A journey towards Mother Earth: Listening to Indigenous voices in the Covid-19 pandemic

A journey towards Mother Earth: Listening to Indigenous voices in the Covid-19 pandemic
A journey towards Mother Earth: Listening to Indigenous voices in the Covid-19 pandemic -

Shuar leader and poetess María Clara Sharupi Jua

Interview the Indigenous Shuar leader María Clara Sharupi Jua

María Clara Sharupi Jua was born in the Ecuadorian Amazonian Forest and belongs to the Shuar Indigenous People who live between what they call “high mountains and mighty rivers”. Never renouncing her freedom or her origins despite the many discriminatory episodes she had to face, just for being an indigenous woman, she decided to move to Quito, where she studied at the University and currently lives. She has constantly maintained her many roles; fisherwoman, craftswoman, potter, weaver and a knowledge keeper of ancestral Shuar oral knowledge. In the face of the discrimination and inequality suffered by her people, she has re-assumed the “power of the word” to transmit her ancestral knowledge in literature by writing and disseminating Shuar poetry.

Last year, she published her first book “TARIMIAT” which relates Shuar knowledge and the history of resistance María Clara learned from her parents, sisters and brothers. The Shuar people sing to realise their dreams, to placate the fury of the goddesses and gods, to summon the spirits, and to dominate the soul. By taking inspiration from these songs, María Clara transposed Shuar ancestral knowledge into new poems.

In this interview, María Clara tells us about the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the life of her and her people and compares similar episodes that occurred to her and the Shuar in the past. In addition, she speaks of how Shuar knowledge may help us in these difficult times and how she sees the future.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your life and your community?

MC: I believe this pandemic is a call to the human conscience of all peoples, communities and nations. From my perspective, as an Indigenous Shuar woman, I believe that what is happening is due to the human transgression of the laws of Nature which has caused instability in the harmony of life. At the beginning, I recognised that borders, social classes, powerful governments and developing countries do not exist anymore. This is a fatal threat and we all need to accept a collective responsibility on the right to life for ourselves and others.

My personal life has radically changed: economically, socially, culturally and personally. Although I have always fought against gender, ethnic, and social-class barriers, Covid-19 has once again placed me at society’s margins. My daily thoughts and actions focus on how to elevate the spirits of my children and other family members by trying to keeping hope though songs, poems and painting – all activities that have accompanied me as female household head and warrior woman.

All the cultural events related to my book have now been cancelled or suspended, and as a result this has affected many other related activities for the Shuar. For instance, Shuar women took advantage of a book presentation to sell their handicrafts and promote traditional medicine and communitarian ecotourism.

Moreover, the lack of information on the pandemic and the prevention measures in the Shuar language have made the Shuar people even more vulnerable, especially the women. The precarious conditions of the public health system and lack of information are putting the life of my people at high risk.

Can you compare this emergency to anything else that the Shuar have experienced in the past?

MC: In the past, the extraction and commercialisation of rubber through the illegal incursion and invasion of ancestral Shuar lands were undertaken in inhumane conditions resulting in abuse, rape and injury to the Shuar people by foreigners or national rubber companies, additionally due to these same external influences, our people were confronted with an epidemic of yellow fever.

My parents José Antonio Sharupi Máma and Consuelo Tiris Nacaimbi Juwa told me that the rubber workers, exhausted by the high fever, used to bathe in the waters of the Uyuentza River, i.e., the “Water of Otters”, to lower their temperature but eventually laid there forever. After this, my parents renamed the watercourse Sadness River, and told me that that it was Nature’s response to the invaders.

However, this is just one story. Our lands and territories have been colonised and invaded for many years, and our people also had to endure forced evangelisation, which brought diseases that were unknown to our immune system such as measles, pertussis, and chicken pox into our communities, each represented an epidemic among our people and caused many deaths. During those periods, we were all quarantined, me, and my sisters and my brothers. Only my mother could visit us in order to avoid infecting anybody else. She brought us food and natural remedies during our confinement. If elderly people were infected, they were more likely to pass away. Indeed, it was not so different from today’s pandemic.

How can ancestral Shuar knowledge help us to overcome this crisis?

MC: I believe it is of utmost importance to take into account all peoples’ beliefs, cultural traditions, and customs. After this pandemic, all of us should help each other and support unity, harmony and balance with the planet and our lives. My people are once again using traditional medicine and natural remedies, in part because they have been completely abandoned by the national government.

