Tuning into songs of the forest: Soundscapes and eco-cultural conservation in Kawsak Sacha, Ecuador


Indigenous cultures of the Ecuadorian Amazon are threatened by multiple crises, jeopardising their health and wellbeing as well as that of their ecosystems. This transdisciplinary project will build equitable partnerships and co-produce new evidence to support the Ancestral Kichwa Population of Kawsak Sacha (PAKKS) in articulating the eco-cultural value of their soundscape - as a vessel for cultural heritage, a vector for eco-cultural conservation action, and a voice for global earth jurisprudence.

Project description

Challenges to sustainable health and wellbeing in the Ecuadorian Amazon

The Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants are suffering multiple crises: COVID-19 is exacerbating the impacts of oil spills and water source contamination, road building, mining, deforestation, and chronic governmental neglect by accelerating the passing of elders, who are the keepers of the traditional indigenous knowledge (TIK) and practices. Unless we act now this knowledge will be lost forever, jeopardising the health, wellbeing and dignity of these Amazonic communities and their forests. Indigenous-led NGOs seek to revitalise TIK and safeguard their future, but need support in articulating the eco-cultural value of the forest to gain recognition from inter/national protection schemes.

Soundscape as a vehicle for articulating cultural, spiritual and environmental value of the forest

Our recent research highlighted the importance of the acoustic environment, or soundscape, for the well-being and culture of indigenous Waorani peoples. For the Ancestral Kichwa Population of Kawsak Sacha (PAKKS), soundscapes similarly support connection to the forest, spirits and ancestors. As NGO Sacha Warmi leader commented:

“We use the songs to communicate with the jungle and its guardian spirits, to call the animals of the forest or the fish of the river, to invoke or promote the fertility of the crops, to cure evils and diseases, remembering and transmitting the teachings left by our ancestors, to live well together. They are like roads and bridges that reconnect us with our history and with our origins. The living beings of the jungle also have their own way of expressing the life that manifests through them. The set of songs heard is like a symphony, which took millions of years to write. It is a unique and priceless creation, which we cannot let be destroyed or disappear.” - Didier Lacaze.

This indigenous conception of soundscape, as the interface between cultural and ecological processes, resonates with contemporary ecoacoustics research that establishes the role of soundscapes in ecosystem function as well as human and animal well-being. It follows that computational analysis of soundscapes can serve as a cost-effective biodiversity proxy, as our recent research demonstrates. Following the 'sonic turn' in the humanities - which explores sound as a method and vehicle for knowing the world - our new hypothesis is that articulation of the personal significance of indigenous soundscapes is a productive means to collect new evidence for eco-cultural conservation.

This pilot supports indigenous-led conservation through partnership building, research methods co-production, and conservation action. Integrating approaches from TIK, anthropology, soundscape ecology and conservation we will innovate and evaluate bespoke, transdisciplinary, participatory soundscape methods as a vehicle for registering indigenous cosmology: a vessel for cultural heritage, a vector for articulating conservation imperatives and a voice for earth jurisprudence. Impact is generated through participatory action research (PAR) to generate new knowledge on the role of soundscape in the life and cosmology of indigenous peoples and applied as a tool for safeguarding TIK and Amazonic ecosystems.

Research questions:

  • How can we best register and articulate the cultural, ecological and spiritual value of soundscapes for, i) cultural heritage, ii) conservation action, iii) academic research
  • What is the significance of soundscapes for indigenous (Kichwa) communities?
  • What are the implications for eco-cultural conservation?

Implementation and Outputs

Partnership Building:

We bring together indigenous, civil society organisations and academics to establish a new Transdisciplinary Soundscape Conservation Network. Ecuadorian partners bring expertise in soundscape ecology and fieldwork (Moscoso, researcher/project manager), PAR for revitalisation of indigenous cultural systems (Lacaze (Executive Director), Canelos - Sacha Warmi), Sussex partners bring expertise in community-based conservation (Peck), interdisciplinary soundscape ecology (Eldridge), PAR (Scott-Villiers), steering committee brings expertise on Amazonian ethnodevelopment (Rahman) and UNESCO soundscape advocacy (Barclay); members of collaborating project Sacha Taki include links to Ecuadorian governmental officials, creating impact pathway (UN SDG 17).

Methods pilot:

We co-produce bespoke transdisciplinary research methods that give voice to indigenous concerns and values by integrating concepts and methods from TIK, ethnography, ecoacoustics, speculative illustration and documentary journalism. We draw from emerging methods including participatory sound mapping and field recording, focus groups, speculative illustration and film making workshops.

Conservation Action:

UNESCO Cultural/Natural World Heritage status recognises the cultural and natural value of a place. It benefits local communities by promoting heritage conservation as a key vector of sustainable development and social cohesion. We collaborate with the cooperative project Sacha Taki (“Song of the Forest”), which seeks recognition of the PAKKS soundscape, to submit a national-level application for Cultural Heritage, the first step in UNESCO application.

Outputs (IDCF funded pilot):
  • Establish Transdisciplinary Soundscape Conservation network
  • Pilot co-produced methodology for registering and articulating soundscape semiotic salience for PAKKS
  • Application for National level Cultural/Natural Heritage status
  • Media documentation (video/illustration) for communication
  • ‘Songs of the Forest: How soundscape semiotics can steer the conservation agenda’ Environmental Humanities
  • Talks at national indigenous platforms
  • AHRC / GCRF bid (responsive, open call c. £350k)

Timeline and funding


January 2021-July 2021


SSRP-IDCF funding

The team

  • Principle Investigator (PI) and Co-Investigators

    Principal Investigator


  • Partners
    • Dr Paola Moscoso, Fundación Naturaleza y Arte, Ecuador
    • Rosa Canelos, Sacha Warmi, Ecuador
    • Didier Lacaze, Sacha Warmi, Ecuador

    Advisory board

    • Dr Leah Barclay, Griffith University, Australia. Director of UNESCO Biosphere Soundscapes project
    • Dr Elizabeth Rahman, University of Oxford, UK. Executive Director of Global Campus Social Enterprise

Where we worked