Letter from the Shuar Arutam People to the Country & the World

“From somewhere in the Cordillera del Cóndor, January 4th 2017

To my Shuar brothers and sisters, to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and Andes, to the men and women of Ecuador and the World.

As many of you know, recent days have been very dangerous for our people. These days have not yet ended and are, indeed, probably only the beginning of a great territorial dispute initiated by the National Government against the Shuar Arutam People.

Our jungle has been stained with tears, anguish and blood. The paths and trails that we used to travel in peace have now become unsafe and dangerous. Almost 30 years have passed since Ecuadorians spoke of us as the Warriors of Cenepa, the defenders of Ecuador, the country to which we belong.

But now it is necessary for people to know us through our own voice. No one has asked us but many have spoken on our behalf, including the Government and social and political leaders, some with good and some with bad intentions.

We were born here in this immense jungle of the Cordillera del Cóndor and on the banks of the Zamora and Santiago rivers. We did not know barbed wire or private property. The State declared that these were uncultivated lands and organized the colonization of our territory with the same conviction and self-legitimacy of any colonizer. When the settlers came to this land we received them well, because we knew that these were poor and hardworking people looking for an opportunity in their lives. From one day to another, large tracts of land no longer belonged to us because they had been sold to people we had never even met.

In the 1960s, we had to create the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH), which even today we refer to as our Mother, so that the State would recognize what has always been ours: the territory, our living spaces and our culture. It was only in the 1980s that we began to legalize our lands with community deeds. We began to be recognized, not only for the Cenepa war, but because we have taken care of these immense millennial forests in peace, protecting the borders.

In 2000, a group of Shuar leaders toured these lands and founded the Shuar Arutam Territorial Area, as provided for in the Constitution. This was not a simple process; there were hundreds of meetings and discussions that allowed 6 associations to unite their 48 centers (communities) and establish a continuous territory of 230,000 hectares in the Province of Morona Santiago on the border with Peru.

FICSH declared us its pilot plan, to test a new form of indigenous government within the Ecuadorian State, like a special regime government in a Shuar territory. In 2003 we wrote our Life Plan, which forms the axis of our organization. This is the guide which tells us which areas we can pass through, for we must navigate rivers, and the areas where we should not even walk. Our Life Plan addresses fundamental issues such as health, education, the economy, conservation and the good management and control of the forest and its resources. We are almost the only group in the country to organize our territory in categories of sustainable use and we leave more than 120,000 hectares under strict conservation, for the benefit of all Ecuadorians.

In 2006 we were legalized by the Development Council of the Nationalities & Peoples of Ecuador (CODENPE) as Shuar Arutam People. Two years later we signed an agreement with the Government to maintain the forest in perfect condition for 20 years and receive contributions that allow us to develop and implement our Life Plan. This agreement is called Socio Bosque (Forest Partner).

In 2014 we updated our Life Plan. Once again our Ordinary General Assembly pronounced against medium-scale and mega-mining within our territory.

Because, as we said to President Correa, do not tell us that you undertake mining projects to get us out of poverty because we, with our way of life, do not feel poor. Instead, tell us how you will protect us as a people and our culture.

In the context of this history comes the conflict in Nankints. Since 2008 we have been requesting an institutionalized dialogue with the national Government but, despite our efforts, we have been unable to establish a serious, sincere, honest and equal conversation within the framework of the Plurinational State. This is the reason for the lack of interpretation and understanding of the requirements of the Shuar people.

In the name of ‘national interest’ and by describing the situation in Nankints as an isolated case, the Government ignores other rights and issues that are also of national interest and enshrined within the Constitution: multiculturalism and conservation. In Nankints the ‘revolutionary’ Government acts like any colonizing government, forgetting even the international agreements it has signed.

The problem is not the piece of land in Nankints that we share with settlers; people think that this never belonged to the Shuar. We never imagined that a mining company would buy our ancestral heritage land from the State and a few settlers. The Government forgets and, with its many methods of making itself heard, imposes its own truth. Our territory is not only Nankints.

In fact, more than 38 percent of our territory has been concessioned to large-scale mining. All the riverbanks of the Zamora and Santiago basins have been concessioned to small-scale mining. A gigantic hydroelectric dam is about to be built. So our question is: where do they want us to live?

That is why, nine years ago, we told the company to leave and we reclaimed Nankints. Nine years later, someone manipulates the President and convinces him to forcibly evict us before the end of his term. We did not leave, so violence came. We have been blamed for the tragedy of our murdered comrade, the police officer, but we have not given any orders to kill anyone. Instead of dialogue, the Government puts thousands of policemen and soldiers into our homes, on our land, to terrorize and threaten our children. As far as I know, no inhabitant of our land is a sniper, nor does anyone possess weapons that can pierce a police helmet. Why not investigate thoroughly before persecuting us and issuing orders to capture the heads of our families? Instead of talking to us to investigate and prevent violence, why condemn us to live in a State of Exception? It is reminiscent of the terrible dictatorships of Operation Condor which, according to the President, is being planned again.

Why do they enter our homes? Why do they not let us live in peace? And the answer we have is that, in the name of the ‘national interest’, we have become a handful of folkloric Indians and terrorists who do not understand what good living is, neither Sumak Kawsay* or, even worse, the project of the Citizen Revolution.**

I do not want to dwell on the details of the President’s weekly public addresses. Instead, let us try to look at the big picture in which we find ourselves, avoiding provocation and primitive discussions that lead nowhere.

With this first communiqué from the forests of the Cordillera del Cóndor, we say to the thousand families that we will not, under any circumstance, allow the violence and force of the Government to destroy our house, your house, the World’s house.

President Rafael Correa must create a climate of peace, withdraw his troops, suspend the State of Exception in our province and cancel the arrest warrants of our leaders and relatives. The only true way to end this path of destruction – which provokes Shuar inhabitants into acts of individual resistance to reclaim their territory – is through conversation, respect and mutual understanding.

All inhabitants of Ecuador and Morona Santiago must join our demand for peace, the end of violence and a serious dialogue with the Government that respects our life as an original people.

Governing Council of THE SHUAR ARUTAM PEOPLE”

Translated directly by Chakana Chronicles from an open letter published by the  Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) on behalf of the Governing Council of the Shuar Arutam People.

*Translating literally as ‘good living’, the Quechua term ‘Sumak Kawsay’ refers to the indigenous cosmovision of living in harmony with our communities, ourselves, and most importantly, our natural environment.

**The so-called ‘Citizen Revolution’ is the political and socioeconomic project of Alianza Pais, Ecuador’s current ruling party

Update on ‘Ecuador’s Standing Rock’: UN & Amnesty International Condemn Rights Violations

Since the publication of our article about the Ecuadorian Government’s brutal repression of Shuar people defending their territory from mega-mining, the regime has dramatically increased its crackdown on anti-extractivist voices.

On 18th December, Ecuador’s most prestigious environmental NGO, Acción Ecológica, called for a Peace & Truth Commission to explore the attacks on indigenous and environmental rights. Two days later, the Government announced its intention to close the NGO, which has been operating in Ecuador for 30 years and is largely responsible for the country’s modern environmental movement. This is not the first time that the Government has closed an organisation for disagreeing with its extractivist policies. In 2013, Fundación Pachamama was closed for opposing the auction of 2.6 million hectares of virgin jungle to oil companies.

Also in December, a female activist from Acción Ecológica was subjected to a seemingly planned sexual attack and two further instances of harassment outside her home. In response, Ecuador’s women’s and feminist movement released a statement denouncing sexual aggression as a strategy for the political control of women and requesting an investigation into the attacks:

Members of Ecuadorian women's and feminist movement denounce sexual aggression as a strategy for the political control of women. Photo credit: Acción Ecológica

Members of Ecuadorian women’s and feminist movement denounce sexual aggression as a strategy for the political control of women. Photo credit: Acción Ecológica

“Organizations and collectives that make up the Ecuadorian women’s and feminist movement, in solidarity with defenders of human rights and nature, express support to our comrade at Acción Ecológica who suffered a sexual attack. We denounce what we consider a political retaliation. Indeed, there is clear evidence that this was a planned attack to punish and frighten her and intimidate other activists who publicly appear as leaders of the resistance movement against the expropriation and exploitation of natural resources on Indigenous or farming land of high biodiversity”.

On the same night that the Government announced the closure of Acción Ecológica, December 20th, police raided the offices of the Shuar Federation, FICSH, and detained its president, Agustín Wachapa, who is still being held. Local radio reported that the premises were surrounded and entered in the middle of the night by around 100 officers, who ransacked the offices, destroyed property and took the Federation’s computers without explanation.

The State of Exception that has been declared in the provinces of Pastaza and Morona Santiago strips residents of the rights to freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and inviolability of the home, amongst others. Since the arrest of Agustín Wachapa, the police have used the State of Exception to target other indigenous leaders. Nearly a dozen have been arrested. A video has been published showing Stalin Robles struggling to breathe after police threw tear gas into his car as they arrested him.

On December 26th, the President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) released a statement, excerpts of which are below:

Shuar Federation President Agustín Wachapa. Photo credit: CONFENAIE

Shuar Federation President Agustín Wachapa. Photo credit: CONFENAIE

“Security does not exist for indigenous leaders in the streets and public spaces of these two provinces. A network of agents and informants has been deployed throughout the south-central Amazon region for the sole purpose of finding means to incriminate and prosecute them”.

“The consequences of imprisoning our brothers and using the State of Exception to raid their homes and intimidate their families and communities will be the total and absolute responsibility of the Government. The whole world will know that, in Ecuador, human rights are violated, leaders are persecuted and organizations destroyed”.

