Group of young Kichwas on duty during the day of the assembly called to stop the progress of the works for the construction of a hydroelectric plant on the Piatúa River, and where the community members of the area had no prior consultation. The Genefran company began the preliminary work, which had to be blocked by indigenous pressure in defense of its river and water source. The indigenous declaration was that they would burn a piece of machinery every day until the company decided to take it away for good. Canton of Santa Clara, Province of Pastaza.
Nicola Okin
Ecuador -
January 05, 2021

Nicola Okin in the Amazon: the Call to Portray a Territory in Resistance

Before turning into wind, according to Sápara’s mythology, there was a man that prophesied the end of the culture of the Ecuadorian Amazon people. It was called Piatsaw, demiurge and the father of all shamans. The same name was chosen by Nicola Okin Frioli to headline the black and white project with which he seeks to relate stories of struggles and resistance of the native peoples of that corner of the world.

Nicola is Italian but, in his teens, he knew that his roots would not grow up there, where he was born. He felt the call of the Amazon and he went there, with the camera as an excuse.

At first, his intention was to record from the perspectives of the Amazonic’s natives the aftermath of the Cenepa war, a border conflict between Peruvians and Ecuadorians that erupted in 1955 and left the zone full of mines. A war that was never officially declared and in respect of which, to this day, both sides claim victory. However, he discovered that this conflict was one of the many adversities they deal with on a daily basis. “The war was only a parenthesis in my search to narrate the resistance against large-scale mining and oil projects  in the Ecuadorian Amazon”, says Nicola.

In the artist’s own description of his project, he states: “Extractive activities would not only destroy the jungle, they would make the natives lose their territories as well as their identities and traditions. The Shuar and Achuar territory is rich in copper and gold, further north, in the Province of Pastaza, Orellana and Sucumbío, where Sáparas, Kichwas, Ai Cofán and Sionas live among others, the threat is oil extraction”. Part of that work can be seen on the platform The Amazon that we want.

Nicola is a freelancer who has been dedicated to photojournalism and reporting for years. Based in Mexico, he was awarded several times for his work On the other side of the dream. There he tells stories of those who travel north in search of a better future.

View of the Bobonaza River from the Sarayaku community.

Oil pipes through the Centinela de la Patria area, El Coca, Orellana Province, currently in use for some of the oil companies in activity.

Did the fact that you are a migrant influence your work Al otro lado del sueño

I think it was the other way around: the project influenced my life. At the end of 2007, having already moved to Mexico, I wanted to think about what my long-term theme was going to be and I decided to talk about migrants. I thought that migration was already well told by other authors, but migrants like I wanted not. For me, it had to be told in some violent way and away from some train tracks. The drama of migration was in the man and, precisely, in those people who, either by taking refuge or wanting to fulfill this “American dream” had faced the “Mexican nightmare” which is their most brutal side. 

I tried to tell the human drama of someone who has also lost hope. I sought to meet this reality, interact with each one of the migrants individually, starting with an interview, looking them in the eye and not together holding on to a train. Hearing their stories, their sorrows, and their crosses has made it possible for me to become emotionally involved with them. It is one of the projects in which I cried the most, but I never recognized myself in them. They missed their land and forcibly migrated. I was happy to migrate. My status as a migrant cannot be compared with the conditions of most of them. I was welcomed, they are rejected.

Guards A’i Cofán of Sinangoe on duty on the community suspension bridge, the only access to it. Sucumbío Province.

A woman of the Sapara nationality looks out the window of a recently landed plane in the Community of Morete, in the Sapara territory, of the Ecuadorian Amazon. This territory is surrounded by thousands of hectares of primary forest, so it can only be accessed by air. There is no road and on foot, a person would take about a week to walk in muddy areas. The lack of a road is a kind of blessing for the inhabitants, since the indigenous people can maintain control of the territory and the preservation of it, thus avoiding deforestation. The landing of a plane is a special event, since it means the only contact with the “modern world”. Community of Morete, Province of Pastaza, Ecuadorian Amazon.

 You settled in Mexico in 2007, why?

When I decided to move to Mexico, I had already traveled to this land six or seven times. Iwas following a group of indigenous Wirrarika on their ritual pilgrimage through northern Mexico. The day “I step on Mexican land”, for the first time, I felt in a place that could define and call home. Obviously, a home I had never known and made me feel as, in reality, this new destination was a return. So the transition from Italy to Mexico was never complicated. I was 30 years old and I was very conscious that my roots were not going to develop in the place that I was born. I needed, I think, something more. I have the necessity to go to different places where I was born, the own that I knew. I had the need to find a way to go away, to “some other world” where the idea of opening some connections with the place, with its people and its ancient culture inspired me. I think photography helped to create the way I wanted to live and was the argument to leave home, my place of comfort. The camera was the perfect instrument.

I studied Fine Arts and I never really studied photography if not autonomously. That is why I consider myself an outsider: my path with photography was neither guided nor well planned. Some of the experiences that I did at the beginning I do not consider them fully exploited. So the first trips, Pakistan or India for example, photographically speaking were not completely helpful seeing them today. They helped me to understand how to face a theme and for personal growth as an individual, the great treasure that those who face knowing different realities take home.

In recent years my process of brainstorming is a mix between planning and a need to work in a way that I describe as instinctively. Something should not be planned in detail when faced with the challenge of telling a story. There is a part that must be decided at the time the images are being produced. Even so, my projects are also looking for another approach, and every time I analyze them, I see them as very much my own, and they are born of a personal interest. 

