Back to nature: the story of one family’s retreat into the Amazon forest to escape Covid

New film charts the journey of the Kichwa people deeper into the Ecuadorian Amazon and the lessons they drew from reconnecting with nature

As billions of people isolated around the world in 2020, villagers from Sarayaku , a Kichwa community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, headed deeper into the forest to escape the coronavirus pandemic. The journey, documented in a new short film called The Return, reaffirmed the bond the community has had with the forest for generations, protecting ancestors from missionaries, militias and emerging diseases such as measles and smallpox, as well as sustaining life.

Eriberto with some of the crew and villagers in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Eriberto with some of the crew and villagers in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Photograph: Selvas Producciones

Directed by the indigenous film-maker Eriberto Gualinga and co-produced by his niece and environmental defender Nina Gualinga, both from Sarayaku, alongside British film-maker Marc Silver, the Guardian documentary had its premiere at the Sheffield DocFest in June. The Kichwa community has gained international acclaim for its environmental activism, successfully defending its ancestral lands in the Bobonaza river basin against an oil company looking to drill, and winning a case against the Ecuadorian government at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in 2012 for not respecting the right to life, safety and land.

The Guardian spoke with Eriberto and Nina about the message of The Return and their work as defenders of the forest.

Eriberto and The Return crew filming in the Amazon.
Eriberto and The Return crew filming in the Amazon. Photograph: Selvas Producciones

When did you realise the pandemic was coming?
“On 17 March 2020 there was terrible flooding in our village, Sarayaku, and other communities. It reached a height we’d never seen before, covering the roofs of homes and tearing down bridges. It left us with nothing, without food, nothing. We were reconstructing our homes and replanting crops when we heard on the radio that Covid had arrived in the nearest city. We’d already heard about the virus in February. When we were completely physically exhausted, Covid attacked us.”

The village lies in the middle of the Amazon forest in Ecuador.
The village lies in the middle of the Amazon forest in Ecuador. Photograph: Selvas Producciones

Some villagers headed deeper into the forest. Why did you want to document this journey?
“I wanted the world to also return to the forest. The forest is important. That is where life is. It is the lungs of the world. I imagined people isolating in the city in the pandemic – being stuck in four walls alone in a house – and all the problems that can bring.

“Isolating in the forest is completely different. It is freedom, fishing, collecting fruit, long walks, sharing knowledge with parents, collecting medicinal plants … I wanted to show how important the forest is for the world and why we should reconnect with her. In Kichwa, the film is called Tiam which means ‘look back’. It’s about reconnecting with and respecting nature.”

In the film, it’s clear this is not the first time Kichwa community members have sought the protection of the forest.
“This is something our grandparents told us they and their ancestors did to escape the army, missionaries and illnesses such as measles and smallpox. Without making a noise, they’d confine themselves to the forest. They’d tell us about it as if it were a story, but it was reality, it actually happened. Now we’ve had to do it, too: escape to the middle of the forest, but evidently this time with technology by our side. The radio was telling us what was happening in the world.”

Sarayaku family members
The family went further into the forest to isolate and seek safety as news of the spread of coronavirus reached the village. Photograph: Selvas Producciones

Sarayaku is a small village but its impact on the world has been mighty. What is it about people from Sarayaku?
“From the beginning, the Sarayaku people has been very clear with our vision for the future, our culture and our identity. We know what we are defending. I think that’s reflected in the decisions and creativity of young people, my uncle and myself. It’s not only Sarayaku, but I think the victory against the Ecuadorian government set a precedent internationally.”

Filming with the Sarayaku people.
Eriberto working behind the scenes with the Sarayaku people. Photograph: Selvas Producciones

Can you tell me about the Sarayaku’s living forest proposal, which seeks the protection of indigenous lands around the world?
: “It’s very interconnected with what The Return is about and what it means. It’s a way to explain the indigenous view on how we as humans are part of this Earth, this living being, and all of these different ecosystems. It recognises life in the forest as a collective and individual: the plants, the trees, the stones, the spirits. That’s how Sarayaku understands the world.

Amazon forest from the air
‘I wanted to show how important the forest is for the world and why we should reconnect with her’ – Eriberto Gualinga. Photograph: Selvas Producciones

“The living forest proposal is about recognising that. And reframing the mechanisms we have constructed around us, such as laws and the economic system, to rethink what we actually value. Everything is recognised as a living being, beyond what our eyes can see in the Amazon rainforest and everywhere else. Perhaps it sounds complex and far away for many, but I think it’s really necessary right now.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features


Patrick Greenfield

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Trust our expertise or face catastrophe, Amazon peoples warn on environment
Indigenous leader urges focus on native knowledge as study shows rainforest areas under tribal stewardship manage carbon better

Patrick Greenfield

28, Jan, 2020 @4:04 PM

Article image
It’s inspiring hope and change – but what is the IUCN’s green list?
The red list of species at risk is well-known, but the list for protected sites is quietly helping to ‘paint the planet green’

Patrick Greenfield

25, Apr, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Cacao not gold: ‘chocolate trees’ offer future to Amazon tribes
In Brazil’s largest indigenous reserve thousands of saplings have been planted as an alternative to profits from illegal gold mining

Dom Phillips in Waikás, Yanomami indigenous reserve, Brazil

25, Jan, 2020 @1:00 PM

Article image
Indigenous peoples face rise in rights abuses during pandemic, report finds
Increasing land grabs endangering forest communities and wildlife as governments expand mining and agriculture to combat economic impact of Covid

Patrick Greenfield

18, Feb, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Frog back from the dead helps fight plans for mine in Ecuador
Campaigners say if copper mine gets go-ahead in cloud forest, the longnose harlequin, once thought to be extinct, will be threatened again

Graeme Green

23, Nov, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
‘Teeming with biodiversity’: green groups buy Belize forest to protect it ‘in perpetuity’
Conservation organisations purchase 950 sq km biodiversity hotspot, helping to secure a vital wildlife corridor

Graeme Green

22, Apr, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
European banks urged to stop funding oil trade in Amazon
Indigenous people in headwaters region say financing harms communities and ecosystems

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent

12, Aug, 2020 @7:01 AM

Article image
Petition to halt oil exploration in Ecuadorean Amazon gets 1m signatures
Campaign urges Ecuador to stop exploration threatening indigenous community in area of exceptional biodiversity

Jonathan Watts in Quito

06, Feb, 2013 @2:45 PM

Article image
Knowledge of medicinal plants at risk as languages die out
Loss of linguistic diversity means less chance to discover age-old remedies not known to science, study warns

Phoebe Weston

08, Jun, 2021 @4:00 AM

Article image
What is deforestation – and is stopping it really possible?
As world leaders prepare to commit to halting the destruction of forests, here’s everything you need to know about some of the planet’s most biodiverse places

Patrick Greenfield

01, Nov, 2021 @1:15 PM