“The Government’s actions in #Nankints are unprecedented in history. The military is firing on the Shuar people, who were decorated as war heroes of the Cenepa only decades ago. Tanks have been deployed in Shuar territory, where helicopters are intimidating villagers. Farmers’ homes are being raided and police are persecuting leaders amidst ongoing violations of due process. A police state has been established and apparently will continue until it satisfies the economic interests of its transnational allies”.

Both the United Nations and Amnesty International have condemned the Ecuadorian Government’s attacks against the Shuar and Acción Ecológica:

“The Ecuadorian Government must protect the Shuar people from attacks on their community, and not impose states of emergency or arrest Indigenous leaders. These acts of intimidation only serve to increase tension and put the lives of more people at risk”, said María José Veramendi, South America researcher for Amnesty international.

“Amnesty International calls on the Ecuadorian authorities to thoroughly respect due process of law in Agustín Wachapá’s case and urges them to end the state of emergency and the acts of harassment in Morona Santiago. The organization also urges the Ministry of the Interior to drop their application for the dissolution and closure of Acción Ecológica.”

A group of United Nations human rights experts also criticized the Ecuadorian Government for “stifling civil society” and “violating international human rights standards.” “Dissolving groups is the most severe type of restriction on freedom of association,” they said.

In a related incident, on Monday 19th December the Kichwa community of Sarayaku, which has publicly declared support for the Shuar, intercepted eleven soldiers traveling unannounced through their ancestral land, in violation of their territorial rights. After talks with the Governor of the province of Pastaza and the brigade commander, the soldiers were peacefully and safely released to Ecuadorian authorities. However, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa now claims that the Sarayaku “kidnapped” the soldiers and has fired the Governor for negotiating with the community for their release.

Quito protest, photo credit Resistir Es Mi Derecho

Quito protest, December 29. Photo credit: Resistir Es Mi Derecho

The attack against Acción Ecológica, the heavily militarized response to Shuar protests, the persecution of indigenous leaders, and the attempts to criminalize and defame the Kichwa of Sarayaku, are all evidence of the Correa administration’s prioritization of extractivism over human and environmental rights.

It’s a desperate situation, but there are signs of hope. In cities across Ecuador, protests have been held in solidarity with the Shuar and Acción Ecológica. In the capital city of Quito, environmental activists and national Indigenous leaders have held joint demonstrations in front of the presidential palace and improvised assemblies to map out further resistance strategies.

“We are building new alliances between the city and the countryside, mestizos and Indigenous. It is events like these that help activate a new consciousness and build a larger platform,” Luis Corral, a leading environmental activist, told Al Jazeera.
solidarityInternationally, concerned global citizens have taken to social media to show their solidarity with the Shuar and Acción Ecológica, another case of the people vs. the combined power of state and corporations. The hashtags #SOSPuebloShuar, #SOSAccionEcologica and #NankintsResiste are being used to rally international support.

Add your voice:

  • Sign a petition to demand the demilitarization of Shuar territory and dialogue to avoid further confrontation and acts of violence.
  • Add your photo to the campaign showing solidarity with Acción Ecológica and the Shuar. Take a photo of yourself with a poster like the one shown (with your own country name), post it to your Facebook wall and send it in a message to Yasuni Guardians, who will add it to one the online albums, which can be seen here and here.
  • Spread the word!  Acción Ecológica triumphed against a similar closure threat in 2009 with the help of a huge international outcry. Visibility and solidarity can make a real difference!


In 2014 we interviewed Ivonne Yánez, founding member of Acción Ecológica. She spoke to us about the importance of indigenous resistance against oil exploitation and mining; Acción Ecológica’s role in supporting that resistance; and the Government’s campaign to discredit and criminalise those who defend nature:


Ecuador’s Standing Rock? Tanks and Helicopters Deployed Against Indigenous Shuar People Defending Ancestral Territory From Mega-Mining

shuarresisteThe Shuar community of Nankints in Ecuador’s Southern Amazon region was evicted in August 2016 to make way for a Chinese copper mega-mining project. The mining company, through a court order, has claimed these indigenous territories without prior consultation or consent from the affected communities, who have lived there for hundreds of years. The land allocated for the project covers over 41,000 hectares and the forced evacuation of other Shuar communities is expected.

Since the August eviction, the county of San Juan Bosco has been militarized to quell protest. In November, several Shuar people attempted to reclaim the indigenous territory of Nankints within the San Juan Bosco county. Clashes broke out with police and military personnel guarding the mining camp, leaving several injured. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), called for dialogue with the Government to avoid further confrontations but no resolution was reached.


The militarisation of Nankints. Photo Jacobo Fierro.

On Wednesday December 14th, a new confrontation took place in the mining camp, leaving one police officer dead and others wounded. After these events, the Ecuadorian Government announced a state of exception throughout the Morona Santiago province, stripping residents of the rights to freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and inviolability of the home, among others. The Government also deployed over 700 elite soldiers and policemen, military tanks, trucks and helicopters to San Juan Bosco to join the existing military presence there. According to witness testimony, army rifle blasts have caused women and children to seek refuge in the mountains. Military personnel and police are patrolling the streets in armoured vehicles. The community is in a state of terror.

A statement from the President of CONAIE, Jorge Herrera, reads: “We fear that the direction [the Ecuadorian President] has taken will lead to a massacre of Ecuadorians, and it is the absolute priority of CONAIE to avoid this. We are strongly requesting that the Church and international organizations intervene and mediate to find a dialogue that does not deepen and aggravate the existing conflict.”

An online petition has been addressed to key decision makers in the Ecuadorian Government demanding:

  • the demilitarization of San Juan Bosco and dialogue to avoid further confrontation and acts of violence.

  • adherence to international law and the Ecuadorian Constitution, both of which forbid the presence of military personnel in indigenous territories and require prior, informed and free consultations before the implementation of mining or oil projects.

Dr Carlos Perez, President of the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI) has issued a statement expressing “solidarity with the family of our brother, the fallen police officer, and those wounded, who are also our brothers, knowing that no extractive project, no matter how profitable, nor any amount of bloodshed is a justification for violence. We demand a rigorous judicial investigation into the acts of violence to find those responsible for these criminal acts”.

Dr Perez went on to demand an investigation into the unsolved murders of Bosco Bisuma, Fredy Taisha and José Tendenza, leaders of the anti-mining resistance movement in Ecuador, killed in 2009, 2013 and 2014 respectively.


Quito shows solidarity with the Shuar

Protests in solidarity with the Shuar people have been mobilized in cities across Ecuador.

For more information about mining in Ecuador, see the documentary “Paradise Under Threat: The Mirador Mine in the Condor”. The film presents information about the Chinese copper mine and its potential impacts on the environment; shows the biological and cultural diversity that is at risk; and presents some of the perspectives of the local people and other Ecuadorians about the mine project. The trailer can be viewed below.

Paradise Under Threat – The Cordillera del Cóndor from Kanaka Productions on Vimeo.

To see Dr Carlos Perez talking about why he fights against mega-mining projects in Ecuador, see this short interview from 2013.

Sign this petition to show solidarity with the Shuar people of Ecuador.


Sarayaku: a Journey into the Heart of the Resistance

Living in harmony with nature, the Saryaku people depend on hunting, gathering, fishing and small scale agriculture.

Living in harmony with nature, the Saryaku people depend on hunting, gathering, fishing and small scale agriculture. Photo courtesy of Sarayaku

(Versión en Español aquí). Sarayaku (meaning “The River of Corn” in Quechuan) is a Kichwa community at the forefront of the resistance against oil exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Sarayaku territory covers 135,000 hectares, 95% of which is primary rainforest, in a remote part of the Pastaza province in Ecuador’s southern Amazon region. With its own autonomous government, Sarayaku is a sovereign territory. Numbering around 1,200, the Sarayaku people are regularly denounced by the Ecuadorian President as violent terrorists standing in the way of the nation’s development.

logo sarayakuThe Sarayaku call themselves the People of the Zenith, stemming from an ancient prophecy of their ancestors claiming that they would be a pillar of territorial, cultural, and spiritual defence – a beacon of light as strong as the sun the moment it reaches the highest point in the sky.

The Sarayaku have been successfully resisting various would-be invaders for the last four decades, but are best known for winning a historic case against the Ecuadorian state at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). In 1996, the Ecuadorian government granted an Argentinian oil company, CGC, permission to prospect for oil in Sarayaku territory, without consulting or even notifying the community. In fact, the Sarayaku people only learned that their land had been opened for oil exploration when the helicopters arrived, followed by men with guns.

For several months the oil company, accompanied by soldiers and private security guards, carried out detonations, felled trees, dug more than 400 wells, buried more than 1.4 tons of high grade explosives and shattered the peace with helicopters. The Sarayaku responded by raising complaints nationally and internationally and eventually managed to get the oil project stopped. But the authorities failed to apologize, to provide any reparation for the damage done, or to make any commitments about preventing similar abuses in the future.

Sarayaku at the IACHR

Sarayaku at the IACHR (image courtesy of Sarayaku)

In 2003, after exhausting all domestic legal avenues for redress and a guarantee of consultation for future projects, the Sarayaku took their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In July 2012, after a decade-long legal battle, the judges ruled in their favour, finding that the Ecuadorian state had violated the community’s right to be consulted, as well as their property rights and cultural identity. The Court also found Ecuador responsible for putting the life and physical integrity of the Sarayaku people at grave risk.

