Lifeline for Amazon tribe runs through Seattle

Hugo Lucitante pilots a boat on the Ecuadorian Amazon, on the land of the Cofán people, which is threatened by oil extraction. (Photo courtesy Oil & Water)
Hugo Lucitante pilots a boat on the Ecuadorian Amazon, on the land of the Cofán people, which is threatened by oil extraction. (Photo courtesy Oil & Water)

Like any college student in the first week of fall quarter Hugo Lucitante has a lot on his mind. He’s debating whether or not he can handle 20 credits at North Seattle College, struggling to scrape together cash for books and balancing part-time work as a valet with the full-time job of being a husband and father.

Oh, and he’s negotiating the looming threats of oil, climate change and globalization on his people — the indigenous Cofán of Ecuador.

“I was and am the only one in the U.S.” said Hugo Lucitante, 29, squinting in the sunlight as he looks out over a glittering Elliott Bay from a picnic table near his Queen Anne Hill apartment “And I really want to bring that awareness, that there really are these people who are on the brink of extinction.”

This isn’t a new mission for Lucitante; he’s been an ambassador for the Cofán for most of his life. In 1996 his father, a tribal leader, sent then 10-year-old Lucitante to Seattle in the care of a young University of Washington student who had been studying in Ecuador.

The hope was that Lucitante would learn English and Western ways and that he’d become a global representative for the Cofán people — helping them fight back oil companies whose operations have polluted their territory in the Amazon.

Lucitante has done just that. He graduated from Bishop Blanchet High School in 2006, traveled back to Ecuador thereafter to learn more about the contemporary challenges facing his community, and is now back in Seattle to complete his degree before returning to Ecuador permanently to help lead the Cofán.

He’s also the subject of a local documentary, “Oil & Water,” to be shown at film festivals around our region this month.

“We were so happy to be able to find someone like Hugo who is both Cofán and also American,” says “Oil & Water” co-director and Seattle based filmmaker Francine Strickwerda, “All the layers of culture you have to get through to tell a cross cultural story like this, he really was our guide.”

The film, which took eight years to make, follows Lucitante’s journey through Cofán regions, collecting stories of lives and communities impacted by oil extraction.

But Lucitante isn’t the only subject of the film. “Oil & Water” also documents the friendship between Lucitante and David Poritz, a young activist from the east coast who traveled to Ecuador to help communities recover from oil contamination.

David Poritz (left) and Hugo Lucitante at Petroamazonas oil site. (Photo courtesy Oil & Water)
David Poritz (left) and Hugo Lucitante at Petroamazonas oil site. (Photo courtesy Oil & Water)

The two literally met on the shores of the Amazon (when Portiz flagged Lucitante’s motorboat down for a ride) and while their paths converge over a common cause, it’s clear their philosophies are very different.

Portiz ultimately decided to work with oil companies by founding Equitable Origin — which certifies oil and gas production operations that meet standards based on environmental protection and the benefit of local communities. The company certified its first two Canadian owned oil fields (in Colombia) last month.

“I began to see there was really a need for a more nuanced conversation,” says Portiz by phone from a Miami airport while en route to South America, “Not just about yes or no, black or white.”

But for Lucitante — who has a strong critique of the “consumptive culture” that he says has created demand for fossil fuels and threatens his community in the form of climate change as well as oil extraction — it is more black and white.

“My people’s culture and lives — everything that I have — we can’t negotiate that,” he explains.

And it’s that uncompromising vision that Lucitante hopes to offer as a leader someday — once he finishes college.

“Every single year I’m asked to become the president of the community,” explains Lucitante, “And I say ‘thank you but no thank you, I can’t right now.’”

But someday, he knows he’ll have to say yes.

Oil and Water is screening at the Orcas Island Film Festival at the Orcas Center on October 11th at 7:30PM and at the Social Justice Film Festival at Northwest Film Forum on Saturday, October 25th at 7:00PM.

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at
Sarah Stuteville

1 Comment

  1. This was a wonderful article about a most unusual man, and his efforts. I am so glad you found him and wrote his story, in brief. I’ve known Hugo for a few years and am quite impressed with his energy, foresight, and mental acuity. This story has no ending at this time, we need to follow Hugo as he makes his way across cultural lines and great distances, let alone his pressure from low funding. Please follow up for the rest of us who can only dream of what he can accomplish, and sincerely wish him success, peace, and happiness.

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