Nature is the permanent relationship of renovation and respect among the Shuar people. We are inter-ethnic communities and we have observed these established precepts since time immemorial; we see the Earth as the Goddess Nunkui, who provides us with all our knowledge. We, the women, are the ones who received manifestations of abundancy and prosperity in our hands. Nunkui’s powers and knowledge live on within ourselves. Men are brothers of the sun and infallible hunters. Our brother the moon guides us in sowing of crops and protects us during the night. The stars are women that draw our dreams.

Having said this, ancestral Shuar knowledge could come into play, but it should be duly considered and acknowledged by the official health system.

As I mentioned, the Shuar faced all sorts of epidemics in the past. Back then, we used the medicinal plants we knew about without any help from the State. Hence, the Ecuadorian government should take into consideration to hire a group of Shuar women and men to share our knowledge of natural medicines. Otherwise, the humankind risks being kept in isolation from its ancestral knowledge due to dominant economic, social, political, classist interests, and the conviction of the supremacy of rationality and the individualist thinking.

At the same time, the Shuar, like many other Indigenous peoples in the world, have been robbed of their ancestral knowledge by pharmaceutical companies, which patent medicinal plants previously freely used for centuries and that we cannot use anymore. Likewise, there have been, and are, several non-indigenous people who pretend to be a Shaman (Uwishnt) and dubiously apply Shuar knowledge for their own profit. The true and wise Shuar healers go back to their roots and start their re-encounters with the constellations and animals, our father Arutam and our mother Nunkui.

How do you see the future of your people after this pandemic? Do you think there will be any fundamental changes in the world?

MC: Regrettably, I do not see any promising upcoming change for the Shuar or other Indigenous peoples and nationalities of the Amazonian forest following the end of this pandemic. Fifty-six years have passed since oil exploitation began in our lands. The only consequences for our people have been an increase of poverty and illiteracy rates, of prostitution, alcohol and drug addictions, sexually transmitted infections and other diseases. Only the main cities, the main powerful groups, and the upper-middle classes have eventually benefitted from the revenues of these extractive industry activities.

Now it seems the human effort will focus on how to restore the conditions of the pre-Covid-19 situation. I personally have faith and trust that this event will serve to unify, create relationships, new projects of inclusion and encourage people to see everyone as human beings. Regarding economics, I really hope that the accelerated but unsustainable economic model will finally be reformed and replaced. If not, we will all have to face yet another unsustainable crisis due to climate change and global warming: one that has already created a path of destruction for humanity.


A poem by María Clara Sharupi Jua


La vida entre el virus sin corona.

Una travesía hacia la madre naturaleza.

Nuestros pensamientos precipitados cayeron entre planicies y quebradas,

nos doblamos como los árboles frente a tormentas no anunciados,

y caímos de rodillas a los brazos de Nunkui.

Altos picos de montañas

Como cuchillos afilados nos miraron.

Los caminos cayeron a sus orillas de quebradas y vacíos infinitos.

El sol lloró entre lluvias de la noche.

Cerramos los ojos y soltamos los imaginarios

Mientras los pájaros anunciaron que sabremos resistir a la pandemia

en cualquier lugar de esta tierra.


Life within the virus without a crown.

A journey towards Mother Earth.

Our precipitated thoughts fell between plains and gorges,

we caved in like trees before unheralded storms,

and we fell back to our knees in the arms of Nunkui.


High mountains peaks

Looked at us like sharp knives.

Roads fell down at the edges of their gorges and infinite abysses.

The sun cried its tears within the night rains.

We close the eyes and released our imaginary

while birds anunciated we will be able to resist the pandemic

in every single place of the Earth.


This interview was run in Spanish and translated into English by Alexandra Tomaselli




Alexandra Tomaselli is a senior researcher at the Eurac Institute for Minority Rights, a human rights lawyer and an Indigenous peoples’ rights expert. She has worked on and with Indigenous peoples in Latin America, Europe, South Asia, the Pacific and at international level. Her research foci are Indigenous knowledge systems and participation, autonomy and land rights.




Tomaselli, A. A journey towards Mother Earth: Listening to Indigenous voices in the Covid-19 pandemic.

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