The Ecuadorian government was ordered to apologise to the Sarayaku people; to recompense them financially; to remove the explosives left in their territory; and to properly regulate the right to consultation over future oil projects on their land. The government has since partly complied with the ruling. A documentary, ‘Children of the Jaguar’, made by the Sarayaku, in partnership with Amnesty International, which follows them as they take their case to the IACHR can be watched here (with English subtitles).

Living up to the ancient prophecy, the Sarayaku are always cited as the most successful example of resistance in Ecuador, so we were really excited to visit their community. I’d watched ‘Children of the Jaguar’ when I first became interested in the issue of oil exploitation in the Amazon and had been struck by the dignified and graceful way the Sarayaku people carry themselves; by the quiet and utterly reasonable manner in which they put forward their case.

I was intrigued too about the community’s use of technology as a tool in their struggle. Whilst living in harmony with nature, primarily surviving through hunting, gathering, fishing and small scale agriculture, the Sarayaku have their own website, Facebook page, Twitter account and Youtube channel. I was keen to know more about how this balance works. I was especially interested to meet Patricia Gualinga, the Sarayaku leader for women & family, who has been at the forefront of their resistance movement for many years and has been a real inspiration to me.

Sarayaku President Jose Gualinga (centre) with his father, the Sarayaku shaman Sabino Gualinga (left) and Patricia Gualinga (right)

Sarayaku President Jose Gualinga (centre) with his father, the Sarayaku shaman Sabino Gualinga (left) and Patricia Gualinga (second from right). (Image courtesy of Sarayaku).

There were a couple of anxious days before our Sarayaku trip when it looked as though we may not be given permission to visit. Their President, José Gualinga, had responded to my request to visit with an email saying that many journalists ask to visit the community and only a small number are granted permission; that most people who wish to visit are doing so for their own reasons, rather than offering any concrete support to the Sarayaku struggle. He went on to ask for our press accreditation and more information about the kind of work we do.

I responded to say that we are not professional journalists, but have a website which aims to spread the word about the fight to defend nature and human rights in Ecuador. I sent him a link to our site and told him that Carlos Pérez, President of ECUARUNARI (The Confederation of Peoples of Kichwa Nationality) could provide a personal reference if needed. After a tense wait, José emailed to say that if our work is as it seems, then we would be welcome to visit Sarayaku. He put us in touch with Veronica, a woman in Puyo who co-ordinates all visits to the community.

Sarayaku can only be reached by plane or boat

Sarayaku can only be reached by plane or boat

Veronica explained that Sarayaku is 25 minutes by plane or several hours by motorised canoe from the city of Puyo. Unexpectedly, travelling by plane was cheaper than by canoe, due to the 2 hour taxi ride to the departure point for the boat. With limited time and budget, we opted for the plane, aware of the irony of flying in to spend a weekend with a community resisting oil exploitation and determined that our output of work would justify the fuel we used.

My friend K and I took three buses, travelling overnight and through the Carnival weekend crowds, to reach the city of Puyo at dawn on a Saturday morning in late February. We were both nervous about what lay ahead; we had no idea what to expect from our trip and felt as if we were taking a leap into the unknown. K told me that when she’d told her Dad about her forthcoming trip, he had warned her that some Amazonian tribes make alcohol out of chewed fermented yucca and have a penchant for killing guests who decline the beverage. I was pretty sure that last part was a myth, at least in modern times, but the only thing I felt certain of at that point was that the next few days were going to be an experience to remember.

Poster in the Sarayaku office: "Indigenous territoties free of oil. The cry of the living jungle".

Poster in the Sarayaku office: “Indigenous territoties free of oil. The cry of the living jungle”.

In Puyo , we made our way to the Sarayaku office, where we met Franklin Toala, their leader for external relations. Franklin told us about some of the projects the community is working on, including raising animals for sustainable consumption, a fish nursery and (surprisingly) an airline. He explained that the community has put two of its members through pilot school and bought a small plane, not only to fly people to Sarayaku without depending on an external airline, but to generate income by offering regional flights. He talked about a ‘resistance radio station’ the community would like to start. With understandable pride, he showed us the impressive new Sarayaku website.

The conversation moved on to the government’s oppression of the Sarayaku. Franklin explained that 200 community members have been labelled as terrorists for protesting against oil exploitation. We asked why the Sarayaku are singled out for vilification by the President, when there are other communities resisting. Franklin explained that it’s the fact that the Sarayaku are so well organised that sets them apart. He showed us their organisational chart, explaining the roles of the President (who acts as the voice of the community rather than all-powerful leader), Vice-President and elders, plus finance and security departments and a legal committee. As he explained how the Sarayaku structure operates, I started to realise why this tiny community is such a force to be reckoned with.

We waited in the office until the weather was good enough for the short flight to Sarayaku. On our way to the miniscule airport in the nearby town of Shell (named after the oil company, another irony), we stopped to collect some rubber boots from Veronica and she gave us a letter addressed to a Sarayaku leader called Gerardo and asked us to give it to him upon our arrival.

P1020227The planes at Shell airport looked like toys! I especially liked this hot pink and purple number. After we were weighed, along with our luggage, we climbed aboard a 4-seater Cessner, with the pilot and K in the front and me, some bags of rice and bottles of water in the back. The 25-minute plane ride was exhilarating and the landing even more so. Touching down on a jungle runway, water spraying against the windows, is an experience I will never forget.

Without a minute to collect ourselves, we were thrust from one incredible experience into another. We were met by a group of people; a young guy with a long black ponytail and thick wooden dowels in both ears helped us with our bags. A man with what appeared to be blue dye around the sides of his face came out to greet us, introducing himself as Gerardo Gualinga and asking if we were the two journalists. Thinking of the plastic wineglass in my backpack which I planned to use in lieu of a proper camera tripod, I explained that we weren’t exactly professional journalists, but that we had a website to raise awareness of the struggle against oil exploitation in the Amazon.

Sarayaku woven roof

Sarayaku woven roof

Gerardo led us down a stone path and into a huge open sided hut with a beautiful woven roof and a mud floor, which served as the communal space for the small surrounding neighbourhood. We sat down on a wooden bench which ran around the outside of the hut and gave him the envelope which we’d been given in Puyo. He read the enclosed letter with a serious expression and then explained that he had just been informed that he was to host us for the weekend. Our arrival, brandishing the letter which must have contained instructions for our stay, didn’t seem to fill Gerardo with delight.

Looking up, he told us that he was very busy and we couldn’t expect him to be with us all the time. He took a long look at the sunglasses perched on top of my head, sighed and explained that this wasn’t a hotel, that we mustn’t expect a restaurant or wifi service. He was polite and friendly but it was clear that we were an inconvenience to him and that he suspected us to be somewhat high maintenance. I imagined I’d feel the same if I thought I’d been saddled at the last minute with what I thought were two city journalists on a weekend when I had lots of other things to do.


Home, sweet home

Gerardo showed us to an open sided hut with perhaps eight wooden beds, two of which were made up with mosquito nets, sheets and pillows. There was no electricity, but space for a bonfire on the mud floor with two hammocks hanging next to it. A shared toilet and shower completed the facilities which were to be our home for the next three nights. We were delighted and said so, at which point Gerardo visibly relaxed a little.

The Bobonaza River

The Bobonaza River

The Sarayaku community is divided into five neighbourhoods ranging across both banks of the Bobonaza River. Gerardo Gualinga, brother of my hero Patricia, is the leader of the neighbourhood where we stayed. After we’d settled into our hut, he took us by motorised canoe to his home on the other side of the river.

Unlike our mud-floored hut, Gerardo’s home was built on stilts and comprised a communal area, a kitchen and two bedrooms, all made of wood. Gerardo introduced us to his wife, a kind faced woman with dyed blue hands to match the sides of her husband’s face. A number of people were sitting around the communal area on chairs and benches and there was a table in the corner, where we were invited to eat. Lunch consisted of boiled yucca, two fish served in banana leaves, some kind of fish soup and chili sauce. The letter we’d given Gerardo must have explained that I am a vegetarian, because he kindly offered me some rice to go with the yucca. I later found out that, in complete contrast with the coast where it is served with every meal, rice is a luxury item for the Sarayaku, as it has to be brought in from Puyo via boat or plane.

After we’d eaten, we were invited to join the circle and space was made for us on a wooden bench. It seemed that Gerardo had only enough crockery and cutlery for perhaps four people, as after we’d finished lunch the next shift of diners sat down to eat. Gerardo’s wife Rosa was constantly on her feet, serving lunch and shuttling to and from the kitchen with a gourd, which she offered to each person in turn, who drank from it and passed it back to her. When the gourd was passed to me, I looked at the unidentified beige liquid inside and saw some pinkish chunks in it. Suspecting that it contained meat, but not wanting to offend my hosts, I drank a big mouthful and passed it on to K.

Sarayaku social life revolves around chicha

Sarayaku social life revolves around chicha (photo courtesy of Sarayaku)

I later discovered that the beverage had been “chicha”, the chewed fermented yucca drink which K’s dad had warned her about. As a vegetarian I feel excluded from gathering any crazy-travel-food stories, which usually involve scorpions, crickets or brains. I actually would have felt totally fine if I had known I was just drinking yucca and spit and delighted to have a crazy-travel-food story of my own. As it was, I was pretty traumatised at having drunk what I thought was meat. Conversely, K, who realised what was in the gourd, was horrified at the thought of drinking spit. Our hosts, accustomed to visitors not having acquired the taste of their favourite beverage, sensed our shared discomfort and didn’t offer us any more chicha.

