LLAMCHAMACOCHA, Ecuador – Wearing a Barcelona football shirt, a boy from the Sapara indigenous people glides down a river in the Ecuadorian Amazon in a canoe.
He knows everything about the jungle, although he has no idea who Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi is.
By the time they are 10 years old, children in this indigenous community nimbly navigate their canoes through the rivers that flow into the Amazon basin.
Waterways are the only connection between communities and the Sapara, the smallest of Ecuador’s native populations, are fighting for survival with a new threat on the horizon: COVID-19.
“As a people, we flagged a red light. The entry and return of people into our territory has been banned,” Nema Grefa Sapara, government council president, said this week.
Nestled in the southeastern province of Pastaza, just 570 people make up the Sapara community and the threat of coronavirus has forced them into isolation.
So far, no infections have been registered, possibly because no roads lead to their settlements, but the size of their community would put them on the brink of extinction if the virus does arrive.
Among other Amazonian indigenous groups, such as the Waorani, 70 percent of the population have had COVID-19 symptoms.
Communities in the region have already witnessed the threat of fuel and mineral extraction and oil and pesticide spills which has forced them into isolation, the result of which is a lack of access to healthcare and basic products.
Just five Sapara families of around 30 people reside in Llamchamacocha, perched at the mouth of the Conambo River.
It is one of 26 Sapara settlements which straddle 375,000 hectares of ancestral lands.
They survive by spearfishing, blowpipe hunting and harvesting yucca, bananas and vegetables in farms and small allotments.
Children play soccer every afternoon on a huge grass field with goalposts made of wooden sticks.
The main field, which sometimes gets swamped during tropical rains, is located next to a light aircraft runway where supplies and tourists arrive.
Unlike other indigenous communities in the region, the Sapara have blocked the construction of roads due to environmental concerns.
“If roads come, buses spout gasoline and pollute the river and loggers arrive,” says Ipiak, aged 16.
Community leader Manari Ushigua speaks of the ecocide they suffered when the population, once one of the largest in the Amazon, went from 20,000 to just over 500 in Ecuador with a similar situation in neighboring Peru.
The rubber boom between 1875-1914 also brought systematic slavery and brutality of indigenous people at the hands of planters.
The development project decimated entire populations and led to conflicts.
Sapara are the last group of a vast number of indigenous people that lived in the region.
Aware of the risks they face, the group has issued the Kamungishi declaration, a call for the world to wake up to the ecological crisis.
“The world is one-nukaki. The world is forest-naku,” the declaration says.
“We have told the state: let us live as we want to live,” community leader Manari tells EFE.
Only three older people speak the Sapara language.
Mukutsawa Santi, a grandmother, is one of them and although she speaks with her relatives in Kichwa, a language imposed by the Sarayaku people, she insists on speaking to her grandchildren in the language her parents taught her.
“My older sister with whom I spoke in Sapara is in bed sick and we can no longer chat,” Santi laments.
Sitting by her wooden hut with a gabled roof of pressed leaves, a family member translates Santi’s story and she recounts how she lost her parents at a young age during the rubber boom.
Sapara represent a tiny fraction of the 1.36 million indigenous Ecuadorians.
“It is a town of dreams because we have great interpreters. We dream to live and we live to dream,” Sani Montahuano, 22, tells EFE.
Every day at dawn, adults and children gather and sip guayusa tea, a ceremonial drink made from fermented yucca, and make sense of their dreams.
The revelations tell the Sapara what lies ahead.
Past premonitions have included the arrival of a deadly disease and the extinction of their indigenous language, during the ritualistic use of ayahuasca, a combination of Amazonian plants considered one of the most powerful psychotropics and used medicinally in detoxification therapies.
“It helps us connect with our second life of dreams and protect the community,” Montahuano says.
“We can communicate with our grandparents and the spirits so that they defend and guide us.”
“We do not want to lose this, we want to leave something for our grandchildren, who can see the beauty of the Amazon,” the young woman concludes.