONAKICSC (the official organization of the Pueblo Originario de la Nacionalidad Kichwa del Cantón de Santa Clara) has been to organize a campaign to self-declare the Piatúa as Cultural Heritage of Ecuador. The river defenders are now preparing a camp that will take place along the banks of the Piatúa, involving several of the local communities, from October to December 2023. Riverhood Project’s PhD researcher Carlota Houart, who is studying the topic of multispecies justice in the Piatúa (and in the river Maas, in the Netherlands) will be joining the camp as part of her fieldwork.
The self-declaration by PONAKICSC of the Piatúa as Cultural Heritage of Ecuador is seen as one of the strongest possible strategies to ensure protection of the river and effectively halt the hydro dam project.
For more information on the Piatúa river case, you are invited to watch the short documentary “Piatúa Resiste”, by Indigenous Amazonian filmmaking group TAWNA: https://tawna.org/peliculas/piatua-resiste/.