Now we were sitting in the circle, we were able to pay more attention to the other people in the room. We were quite an eclectic bunch. A couple of young indigenous guys with ponytails sat next to a young woman who turned out to be a Belgian anthropologist. Another European woman with a beautiful baby on her hip was the Belgian wife of the Sarayaku President, whom he met whilst working as a representative for indigenous peoples at the United Nations. Whilst the anthropologist was as clearly from the outside as we were, the President’s wife had the garb and mannerisms of the local people; not surprising after 25 years in the community.

Gerardo's daughter Maya

Gerardo’s daughter Maya

The baby, whose lovely face reminded me somewhat of a Buddhist monk, was the youngest of Gerardo and Rosa’s five children. Two of their other daughters, Maya and Gualcanga, aged three and five, were also there. I was particularly taken with Maya, who had a fierce little face which was almost entirely dyed blue. A young local woman in jeans completed the group.

Conversation was a bit awkward initially but soon picked up. The Sarayaku are people who pass on all their knowledge verbally, so are wonderful storytellers. A couple of generations ago, the Sarayaku only spoke Kichwa, but these days their education system is bilingual, so the conversation took place in Spanish, a courtesy which we appreciated.

Maya and Gualcanga helping to make chicha

Maya and Gualcanga helping to make chicha

Gerardo told us about the different roles of men and women in the community. Women are responsible for making chicha, cooking and looking after the children. Both men and women work in the fields. Women sometimes accompany the men fishing, but hunting is a solely male activity.

We had a good laugh when we discovered that coastal and Amazon people use the same Spanish slang word for a man who does domestic chores: “mandarina”. Not all slang words are shared, however. The Sarayaku guys laughed uproariously when they discovered that a ladies man or player on the coast is called a “vulture”. “But a vulture only hunts dead things!” they protested, arguing that their word for a predatory man, “crocodile”, is much more apt. I thought they made a good point.

A Sarayaku neighbourhood from the air

A Sarayaku neighbourhood from the air

When we remarked how much we liked our hut and how much we were enjoying being somewhere so peaceful, Gerardo told us that there is a remote spot many hours walk away where the Sarayaku go to “get away from it all”. He gestured around at the rustic wooden hut and small, mismatched collection of crockery, saying “we don’t have anything like this there, it’s really basic”. To us, the Sarayaku were living in remote jungle and I loved the idea of them going on holiday for some peace and quiet.

One of the major impressions I took away from that afternoon’s conversation was how well-travelled some of the Sarayaku people are, both within Ecuador and internationally.

Gerardo had us in stitches when he described two trips he’d made; one to visit the neighbouring Achuar tribe and the other to Switzerland (I am not sure it would be possible to imagine two more different experiences!). Part of the Sarayaku resistance involves information sharing with other indigenous peoples and Gerardo had spent three days with the Achuar, who have a reputation for being fierce. Indeed, the Achuar absolutely forbid, on pain of death, any visitor from looking at the women in their tribe. Gerardo described how he had spent three days staring fixedly at the floor.

Three of Gerardo's children: Laia, Maya y Majahuali

Three of Gerardo’s children: Laia, Maya y Majahuali

His trip to Switzerland was difficult for different reasons. He’d been offered work clearing some land, for good money, but it was so cold there and he missed his family so much that he’d gone to the immigration police and begged to be deported, a request they were happy to oblige. Sarayaku males are “men’s men” for sure, but Gerardo spoke openly about how much he misses his family when he is away from them. Even when he goes to Puyo for the day, he constantly wonders what they are doing and can’t wait to get back to them.

One of the young ponytailed guys, José Luis, the son of the community President, told us how he had lived on the coast for a while; his sister Zulma, the young woman in jeans, had lived in Sweden for several years when she was young. She is now 28 years old and recently divorced, which surprised me. There aren’t many divorced people on the coast and I had imagined that there would be even fewer in the Amazon. Her marital status seemed to be the source of much good natured teasing, which she took well. Showing herself different from the typical coastal Ecuadorian woman in yet another way, Zulma spoke about how much she loves to read.

It seemed that the Sarayaku youth are free to leave and live elsewhere, to attend university or just to experience a different life. “That’s their right”, said Gerardo, but I got the impression that the young people are expected to return to the community eventually.

Sarayaku hunter (image courtesy of Sarayaku)

Sarayaku hunter (image courtesy of Sarayaku)

This open door policy also applies to people from outside coming in. Gerardo told us about a Swedish guy who had married a Sarayaku woman and now speaks perfect Kichwa and is an accomplished hunter. He explained that although the Sarayaku are strict about preserving their culture, they are open to new members who can enrich and empower the community.

At one point Gerardo drew parallels between the lives of the Sarayaku President, José Gualinga, and the Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, both of whom have Belgian wives and many contacts in common. The two men at opposite ends of the fight to save the Amazon from oil exploitation have not yet met, but are beating such similar paths in their international travels that an encounter is inevitable. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that little exchange.

Bridge over the Bobonaza River, Sarayaku

Bridge over the Bobonaza River, Sarayaku

After a relaxed and very enjoyable afternoon full of laughter, Gerardo tactfully let us know how we might find our way back to our hut. Taking this as our cue to leave, we walked back along the Bobonaza River and across the metal suspension bridge which spans it, heads buzzing with the enormous amount of information which had been presented to us that day.

By the time we got back to our hut, afternoon was drawing to a close, leaving us just enough time for a shower before it got dark. K and I were lying in our hammocks and I was writing notes from the day when José Luis came in to light a fire for us. His t-shirt and board shorts would not have been out of place on the coast; the long feathers hanging from each ear were slightly more exotic.

Jose Luis carrying yucca in a backpack made of leaves

Jose Luis carrying yucca in a backpack made of leaves

Having lived on the coast and in Quito, Jose Luis seemed glad of some company from outside the community. I soon got the impression that he felt somewhat torn between the two worlds and that a strong sense of duty had brought him back to live in Sarayaku.

Jose Luis is the grandson of the Sarayaku “yachak” or shaman and explained that he had been training to follow the same path, but he’d found that the sacrifices required of him were too much. He explained that to become a yachak takes preparation since the age of eight years old. Shamans in training have to follow a very strict diet and take the sacred hallucinogenic medicine ayahuasca regularly.

Perhaps most difficult, they must also limit their contact with women, beyond celibacy to the point of not even conversing with the opposite sex. We women, apparently, are energy suckers. I asked Jose Luis whether it’s possible for a woman to become a yachak and he said yes, although it’s very unusual and more dangerous for a woman, because of the energy we lose through menstruation and childbirth. Energy is the key to healing, it seems.

It was when he abandoned the path to shamanism that Jose Luis decided to leave the community and travel within Ecuador. Now he’s back at Sarayaku, he works as a biologist, a subject he studied at university in Quito. He is part of a small team responsible for making sure that the community’s key natural resources, such as yucca and tapir, are sufficient for a growing population.

The Sarayaku "yachak" or shaman, Sabino Gualinga

The Sarayaku “yachak” or shaman, Sabino Gualinga

Jose Luis seemed to be concentrating more on talking to us than on lighting the fire. Laughing, he told us of a local superstition that says that if a person needs to blow on a fire more than 50 times to light it, they will marry an old person. Between blows, he continued to talk. He might not have become a yachak, but he seemed to know a lot about natural medicine. It was quite magical, listening him talk by the glow of the kindling fire about his grandfather invoking the spirits of different animals to heal people. His grandfather often invokes the spirit of the whale, because of the animal’s great power and the many obstacles it must overcome in its migrations. Jose Luis told us that, when animal spirits reveal themselves to us, they appear in human form. Jose Luis described the condor spirit as the most elegant man imaginable, wearing a suit of shining snow.

Sarayaku church

Sarayaku church

Jose Luis went on to explain that he blends these traditional animist beliefs with Catholicism, believing in God, Jesus and angels. 40% of the Sarayaku community go to church regularly, he told us.

We had dinner that evening with Gerardo’s family and Jose Luis, Gerardo’s wife Rosa being responsible for cooking for any unattached males in the family. In line with the basic but satisfying fare we’d been given so far, dinner was spaghetti with peas and carrots.

We asked Gerardo about the significance of the blue dye on his face and his wife’s hands. He explained that, in Sarayaku, it is important for both men and women to have lustrous hair. They use the extract of the wika fruit as a hair conditioner and it tends to run into their faces when it rains or they sweat. Having a blue face seems to be a perfectly acceptable price to pay for having beautiful shiny hair. In fact, Jose Luis later told us that some Sarayaku men find dyed blue hands on women to be a very attractive quality, as it shows that they care about their appearance.

During this fascinating conversation, I noticed the presence of a dog in the corner of the kitchen. I couldn’t work out why it looked so doleful, until I realised that it couldn’t lift its head properly. Jose Luis explained that a local child with Down’s syndrome had got hold of a machete and, with one blow, had all but severed the dog’s head. As I looked more closely, I could see the scar running nearly all the way around the dog’s neck. I could not imagine how an animal could possibly survive such an injury. Jose Luis told us that his grandfather was so attached to the dog that they had rushed it to Puyo by plane and had paid $500 for a vet to patch him up. I was astounded that these fearless hunters would go to such lengths to save a beloved pet. Hardly the actions of violent terrorists, I thought.

Thank goodness for mosquito nets

Thank goodness for mosquito nets

Jose Luis entertained us for the rest of dinner with stories of all the lethal creatures that have bitten him over the years. Running in the forest once he was bitten by a deadly snake and is convinced that he only survived because of all the medicinal plants he ingested whilst training with his grandfather.