Gas Burn Well for the production of crude oil extracted in the Province of Sucumbío.

The head of former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, in what remains on a poster inside a Shuar house in the Paandin Community in the Macuma Canton, Morona-Santiago Province.

Why did you choose to travel to portray stories of the Ecuadorian Amazon?

The Amazon… I think it was a call. I had researched some topics that had been of interest to me for many years and in 2015 I decided to travel. I wanted to go with the Shuar and it was not clear which project I was going to develop, it was mainly for me. I only had many readings of travel and expedition chronicles of the last century, of brilliant testimonies and theories and fantastic mysteries, I knew something of the Shuar culture from the books I had read, I was fascinated by this world, and I was beginning to dream about it in my nights.

There I met the twentieth anniversary of the Alto Cenepa war between Ecuador and Peru. I fell in love with these panoramas of the Andean foothills and with the stories, with the details, with this mystical and mysterious side. The role of the indigenous people in the war (which was being carried out in mainly Shuar territory) was crucial. 

But the war was only an appendix, it gave a broader panorama in time to my story about indigenous resistance against large-scale mining and oil projects in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Not only the Shuar participate in this story, there are also the Sapara, the Amazonian Kichwas, the Ai’cofán. The issue of the Alto Cenepa war itself helped me to strengthen the concept of defense of the territory. In this case, the Shuar, regardless of who their allies are, have always participated in the defense of their territory. With the army during the armed conflict of 95, or against them that, 25 years later, operate in the interests of the Ecuadorian Government and in favor of foreign extractive companies. Also in the Spanish Conquest and previously against the rule of the Inca Empire, the Shuar were never subdued.

Oil extraction well in Alto Bermejo. Sucumbío Province. Ecuador’s crude production a few years ago was an average of 470,000 barrels per day. About 44% of the oil is extracted by private companies and the rest by state companies such as Petroecuador, Petroamazonas and Río Napo. (2010 Reuters).

How did you get close? 

My access to the Sápara, as with the Shuar and the other nationalities, was through friendship. There is always a civil role in the communities, or a federation that controls their territory. There is the fear that a stranger who comes from outside is actually an oilman, a miner, someone sent by the Government or some extractive companies. In my case, my contact with the Saparas was Yanda, a Sapara communication specialist. Now he is a good friend and he took me to know the family and the community of Llanchama Cocha. While, with the Shuar, I began a friendship with Vicente, the former president of the Shuar Arútam People, a controlled area within the territory of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH). You do not enter without permits and people are very attentive to this. I have broken the rules several times and yes, people get angry. I think I have had good luck, and good friends and allies.  

Man from the Tsumtsuim Community. To date, Tsumtsuim’s men have an arrest warrant without being able to leave their Community, as they run the risk of being captured. Shuar Community of Tsumtsuim, Province of Morona-Santiago.

Javier Ushigua, 20, is President of the Yaku Runa Community in the Province of Pastaza. In its features there is a mixture of 3 indigenous nationalities of the Amazon. His grandmother of the Shuar nationality married an Achuar man and his mother a man of the Sapara nationality. In it there is an almost complete summary of what the community where he lives is.

What peculiarities and differences did you find between the different Amazonian peoples?

 Among the native nationalities that I met in the Amazon, the jungle is considered a living being, an organism, its body and a place where they coexist under its rules. His cosmogony lives in the jungle. They are the same spirits and gods, with different names. [Philippe] Descola in his book La selva culta affirms that for them plants and animals are considered part of society. In the Amazon you learn a lot. 

In their characters, the Shuar maintain a more warrior spirit, harsher, without smiles, sometimes conflictive depending on the case. This is evident in the way they plan the methodology of making their resistance against the companies. The Shuar of the community of Tzumtsuim, tired and angry by the presence of the miner, after being victims of a forced eviction to make way for the miner that occupied Nankints, decided to attack with shotguns. On the contrary, we have examples of Kichwa or Ai’cofán communities that act differently, taking advantage of the press, the support of NGOs, through lawyers and judges. The Kichwa Indigenous People of Sarayaku, a community in the Pastaza province, achieved a glorious victory in the courts: they won a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian State for having granted an oil concession without consulting the community. 

 So, in this case, the biggest differences may be the methodologies applied to resist. In any case, both the Amazonians of different nationalities and the various Andean nationalities are in mutual support to defend the territory and nature, which are the source of life and future for the native peoples.

Projection of the documentary “Cordillera del Cóndor – Threatened Paradise” on an improvised screen with paper and tape at the Headquarters of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH) in Sucúa, Morona-Santiago Province. The documentary was screened during a workshop given by lawyers from the Tiam Foundation with the need to expose the legal possibilities to be able to demand compliance with their Indigenous Rights. The documentary made it clear to the Shuar authorities of different communities, the real danger of altering the balance of the ecosystem with extractive activities.

What will the book that includes the Piatsaw project be like?

The book I am designing includes the Piatsaw project. But the book is a solo object and is focused on another theme: a bizarre investigation with recopilation of some info I did in parallel to the resistance project. It will be a book divided in two parts, two different stories. Sometimes the same but from different points of views.

The first part will have a classic documentary narrative (what is Piatsaw), the second will be a more personal exercise, a more conceptual narrative, freer, and will be presented as an appendix diary. There is still a lot to do and it is a process that I am taking in stride. This will be my first book and I have no experience in this, but I have discovered a beautiful process that is within the production of a book, I am enjoying the creative process that design takes.

Amazon  /  Ecuador  /  Nikola Okin  /  Sápara  /  Shuar  /  The Amazon We Want
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