The Sani Isla people, indigenous to the Ecuadorian rainforest, took their name from a plant that grows on their land. They take pride in this symbolic connection between their land and their heritage, said Senaida, a leader of the Sani Isla’s women’s group.
According to Senaida, the Sani Isla inhabit 51 thousand acres acres of forest, some of which overlaps with the Yasuní National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the Cuyabeno Nature Reserve. The area boasts 644 tree species, 100,000 insect species, 550 bird species and 105 amphibian species among its abundance of wildlife.
Its incredibly high biodiversity is only one of the reasons the Amazon Rainforest is important. It’s also one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, with trees that photosynthesize atmospheric carbon dioxide to make life-sustaining energy. The Amazon contains up to 140 billion tons of carbon.
Yet entire swaths are cut down to extricate resources, particularly petroleum and metals, which the global economy values highly in dollars and cents. Burning and removing these forests contributes at least 10 percent of global carbon emissions.
Not everyone is on board with this. Indigenous peoples’ entire existence once resembled a symbiosis with the forest and these groups value its preservation. But saving the forest while supporting themselves in the fast-changing, modern, globalized economy is no easy feat.
Senaida also explained that because the forests are so vast, many communities are unaware of the extent of the problem, going about their daily business as usual. The Sani Isla’s perspective has changed in recent years, she said.
Niyanta Spelman, the Executive Director of Rainforest Partnership, an international nonprofit, traveled to Ecuador, where she met with the Sani Isla.
“Tragically, as was the case with a lot of the Amazon, it’s also petroleum-rich,” Spelman explained. “What’s on top is rich and so important to humanity, but tragically we value the very short-term oil (underneath).”
The Sani Isla own and operate the Sani Lodge, a tourist attraction for explorers seeking to visit pristine rainforest. The lodge was built with $1.5 million from a 1998 contract with Occidental Petroleum, which explored — but did not find — oil. They eventually moved on.
The lodge wasn’t earning enough money to support the entire community, however, so they sought assistance from Rainforest Partnership and a local organization, Conservación y Desarrollo. They wanted the women to develop an alternative income stream, which would enable them to resist the pressure for more oil exploration from other oil companies.
Rainforest Partnership worked with the Sani Isla women and CyD to develop a self-supporting program that would ultimately need no outside support. They organized a thriving crafts business, weaving baskets, jewelry and ceramics. They still use traditional techniques, which were in danger of becoming lost arts.
It began with constructing a studio, where the women could work on their crafts while looking after the children.
The women maintain a forest nursery, which provides the palm fibers, seeds and raw materials they use in their crafts. The animora provides the red and black coloring, chimamora is an important straw-like material and cacao beans are sometimes used for coloring and dying.
Senaida is the project coordinator of the Sani Isla’s women’s group, meaning that her responsibility is to find women who want to participate in the business and outlets to sell the crafts.
Many of the women attended workshops to learn business management, administrative skills, price negotiation and sustainable manufacturing.
She said that before the project with Rainforest Partnership, most of the women lived at home and took care of the children. They seldom left their houses and had no options to earn income. Now, some of the women’s incomes surpass their husbands’.
Spelman said that during her initial visit in 2009, they barely looked her in the eyes.
Spelman spent time with them, dining and touring the lodge, nursery and fish farm. Over time they began to open up, she said.
“A few years later, their decision-making capabilities came out,” she said. “Their incomes led to more decisions, and their husbands started trusting them.”
Senaida added that their incomes gave them more say in how they spend their free time and more flexibility to explore this new area of their life.
“What was really cool was how it evolved,” she said. “The women began taking initiative as natural leaders.”
They self-organized into five groups, each of which had a task: caring for the children, giving tours of the Eco-lodge, tending the plants and making crafts.
One day, when Spelman met with the women in the community to discuss the project, the men accompanying her declared that it was time to leave, although they had not addressed all of the concerns.
“The women said ‘stay, we have gas for the boat to send you back later,’” Spelman recalled.
Senaida said she is optimistic about the way the project is growing, making the community more environmentally and economically sustainable.
The Sani Isla are proud of the influence their project has had in surrounding villages, too.
“Communities have taken action, often at a cost to themselves,” Spelman said. “They protect the forests, not just for themselves, but for all of us. At what point do we owe it to them to help them?”
The Sani Isla are proud of their rainforest homeland and aware of their global impact and the extent of the threats to the rainforest.
Senaida said the elders, especially, have taken it to heart because of the impacts on their children and future generations.
The oil and mining industries must obtain community consent before beginning an operation, and these decisions are often very divisive, Spelman explained.
“We have to support the people on the forefront,” she said. “The fact that people far away care is very empowering. We want partners all over the world to provide moral support for the Sani Isla.”