When we got back to our hut after dinner, the mud floor was moving with cockroaches. Very grateful for my mosquito net, I tucked myself in carefully and fell asleep quickly after an exhausting and wonderful day.

To be continued …

There have been shocking developments in Sarayaku since our visit. At the end of April, the community was illegally invaded by the military for sheltering the country’s three most famous fugitives. For more information, see this blog post and watch this video.

Sarayaku: un Viaje al Corazón de la Resistencia

Vivir en armonía con la naturaleza, la gente Saryaku dependen de la caza, la recolección, la pesca y la agricultura a pequeña escala. Foto cortesía de Sarayaku

Vivir en armonía con la naturaleza, la gente Saryaku dependen de la caza, la recolección, la pesca y la agricultura a pequeña escala. Foto cortesía de Sarayaku

(English version here). Sarayaku (que significa “el río de maíz” en quechua) es una comunidad kichwa a la vanguardia de la resistencia contra la explotación petrolera en la Amazonía ecuatoriana. El territorio Sarayaku cubre 135.000 hectáreas, el 95% de las cuales es bosque primario, en una parte remota de la provincia de Pastaza en la zona sur de la Amazonía en Ecuador. Con su propio gobierno autónomo, Sarayaku es un territorio soberano. Llegando a una población de aproximadamente 1200, los Sarayaku son denunciados regularmente por el presidente de Ecuador, como terroristas violentos que estan obstruyendo el desarrollo de la nación.

logo sarayakuLos Sarayaku se refieren a sí mismos como el Pueblo del Medio Dia, derivada de una antigua profecía de sus antepasados alegando que serán un pilar en la defensa territorial, cultural, y espiritual – un faro de luz tan fuerte como el sol cuando alcanza el punto más alto en el cielo.

Los Sarayaku han resistido exitosamente diversos intentos de invasión en las últimas cuatro décadas, pero son mejor conocidos por ganar un caso histórico contra el Estado ecuatoriano en la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH). En 1996, el gobierno ecuatoriano otorgó a una empresa argentina de petróleo, CGC, el permiso para la prospección de petróleo en el territorio Sarayaku, sin consultar ni siquiera notificar a la comunidad. De hecho, el pueblo Sarayaku sólo se enteró de que su tierra se había abierto a la exploración petrolera cuando los helicópteros llegaron, seguidos por hombres armados.

Durante varios meses, la compañía petrolera, acompañada de soldados y guardias de seguridad privada, realizó detonaciones, taló árboles, cavó más de 400 pozos, enterradó más de 1,4 toneladas de explosivos de alta calidad y destruyó la paz con helicópteros. Sarayaku respondieron elevando quejas a niveles nacional e internacional y, finalmente, logró que el proyecto de petróleo se detuviera. Pero las autoridades no se disculparon, ni tampoco proporcionan cualquier reparación por el daño causado, ni hicieron ninguna promesa sobre la prevención de abusos similares en el futuro.

Sarayaku en la CIDH (imagen cortesía de Sarayaku)

Sarayaku en la CIDH (imagen cortesía de Sarayaku)

En 2003, después de haber agotado todas las vías legales internas para la compensación y una garantía de consulta para proyectos futuros, los Sarayaku llevaron su caso a la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. En julio de 2012, después de una batalla legal de diez años, los jueces fallaron a su favor, declarando que el Estado ecuatoriano violó el derecho de la comunidad a ser consultada, así como sus derechos de propiedad y la identidad cultural. La Corte también encontró a Ecuador responsable de poner la vida y la integridad física de la gente de Sarayaku en grave riesgo.

El gobierno ecuatoriano recibió la orden de pedir disculpas al pueblo Sarayaku; para compensarlo financieramente; para retirar los explosivos en su territorio; y para regular adecuadamente el derecho a la consulta sobre los proyectos futuros de petróleo en sus tierras. El gobierno ha cumplido en parte con el fallo. Un documental, ‘Hijos del Jaguar”, hecho por el Sarayaku en colaboración con Amnistía Internacional, cuenta la historia de la comunidad y su caso en la CIDH y puede ser visto aquí:

Haciendo honor a la antigua profecía, los Sarayaku siempre se citan como el ejemplo más exitoso de la resistencia en Ecuador, así que estábamos muy emocionadas de visitar su comunidad. Yo había visto ‘Hijos del Jaguar “, cuando comencé a interesarme en el tema de la explotación petrolera en la Amazonia y había quedado impresionada por la forma digna y agraciada de la gente Sarayaku; por la manera tranquila y totalmente razonable en la que plantearon su caso.

Me intrigaba tambien sobre el uso de la tecnología en la comunidad como una herramienta en su lucha. Mientras viven en armonía con la naturaleza, sobreviviendo principalmente a través de la caza, la recolección, la pesca y la agricultura a pequeña escala, los Sarayaku tienen su propio sitio web, página de Facebook, cuenta de Twitter y canal de Youtube. Tenía ganas de saber más acerca de cómo funciona este equilibrio. Yo estaba especialmente interesada en conocer a Patricia Gualinga, dirigente de Sarayaku para la mujer y la familia, que ha estado a la vanguardia de su movimiento de resistencia durante muchos años y ha sido una verdadera inspiración para mí.

Presidente de Sarayaku José Gualinga (centro) con su padre, el chamán Sabino Gualinga de Sarayaku (izquierda) y Patricia Gualinga (segundo por la derecha). (Imagen cortesía de Sarayaku).

El Presidente Sarayaku José Gualinga (centro) con su padre, el chamán Sabino Gualinga (izquierda) y Patricia Gualinga (segundo por la derecha). (Imagen cortesía de Sarayaku).

Hubo un par de días de ansiedad antes de nuestro viaje a Sarayaku cuando parecía que la visita no iba a ser posible. Su Presidente, José Gualinga, había respondido a mi solicitud de visitarlos con un correo electrónico diciendo que muchos periodistas piden visitar la comunidad y sólo un pequeño número recibe el permiso; que la mayoría de las personas que desean visitarlos lo hacen por sus propias razones, en lugar de ofrecer un apoyo concreto a la lucha de los Sarayaku. Luego pasó a pedir nuestra acreditación de prensa y más información sobre el tipo de trabajo que hacemos.

Le respondí para decirle que no éramos periodistas profesionales, sino que tenemos un sitio web que pretende difundir la palabra acerca de la lucha para defender la naturaleza y los derechos humanos en Ecuador. Le envié un enlace a nuestro sitio y le dije que Carlos Pérez, Presidente de ECUARUNARI (Confederación de Pueblos de la Nacionalidad Kichwa) podría proporcionar una referencia personal si es necesario. Después de una tensa espera, José nos envió un correo electrónico diciendo que si nuestro trabajo es lo que parece, éramos bienvenidas a visitar Sarayaku. Él nos puso en contacto con Verónica, una mujer en Puyo que coordina todas las visitas a la comunidad.

Sarayaku sólo se puede llegar por avión o barco

Sarayaku sólo se puede llegar por avión o barco

Verónica nos explicó que Sarayaku está a 25 minutos en avión o varias horas en canoa motorizada desde la ciudad de Puyo. Sorprendentemente, viajar en avión era más barato que en canoa, debido al viaje de 2 horas en taxi hasta el punto de salida del barco. Con el tiempo y los fondos limitados, optamos por el avión, conscientes de la ironía de volar para pasar un fin de semana con una comunidad resistiendo a la explotación petrolera y determinamos que nuestra obra justificaria el combustible que íbamos a usar.

Mi amiga K y yo tomamos tres autobuses, viajando durante la noche y con las multitudes de Carnaval, para llegar a la ciudad de Puyo al amanecer de un sábado a finales de febrero. Las dos estábamos nerviosas porque no teníamos ni idea de qué esperar de nuestro viaje y nos sentíamos como tomando un salto hacia lo desconocido. K me dijo que cuando ella lehabía dicho a su padre acerca de su próximo viaje, él le había advertido de que algunas tribus amazónicas hacen el alcohol de yuca fermentada y masticada y tienen una inclinación por matar a los huéspedes que se niegan a beberla. Sospeché que la última parte era un mito, al menos en los tiempos modernos, pero lo único de lo que estaba segura en ese momento era de que los próximos días iban a ser una experiencia para recordar.

Póster en la oficina de Sarayaku

Póster en la oficina de Sarayaku

En Puyo, nos dirigimos a la oficina de Sarayaku, donde conocimos a Franklin Toala, su encargado en relaciones exteriores. Franklin nos habló de algunos de los proyectos actuales de la comunidad, incluyendo la cría de animales para el consumo sostenible, un vivero de peces y (sorprendentemente) una línea aérea. Explicó que la comunidad ha comprado un avión pequeño y pagado por los estudios de dos de sus miembros para asistir a la escuela de pilotos, no sólo para llevar a la gente a Sarayaku sin depender de una compañía aérea externa, sino para generar ingresos al ofrecer vuelos regionales. Habló de una “estación de radio de la resistencia” que ​​a la comunidad le gustaría comenzar. Con comprensible orgullo, nos mostró el impresionante nuevo sitio web Sarayaku.

