Sacred Headwaters of the Amazon

Joke Baert - Naku
Published: 27 September 2018
Last edited: 01 April 2019
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 With a rights-based approach and working in close partnership with the region’s indigenous peoples and federations, the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative seeks to establish a bio-cultural sanctuary in the heart of the Napo-Marañon watersheds. In Ecuador and Peru, indigenous organizations have declared their territories as “No-Go Zones” for industrial-scale resource extraction and where indigenous co-governance, alternative well-being indicators, and all activities are judged by the extent to which they foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.


Here, the ancestral territories of more than a dozen indigenous nations are adjoined by a number of protected areas, together forming a vast contiguous mosaic containing the most biologically diverse terrestrial ecosystem on Earth.  These rainforests are critical carbon sinks and help to stabilize our global climate and rainfall and yet, they are facing a chronic and ever increasing risk from extractive industries. 


South America
Scale of implementation
Forest ecosystems
Freshwater ecosystems
River, stream
Tropical evergreen forest
Biodiversity mainstreaming
Connectivity / transboundary conservation
Ecosystem services
Indigenous people
Protected area management planning
Sustainable financing
Traditional knowledge
Land and Forest degradation
Loss of Biodiversity
Ecosystem loss
Lack of access to long-term funding
Lack of alternative income opportunities
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Sustainable development goals
SDG 1 – No poverty
SDG 2 – Zero hunger
SDG 3 – Good health and well-being
SDG 5 – Gender equality
SDG 10 – Reduced inequalities
SDG 13 – Climate action
SDG 15 – Life on land
SDG 16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions
SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals
Aichi targets
Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased
Target 11: Protected areas
Target 15: Ecosystem restoration and resilience
Target 17: Biodiversity strategies and action plans
Target 18: Traditional knowledge


Pastaza, Pastaza Province, Ecuador | Provincias de Orellana, Pastaza, Napo, y Morona Santiago en Ecuador y Departamentos de Loreto y Amazonas en Peru
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The role of indigenous territories and protected areas in maintaining the Sacred Headwaters region’s ecological integrity is both critical and at risk.  Currently, the governments of Peru and Ecuador are in the process of granting drilling rights to nearly 22 million acres of mostly roadless areas within the headwaters region, on land legally titled to indigenous peoples and in protected areas such as the Yasuni National Park. In Peru, the government revived the process for approving oil production in the massive Block 64, which overlaps the Achuar's ancestral lands.


Other threats to the Napo-Marañon basin include a network of roads, oil palm plantations, and logging operations, which typically follow in the path of oil and gas development. Oil exploration, extraction, and transportation have severe ecological and human health impacts, as has been tragically seen in the Amazonian communities, where Chevron, previously Texaco, left a devastating legacy of toxic pollution.


The SHW region forms a large mosaic of indigenous territories national parks and protected areas. The indigenous nations include the Waorani, Kichwa, Sápara, Achuar, Shuar/Wampis/Awajun, Shiwiar, Andoas, Candoshi, Cocama, among others.

How do the building blocks interact?

Led by a Steering Committee comprised of Fundación Pachamam, Pachamama Alliance, Amazon Watch, and the indigenous federations CONFENIAE (Ecuador) and AIDESEP (Peru), an estimated two-year period is envisioned for the initial development phase of the Initiative that includes five interrelated tracks

1. Convene the indigenous nationalities of the region to forge a shared vision for the future of the headwaters region; build alliances; and strengthen their capacity to protect their territories;

2. Conduct research into (a) relevant regional ecological/scientific planning models and frameworks; and (b) strategies and options for long-term funding for the Initiative;

3. Develop and advance the international visibility (the brand) of the Amazon Sacred Headwaters region and build the corresponding support network for the Initiative;

4. Engage key industries, civil society, scientific/academic institutions and governments in the deliberation of alternative economic scenarios that also ensure the region's ecological integrity;

5. Intervene to stop new and imminent oil drilling and mineral mining in the region.


Fundación Pachamama, since 1997, has worked together with indigenous organizations of Ecuador's Amazon to defend their rights and their homelands. Millions of acres of pristine rainforest have been protected from oil development and deforestation. We have supported the mapping, titling, and participatory census of indigenous territories, and have worked with these communities on natural resource management planning and climate change policies. We also have promoted the implementation of natural resource plans, created through collaborative decision-making, and provide tools for self-governance and participatory management that harnesses the collective wisdom of the community.

Currently, Amazonian indigenous organizations CONFENIAE (Ecuador) and AIDESEP (Peru) together with Amazon Watch, Pachamama Alliance, and Fundación Pachamama are implementing an initiative aimed at permanently protecting 60 million acres of tropical rainforests in the Napo, Pastaza, and Marañon River Basins.


Fundación Pachamama

Researchers confirm that in the Amazon basin, strategies to legally recognize indigenous peoples' land rights and support traditional community-based forest stewardship practices are more effective in conserving rainforests than establishing protected areas, such as National Parks, which are wholly managed by federal governments.


Case in point: While the government of Ecuador began drilling for oil beneath Yasuni National Park in 2016 despite widespread public outcry, it has been unable to commence any drilling in the nearby territories of the Sarayaku and Sápara peoples despite nearly 20 years of official, state sanctioned attempts to do so. In both cases, the government retains the subsurface mineral rights; yet indigenous territorial rights, and steadfast and skillful resistance have held more sway than ‘protected’ national park designations.  


In Ecuador, one of the most important cases of territorial defense of indigenous peoples is the Sarayaku case. in 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued its ruling in the case, stating that the State of Ecuador was responsible for not having previously executed free, prior, and informed consultation with the indigenous community of Sarayaku, in accordance with international standards. The Court found the State responsible for violating rights of the community of Sarayaku, their ancestral lands and cultural identity, for not granting effective legal protection, and for having placed their life and personal integrity in danger in the presence of seismic explosives within their territory.


Over the past two decades, indigenous peoples throughout this region have been relentless and for the most part successful in keeping out extractive industries. Even so, the current barrage of destructive projects including mining is unprecedented, each one requiring significant resistance efforts.  The indigenous movement is spread thin. There is a realization that the stakes are higher now than they have ever been and that fighting one battle at a time will not be enough.  The ecological integrity of the entire Napo-Marañon river basin is jeopardized with each new oil or mining project.  Pollution and deforestation upstream affects all communities of life downstream.

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Fundación Pachamama

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Fundacion Pachamama