The Zapara People of the Ecuadorian Amazon
The Zapara people of the Amazon rainforest live in one of the most biodiverse areas on earth. Everything about the Zapara, including their language, rituals and mythology have been shaped by their experience living in the rainforest.
There were once over 200,000 Zapara people in the rainforests of Ecuador, more than any other Indigenous group. However, the Zapara people have faced many difficult times over the last 400 hundred years since people from outside of the rainforest have come into contact with them, including when Ecuador went to war with Peru in 1941. Even though the Zapara had nothing to do with this war, some of their families were forced by soldiers to leave Ecuador and live in Peru. The Zapara communities in Ecuador and Peru were separated for more than 50 years before seeing each other again.
Throughout all of these years, many Zapara communities started to live with other Indigenous peoples causing them to forget their own culture and language. This is a process called assimilation. Due to this, today there are only about 300 Zapara people, with only five elders that speak the Zapara language. About 200 Zapara live in Ecuador, and 100 in Peru. The Zapara communities in Ecuador are located in the state of Pastaza between the shores of the Conambo and Pindoyacu rivers. The area where they live is so big that it takes several days walking to get from one community to another.
The Zapara are working hard to preserve their ancestral knowledge and way of life in the rainforest. They find everything that they need in the rainforest and use it all in a sustainable manner, which means they use it in a way that does not destroy the environment. Big families live together in houses made of straw. The Zapara go into the forest to collect fruits and to hunt and fish. They also have small vegetable gardens and use materials from the forest to make ceramics and weave baskets and hammocks.
In 2001, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the culture of the Zapara nation of Ecuador and Peru for the special value of the Zapara’s culture and language to the diversity of our world.
However, their fight to save their culture and the rainforest that they call home is far from over. Oil companies are exploring for oil in the rainforest where the Zapara live. The Zapara don’t want these companies drilling for oil on their land because many trees are chopped down to make room for oil roads, oil pipelines, and oil machinery. Another problem is that when companies drill for oil in the rainforests, the oil often gets spilled onto the soil and into the rivers and streams. This poisons the water and the homeland of the people who live in the rainforest.
A few years ago, some Zapara people visited other Indigenous communities in the rainforests of northern Ecuador who’s land had been damaged by oil companies. They saw that many people were sick and that there wasn’t as many animals living in the forest. That is why the Zapara don’t want oil drilling on their land. The Zapara say that their wish is to “live in harmony with the spirits of the forest that surround them.”
That is why Rainforest Action Network has been supporting the Zapara through our Protect-an-Acre Fund. With support from Protect-an-Acre, the Zapara are working to gain land title, or ownership, to 988,000 acres their land. This will help them protect their land from oil companies. RAN also supported the production of a book by the Zapara to help their children learn their traditional culture and language.