La conversación giró en torno a la opresión gubernamental en contra de los Sarayaku. Franklin nos explicó que 200 miembros de la comunidad han sido etiquetados como terroristas por protestar contra la explotación petrolera. Nos preguntamos por qué los Sarayaku se acusados por difamación por parte del Presidente, cuando hay otras comunidades resistiendo. Franklin nos explicó que el hecho de que los Sarayaku estén tan bien organizados los diferencia. Nos mostró su organigrama, explicando las funciones del Presidente (que actúa como la voz de la comunidad y no como líder todopoderoso ), Vice-Presidente y autoridades tradicionales, además de los equipos financiero y de seguridad y una comisión jurídica. Mientras que Franklin explicaba el funcionamiento de la estructura de los Sarayaku, empecé a darme cuenta de por qué esta pequeña comunidad es una fuerza para tener en cuenta.

Esperamos en la oficina hasta que el clima fue  lo suficientemente bueno para el corto vuelo a Sarayaku. En el camino al minúsculo aeropuerto en la cercana localidad de Shell (llamada así por la empresa petrolera, otra ironía), nos detuvimos para recoger unas botas de goma de Verónica y ella nos dio una carta para un líder de Sarayaku llamado Gerardo y nos pidió dárselo a nuestra llegada.

P1020227Los aviones en el aeropuerto de Shell parecían juguetes! Me gustó especialmente uno glamoroso en rosa y morado. Después de ser pesadas, junto con nuestro equipaje, nos subimos a bordo de un Cessner de 4 asientos, con el piloto y K en el frente y yo, algunas bolsas de arroz y botellas de agua en la parte posterior. El viaje en avión de 25 minutos fue emocionante y el aterrizaje aún más. Aterrizando en una pista de la selva, con la pulverización del agua en las ventanas, es una experiencia que nunca olvidaré.


Sin un minuto para recobrar nuestra compostura, fuimos arrojadas de una increíble experiencia a otra. Fuimos recibidas por un grupo de personas; un tipo con pelo negro largo y gruesas varillas de madera en las dos orejas nos ayudó con las maletas. Un hombre con lo que parecía ser un tinte azul alrededor de los lados de su cara salió a saludarnos, presentándose a sí mismo como Gerardo Gualinga y preguntando si éramos las dos periodistas. Pensando en la copa plástica de vino en la mochila que tenía planeado utilizar en lugar de un trípode de cámara real, le expliqué que no éramos exactamente periodistas profesionales, sino que teníamos un sitio web para difundir la palabra sobre la lucha contra la explotación petrolera en la Amazonia.

Techo tejida de Sarayaku

Techo tejida de Sarayaku

Gerardo nos llevó por un camino de piedra a una enorme choza sin paredes con un bonito techo tejido y un piso de barro, que sirvió como el espacio común para el pequeño barrio que lo rodea. Nos sentamos en un banco de madera que se situaba alrededor del exterior de la choza y le dimos el sobre que Veronica  nos había dado en Puyo. El leyó la carta adjunta con una expresión seria y luego nos explicó que él acababa de ser informado de que iba a hospedarnos durante el fin de semana. Nuestra llegada, blandiendo la carta que supusimos contenía las instrucciones para nuestra estancia, no parecía llenar de deleite a Gerardo.

Mirando hacia arriba, él nos dijo que él estaba muy ocupado y que no podíamos esperar que él estuviera con nosotras todo el tiempo. Miró por largo tiempo a las gafas de sol encaramadas sobre mi cabeza, suspiró y explicó que esto no era un hotel, que no debíamos esperar un restaurante o servicio de wifi. Él fue cortés y amable, pero estaba claro que éramos una molestia para él y que sospechaba que íbamos a necesitar  un poco de alto mantenimiento. Me imaginé que me habría sentido igual si se me hubiera  encargado en el último minuto con lo que yo pensaba que eran dos periodistas de la ciudad en un fin de semana cuando tenía  un montón de otras cosas que hacer.

Hogar, dulce hogar

Hogar, dulce hogar

Gerardo nos mostró una choza abierta por todos sus lados con cerca de ocho camas de madera, dos de los cuales estaban preparadas con mosquiteros, sábanas y almohadas. No había electricidad, pero un espacio para hacer una fogata en el piso de barro con tres hamacas que colgaban alrededor de ella. Un inodoro y ducha compartida completaron nuestro hogar para las próximas tres noches. Nos quedamos encantadas y así se lo dijimos, y en ese momento Gerardo visiblemente se relajó un poco.

El Rio Bobonaza

El Rio Bobonaza

La comunidad de Sarayaku se divide en cinco barrios que abarcan las dos orillas del río Bobonaza. Gerardo Gualinga, el hermano de mi héroe Patricia, es el líder del barrio donde nos alojamos. Después de que nos habíamos acomodado en nuestra cabaña, nos llevó en canoa a motor a su casa al otro lado del río.

A diferencia de nuestra cabaña con su piso de barro, la casa de Gerardo estaba construida sobre pilotes y comprendía una zona común, una cocina y dos dormitorios, todos hechos de madera. Gerardo nos presentó a su esposa Rosa, que tenía un rostro amable y las manos de color azul, lo que coincidía con los lados de la cara de su marido. Un número de personas sentadas alrededor de la zona común en sillas y bancos. Había una mesa en la esquina, donde nos invitaron a comer. El almuerzo consistía en yuca hervida, dos pescados servidos en hojas de plátano, una especie de sopa de pescado, yuca y plátanos, y salsa de chile (un menú completamente diferente al que usualmente se sirve en en el resto del país, según K y la expresión de su cara). Supongo que la carta que le habíamos dado a Gerardo explicaba que soy vegetariana, porque él amablemente me ofreció un poco de arroz para acompañar la yuca. Más tarde me enteré de que, en total contraste con la costa donde se sirve con cada comida, el arroz es un artículo de lujo para el Sarayaku, ya que tiene que ser traído desde Puyo a través de barco o avión.

Después de que habíamos comido, nos invitaron a formar parte del círculo y un espacio fue hecho para nosotras en un banco de madera. Parecía que Gerardo tenía sólo la suficiente vajilla y cubiertos para cuatro personas, ya que después de que habíamos terminado el almuerzo, el siguiente turno de comensales se sentó a comer. La esposa de Gerardo, Rosa, estaba constantemente a sus pies, sirviendo comidas , yendo y viniendo desde y hacia la cocina con un recipiente, que ofreció a cada persona que a su vez bebía de él y se lo devolvía. Cuando me tocoó el turno de recibir el recipiente, miré el líquido beige no identificado en el interior y vi algunos trozos rosados en el mismo. Sospechando que contenía carne, pero sin querer ofender a mis anfitriones, bebí un gran trago y se lo pasé a K.

Sarayaku vida social gira en torno a la chicha (foto cortesía de Sarayaku)

Sarayaku vida social gira en torno a la chicha (foto cortesía de Sarayaku)

Más tarde descubrí que la bebida había sido “chicha”, la yuca fermentada y masticada que el padre de K había mencionado. Como vegetariana, me siento excluida de la recopilación de historias de “la comida loca de viaje”, que generalmente involucran escorpiones, grillos o cerebros. De hecho, me habría sentido totalmente bien si yo hubiera sabido que yo estaba bebiendo yuca y saliva y encantada de tener una historia de “la comida loca de viaje”, a mi cuenta. Aún así , yo estaba traumatizada por haber bebido lo que yo pensaba que era carne. Por el contrario, K, que se dio cuenta de lo que había en el recipiente, se horrorizó ante la idea de beber saliva. Nuestros anfitriones, acostumbrados a los visitantes que no han adquirido el sabor de su bebida favorita, percibieron nuestra incomodidad compartida y no nos ofrecieron más chicha.

Ahora que estábamos sentadas en el círculo, podríamos prestar más atención a las otras personas en el cuarto. Éramos un grupo ecléctico. Un par de chicos indígenas con el pelo recogido en colas de caballo se sentó junto a una mujer que resultó ser una antropóloga belga. Otra mujer europea con un hermoso bebé en su cadera era la esposa belga del presidente de Sarayaku, a quien conoció mientras trabajaba como representante de los pueblos indígenas en las Naciones Unidas. Mientras que la antropóloga era tan claramente del exterior, la esposa del presidente tenía el atuendo y los gestos de la gente local; no es de extrañar, después de 25 años en la comunidad.

Maya, la hija de Gerardo

Maya, la hija de Gerardo

El bebé, cuyo hermoso rostro me recordó un poco a un monje budista, era el menor de los cinco hijos de Gerardo y Rosa. Dos de sus otras hijas, Maya y Gualcanga, dos y cinco años de edad, estaban también allí. Yo estaba especialmente encantada por Maya, que tenía un cara salvaje que estaba casi completamente teñida de azul. Una mujer local en jeans completó el grupo.

La conversación fue un poco incómoda al principio, pero pronto se arregló.Los Sarayaku son personas que transmiten todo su conocimiento verbalmente, por lo que son cuentistas maravillosos. Hace un par de generaciones, Los Sarayaku sólo hablaban Kichwa, pero en estos días su sistema de educación es bilingüe, así que la conversación tuvo lugar en español, una cortesía que apreciamos.

Maya y Gualcanga ayudando a hacer chicha

Maya y Gualcanga ayudando a hacer chicha

Gerardo nos habló de los diferentes roles de los hombres y las mujeres de la comunidad. Las mujeres son responsables de hacer chicha, cocinar y cuidar a los niños. Tanto los hombres como las mujeres trabajan en los campos. Las mujeres a veces acompañan a la pesca a los hombres, pero la caza es una actividad exclusivamente masculina.

