“Fighting COVID-19 with Ancestral Wisdom in the Amazon”, A film for The New Yorker created by Siekopai filmmakers in collaboration with Amazon Frontlines & Ceibo Alliance, 2020

“Our cultures and forest hold the wisdom to heal our planet.”

This month, the Siekopai’s extraordinary response to COVID-19 is front and center in a short film on the New Yorker, produced in collaboration with Siekopai filmmakers, and team members of Amazon Frontlines and Ceibo Alliance. The 10-minute film chronicles the Siekopai’s journey to Pëkë’ya or Lagartococha, the heartland of their ancestral territory on the Ecuador-Peru border, where they collected plants to create their own effective remedy to the coronavirus, and shared their medicine with other affected Indigenous nations including the Siona of Putumayo. When all else failed, they turned to their knowledge and forest for answers.

In the face of the COVID-19 emergency, government inaction and a near-collapse health system, the Siekopai decided to face the pandemic by drawing from what they know best: their ancestral wisdom, shamanic acumen, and traditional knowledge of medicinal plants. Accomplished herbalists experimented with different combinations of medicinal plants to develop an effective remedy, which helped community members overcome the virus. Rachel Riederer from The New Yorker explains more in her article here.

“We must come together to protect and defend our survival.”

“Our people have survived many pandemics. For us, this is a time to remember the past, the history of our ancestors, but above all to save our lives in these circumstances, since we have no support from the local or national government. We must come together to protect and defend our survival. And we must do this by passing on ancestral knowledge to Indigenous people, and non-indigenous people alike”, explains Justino Piaguaje, President of the Siekopai Nation, who led his people’s response to COVID-19 and along with the nation’s elders, spearheaded the distribution of the medicinal brew to other Kichwa, Siona, Waorani, and Kofan communities.

The Siekopai’s COVID-19 response is mirrored by the stories of many other Indigenous nations across the Amazon. In times of unparalleled crisis and seemingly insurmountable odds, Indigenous peoples have continued to demonstrate their resilience and the importance of Indigenous knowledge, values, and territories in the Amazon rainforest. While the Siekopai are actively working to recover the sacred heartland of their ancestral territory, Lagartococha, and press the State for measures to protect their rights and territory during this global pandemic, they have also begun working on a variety of post-COVID-19 initiatives such as the development of their own educational system and the re-establishment of farming systems in their communities to regain their food sovereignty.

“During this pandemic, we have found strength in the path and wisdom of our ancestors. We’ve never lost our connection to our roots and knowledge. We continue to resist. Our cultures and forest hold the wisdom to heal our planet. We hope that our short film helps the world to understand this”, said 25-year-old Jimmy Piaguaje, who, along with his distantly related cousin 22-year-old Ribaldo Piaguaje, documented his people’s response to COVID-19 in the New Yorker film. “As young people, we will continue this struggle to recover our roots, so that the future generations do not forget and understand what it means to be truly Siekopai”, affirmed Ribaldo.

Over the past years, Jimmy and Ribaldo have dedicated themselves to using video, photography and social media to document the teachings of their elders and create stories about their peoples’ struggle for survival in the face of multiple threats, including extractivism, cultural loss and now a global pandemic. Working as part of the Indigenous-led non-profit organization Ceibo Alliance and supported by Amazon Frontlines’ Storytelling Program, which provides training and mentorship to a new generation of Indigenous communicators, Jimmy and Ribaldo launched a multi-part video series on their people’s ancestral medicinal plant knowledge in 2019.

Jimmy and Ribaldo are currently working on several new productions, including the forthcoming release of their new short film, “The Industry of Fire”, which documents the intensifying fire seasons in South America. The film will be released in early 2021 – stay tuned for more details soon!

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Amazon FrontlinesDefending indigenous rights to land, life and cultural survival in the Amazon rainforest.

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