Nos reímos mucho cuando descubrimos que la gente costera y amazónica usa la misma palabra de la jerga española para un hombre que hace las tareas domésticas: “mandarina”. No todas las palabras de la jerga son igual, sin embargo. Los chicos Sarayaku pensaron que era muy gracioso que un mujeriego en la costa se llame un “buitre”. “Pero un buitre sólo caza cosas muertas!” ellos protestaron, argumentando que su palabra para un hombre depredador, “cocodrilo”, es mucho más apta. Me pareció un buen punto.

Un barrio Sarayaku desde el aire

Un barrio Sarayaku desde el aire

Cuando comentamos lo mucho que nos gustaba nuestra cabaña y lo mucho que estábamos disfrutando de estar en un lugar tan tranquilo, Gerardo nos dijo que hay un lugar remoto a muchas horas a pie, donde el Sarayaku va para “alejarse de todo”. Hizo un gesto en torno a la cabaña de madera rústica y a la pequeña colección de vajilla, diciendo “no tenemos nada como esto allí, es muy básico”. Para nosotros, el Sarayaku vive en la selva remota y me encantó la idea de ellos de ir de vacaciones para encontrar un poco de paz y tranquilidad.

Una de las principales impresiones que me llevé de la conversación de aquella tarde fue que algunas personas de Sarayaku son trotamundos, tanto dentro de Ecuador como internacionalmente.

Gerardo nos hizo reir  cuando describió dos viajes que había hecho; uno para visitar la tribu vecina Achuar y el otro a Suiza (no estoy segura de que pudiera ser posible imaginar dos experiencias tan diferentes!). Parte de la resistencia de Sarayaku implica compartir información con otros pueblos indígenas y Gerardo había pasado tres días con los Achuar, que tienen una reputación de ser feroces. De hecho, los Achuar prohíben totalmente, bajo pena de muerte, que cualquier visitante mire a las mujeres de su tribu. Gerardo describió cómo había pasado tres días mirando fijamente al suelo.

Tres de los hijos de Gerardo: Laia, Maya y Majahuali

Tres de los hijos de Gerardo: Laia, Maya y Majahuali

Su viaje a Suiza fue difícil por diferentes razones. Le habían ofrecido un trabajo bien pagado como jardinero, pero hacía tanto frío allí y extrañaba a su familia tanto que se había ido a la policía de inmigración y pidió ser deportado, una solicitud que estaban felices de satisfacer. Los hombres Sarayaku son muy masculinos deseguro, pero Gerardo habló abiertamente sobre lo mucho que extraña a su familia cuando él está lejos de ellos. Incluso cuando se va a Puyo durante el día, constantemente se pregunta lo que están haciendo y no puede esperar para volver a ellos.

Uno de los chicos jóvenes con cola de caballo, José Luis, el hijo del Presidente de la comunidad, nos contó cómo había vivido en la costa por un tiempo; su hermana Zulma, la mujer joven en jeans, había vivido en Suecia durante varios años cuando ella era joven. Ella ahora tiene 28 años y es tá recientemente divorciada, lo que me sorprendió. No hay muchas personas divorciadas en la costa y yo había imaginado que habría aún menos en una comunidad amazonica. Su estado civil parecía ser la fuente de muchas burlas amables que ella tomó bien. Mostrandose a sí misma diferente de la mujer ecuatoriana costera típica en otra manera, Zulma habló de lo mucho que le encanta leer.

Aparentementelos jovenes Sarayaku son libres de salir y vivir en otro lugar, para asistir a la universidad o simplemente para experimentar una vida diferente. “Ese es su derecho”, dijo Gerardo, pero me dio la impresión de que se espera que los jóvenes regresen a la comunidad eventualmente.

Sarayaku cazador (imagen cortesía de Sarayaku)

Sarayaku cazador (imagen cortesía de Sarayaku)

Esta política de puertas abiertas también se aplica a la gente de fuera que viene. Gerardo nos dijo sobre un hombre sueco que se había casado con una mujer Sarayaku y ahora puede hablar Kichwa perfectamente y es un cazador consumado. Explicó que aunque los Sarayaku son estrictos acerca de la preservación de su cultura, que están abiertos a nuevos miembros que pueden enriquecer y empoderar a la comunidad.

En un momento, Gerardo estableció paralelismos entre la vida del Presidente Sarayaku, José Gualinga, y el Presidente de Ecuador, Rafael Correa, ambos tienen esposas belgas y muchos contactos en común. Los dos hombres situados en los extremos opuestos de la lucha para salvar el Amazonas de la explotación del petróleo aún no se han reunido, pero están siguiendo caminos tan similares en sus viajes internacionales que el encuentro es inevitable. Me encantaría ser una mosca en la pared durante ese encuentro.

Puente sobre el río Bobonaza, Sarayaku

Puente sobre el río Bobonaza, Sarayaku

Después de una tarde relajada y muy agradable llena de risas, Gerardo nos hizo saber cómo podíamos encontrar nuestro camino de regreso a nuestra cabaña. Tomamos esto como nuestra señal para salir, caminamos de regreso por el río Bobonaza y cruzamos el puente colgante de metal que se extiende por ella, con nuestras cabezas zumbando por la enorme cantidad de información que se había presentado ante nosotras ese día.

En el momento en que regresábamos a nuestra cabaña, la tarde estaba llegando a su fin, lo que nos dejaba  el tiempo justo para una ducha antes de que oscureciera. K y yo estábamos tumbadas en las hamacas y yo estaba escribiendo notas sobre el día cuando José Luis entró para encender una fogata para nosotras. Su camiseta y boardshorts no habrían estado fuera de lugar en la costa; las largas plumas que cuelgan de cada oreja fueron ligeramente más exóticas.

José Luis lleva yuca en una mochila hecha de hojas

José Luis lleva yuca en una mochila hecha de hojas

Después de haber vivido en la costa y en Quito, José Luis parecía contento de tener compania de fuera de la comunidad. Pronto me dio la impresión de que se sentía un tanto dividido entre los dos mundos y que un fuerte sentido del deber le había hecho volver a vivir en Sarayaku.

José Luis es el nieto del “yachak” o chamán de Sarayaku y nos explicó que había estado en entrenamiento  para seguir el mismo camino, pero que había encontrado que los sacrificios que se le exigían eran demasiado. Explicó que para convertirse en yachak se requiere de preparación desde la edad de ocho años. Los aprendices de chamanes tienen que seguir una dieta muy estricta y tomar la sagrada alucinógena medicina “ayahuasca” con regularidad.

Tal vez lo más difícil, también deben limitar su contacto con las mujeres, más allá del celibato hasta el punto de ni siquiera conversar con el sexo opuesto. Tal parece que nosotras, las mujeres, chupamos  la energía. Le pregunté a José Luis si era posible que una mujer se convirtiera en yachak y dijo que sí, aunque es muy poco común y más peligroso para una mujer, debido a la energía que perdemos por la menstruación y el parto. La energía es la clave para la curación, según parece.

Fue cuando abandonó el camino hacia el chamanismo que José Luis decidió abandonar la comunidad y viajar dentro de Ecuador. Ahora ha vuelto a Sarayaku, trabaja como biólogo, un tema que él estudió en la universidad en Quito. Él es parte de un pequeño equipo responsable de asegurarse de que los recursos naturales más importantes de la comunidad, tales como la yuca y el tapir, sean suficientes para una población en crecimiento.

El "yachak" o chamán Sarayaku, Sabino Gualinga

El “yachak” o chamán Sarayaku, Sabino Gualinga

José Luis parecía estar concentrando más en hablar con nosotros que en encender el fuego. Riendo, nos dijo de una superstición local que dice que si una persona tiene que soplar para encender un fuego más de 50 veces, va a casarse con una persona de la tercera edad. Entre soplos, él continuó hablando. Puede que no se haya convertido en un yachak, pero él parecía saber mucho acerca de la medicina natural. Fue muy mágico, escuchar  bajo el resplandor del fuego sobre su abuelo invocando los espíritus de diferentes animales para curar a la gente. Su abuelo a menudo invoca al espíritu de la ballena, a causa de su gran poder y de los muchos obstáculos que debe superar en sus migraciones. José Luis nos dijo que, cuando los espíritus animales se revelan a nosotros, aparecen en forma humana. Jose Luis describe el espíritu del cóndor como el hombre más elegante que pueda imaginar, con un traje de nieve brillante.

la iglesia de Sarayaku

la iglesia de Sarayaku

José Luis pasó a explicar que combina estas creencias animistas tradicionales con el catolicismo, en la creencia en Dios, Jesús y los ángeles. 40% de la comunidad Sarayaku va a la iglesia con regularidad, nos dijo.

Cenamos esa noche con la familia de Gerardo y José Luis, la esposa de Gerardo, Rosa siendo responsable de cocinar para los hombres solteros de la familia. En línea con la comida básica pero satisfactoria que nos habían dado hasta el momento, la cena fue espaguetis con guisantes y zanahorias.

Le preguntamos a Gerardo sobre el significado del colorante azul en su cara y las manos de su esposa. Nos explicó que, en Sarayaku, es importante para los hombres y las mujeres el tener el pelo brillante. Ellos usan el extracto de la fruta WIKA como acondicionador del cabello, que tiende a correr en sus caras cuando hay lluvia o ellos sudan. Tener una cara azul parece ser un precio perfectamente aceptable por tener el pelo hermoso y brillante. De hecho, José Luis nos dijo más tarde que algunos hombres Sarayaku piensan que las manos azules son una cualidad muy atractiva en una mujer, ya que demuestra que se preocupa por su apariencia.

Durante esta fascinante conversación, me di cuenta de la presencia de un perro en la esquina de la cocina. Yo no podía entender por qué se veía tan triste, hasta que me di cuenta que no podía levantar su cabeza correctamente. José Luis nos explicó que un niño local con síndrome de Down se había apoderado de un machete y, con un solo golpe, casi habia cortado la cabeza del perro. Al mirar más de cerca, pude ver la cicatriz casi todo el lrededor del cuello del perro.

No podía imaginar cómo era posible que un animal pudiera  sobrevivir tal lesión. José Luis nos contó que su abuela estaba tan apegada al perro que se habían apresurado a Puyo en avión y habían pagado $ 500 por un veterinario para que volviera a conectar la cabeza. Yo estaba asombrada de que estos cazadores intrépidos fueran  a tales extremos para salvar a una mascota querida.  Apenas las acciones de unos terroristas violentos, pensé.

Gracias a Dios por mosquiteros

Gracias a Dios por mosquiteros

José Luis nos entretuvo durante el resto de la cena con las historias de todas las criaturas mortales que lo han picado a lo largo de los años. Una vez correndo  en el bosque había sido mordido por una serpiente venenosa y está convencido de que sólo sobrevivió gracias a todas las plantas medicinales que ingirió mientras estaba en entrenamiento con su abuelo.

Cuando volvimos a nuestra cabaña después de la cena, el piso de barro se estaba moviendo con las cucarachas. Muy agradecida por mi mosquitero, me metí en mi cama con cuidado y me quedé despierta por un rato contemplando un día agotador y maravilloso.

Continuará …

Ha habido acontecimientos chocantes en Sarayaku desde nuestra visita. A finales de abril, la comunidad fue invadido ilegalmente por los militares para albergando los tres fugitivos más famosos del país. Para obtener más información, consulte esta entrada del blog y ver este video.

We Meet a Living Legend

(Versión en español aqui). Pocho Alvarez is arguably Ecuador’s best known film maker. Specialising in political, social and environmental content, he is one of the country’s most prolific and well respected documentary makers. In his 30-year career he has created more than 50 films.

crude-movieProbably the best known of these is “Crude” (2009), which documents a 2-year period of the still-ongoing class action lawsuit against Chevron Texaco. The film follows the progress of the plaintiffs, 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians whose ancestral homeland was polluted in what was, and continues to be, one of the worst environmental disasters on the planet. “Crude” is said to be the most uncomfortable audio visual record which exists for Chevron Texaco, due to the media coverage it received.

The two-minute trailer for “Crude” (in English) can be watched here:


In another documentary, “Toxico Texaco” (2007) Pocho speaks to the communities whose lives have been destroyed by Chevron Texaco’s environmental crime. If you are sitting on the fence about the damage caused by oil exploitation, I would recommend watching “Toxico Texaco”. For me personally, whenever I have an exhausted moment of doubt about the mission I have chosen, I think of the mother and daughter featured in the film, both dying of cancer due to living in a contaminated environment and it spurs me on. “Toxico Texaco” can be watched online (with English subtitles) here.

Following our meeting that morning, Manolo Sarmiento had introduced us over email to Pocho, who had very graciously invited us to his home that evening. We were extremely excited to meet him. As well as being dazzled by his impressive filmography, I knew that Pocho had been personally denounced during one of the President’s weekly public addresses. I was fascinated to know more.

DSC00019Pocho’s apartment was full of intriguing artefacts from around the world. The man himself was a welcoming host and a dream interviewee, offering us whisky and setting us up with extra lighting and a tripod.

Pocho has made a number of short videos encouraging people to sign the petition for a public consultation on whether to drill for oil in Yasuni National Park, so we started off by asking him why the signature collection is important. We loved what he had to say.


We asked for Pocho’s opinion on the government’s claim that oil exploitation will be conducted with environmental and social responsibility, bringing economic benefit to the people of Ecuador.


We finished with the question we ask everyone: how can people all over the world support the fight against oil exploitation in the Amazon?


We did speak with Pocho about his denouncement by the President and government oppression of activists, but those videos will be published in a future blog entry about resistance against mining. Watch this space!

Before we left, Pocho gave us copies of his DVDs and shared some of his contacts with us, including the email address of one of my heroes, Patricia Gualinga of the Sarayaku tribe. We thoroughly enjoyed our meeting with Pocho, finding him to be outspoken and engaging, with a twinkle in his eye suggesting a constant source of inner mirth.

Nos Encontramos Con Una Leyenda Viva

(English version here). Pocho Alvarez es probablemente el cineasta más conocido del Ecuador. Especializado en contenido político, social y ambiental, él es uno de los documentalistas más prolíficos y respetados del país. En su carrera de 30 años que ha creado más de 50 películas.

crude-movieProbablemente el más conocido de ellos es “Crudo” (2009), que documenta un período de 2 años de la demanda judicial colectiva aún en marcha en contra de Chevron Texaco. La película sigue el progreso de los demandantes, 30.000 ecuatorianos indígenas cuyas tierras ancestrales fueron contaminadas en lo que fue, y sigue siendo, uno de los peores desastres ambientales en el planeta. “Crudo”  dice ser el registro audiovisual más incómodo que existe para Chevron Texaco, debido a la cobertura mediática que recibió.

En otro documental “Toxico Texaco” (2007) Pocho habla con las comunidades cuyas vidas han sido destruidas por el delito ambiental de Chevron Texaco. Si usted no se empapa con  el tema de los daños causados ​​por la explotación del petróleo, le recomiendo ver “Toxico Texaco”. Para mí, personalmente, cada vez que tengo un momento agotador de duda acerca de la misión que he elegido, pienso en la madre e hija que aparecen en la película, ambas muriendo de cáncer debido a que viven en un ambiente contaminado y me espolea. “Toxico Texaco” se puede ver en línea aquí.

Después de nuestra reunión de esa mañana, Manolo Sarmiento nos había presentado por correo electrónico a Pocho, quien muy amablemente nos había invitado a su casa esa noche. Estábamos muy emocionados con ese encuentro. Además de dejarme deslumbrar por su impresionante filmografía, sabía que Pocho había sido denunciado personalmente durante una de las sabatinas del Presidente. Me fascinó saber más.

DSC00019El apartamento de Pocho estaba lleno de artefactos interesantes de todo el mundo. El hombre mismo fue un anfitrión acogedor y un entrevistado soñado, que nos ofreció whisky y nos prestó la iluminación adicional y un trípode.

Pocho ha hecho una serie de videos cortos animando a la gente a firmar la petición para una consulta pública sobre el asunto de perforar en busca de petróleo en el parque nacional Yasuní, por lo que empezamos por preguntarle por qué la recolección de firmas es importante. Nos encantó lo que dijo.


Le preguntamos a Pocho su opinión sobre la afirmación del gobierno de que la explotación petrolera se llevará a cabo con responsabilidad ambiental y social, trayendo el beneficio económico para el pueblo de Ecuador.


Terminamos con la pregunta que nos hacemos todos: “¿cómo puede la gente de todo el mundo apoyar la lucha contra la explotación petrolera en la Amazonía?”


Hablamos con Pocho sobre ser denunciado por el Presidente y sobre la opresión por el gobierno a los activistas, pero los videos serán publicados en una próxima publicación en el blog acerca de la resistencia contra la minería. Mire este espacio!

Antes de irnos, Pocho nos dio copias de sus DVDs y compartió algunos de sus contactos con nosotros, incluyendo la dirección de correo electrónico de uno de nuestros héroes, Patricia Gualinga, de la tribu de Sarayaku. Disfrutamos muchísimo nuestra reunión con Pocho, encontrándolo franco e interesante, con un brillo en sus ojos lo que sugiere una fuente constante de risa interior.

Amazonian Community Invaded by Ecuadorian Military Seeking Fugitives

Jiménez, Villavicencio’s and Figueroa at Sarayaku

Jiménez, Villavicencio & Figueroa at Sarayaku (image courtesy of Sarayaku)

(Versión en Español aqui). This week, three high profile fugitives fleeing prison sentences for insulting the Ecuadorian President were offered sanctuary by the Sarayaku, an Amazonian community at the forefront of the indigenous resistance movement. Despite pleas from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to suspend the sentences against the men, on Friday a military helicopter landed close to the Sarayaku community and another hovered over its territory, in direct violation of the Ecuadorian constitution and international law.

The community is on alert for further raids and attempts to detain assemblyman Cléver Jiménez, his advisor and investigative journalist Fernando Villavicencio and President of the Union of Doctors, Carlos Figueroa. Sarayaku President Jose Gualinga has issued a plea for international observers to intervene and prevent further aggression from the government.

The attempted invasion of Sarayaku by the military is receiving widespread social media coverage amongst those in the resistance movement, but what were the circumstances which led to this dramatic turn of events?

Civil unrest and looting was widespread due to the lack of law enforcement (image courtesy of Germán López https://www.flickr.com/photos/germunchis/)

Civil unrest and looting was widespread due to the lack of law enforcement (image courtesy of Germán López https://www.flickr.com/photos/germunchis/)

The story starts in September 2010, when Ecuadorian police went on strike over a new law affecting their benefits. After President Rafael Correa’s failed negotiation attempt at the police HQ in Quito, he accused police of treason and dared them to kill him. Law enforcement officers responded by holding him hostage in a nearby hospital for ten hours. In the resulting clashes between loyal and rebellious police, armed forced and civilians, 8 people were left dead and over 250 were injured.

The indigenous political party Pachakutik subsequently called for Correa to resign or be dismissed on the grounds that his “dictatorial attitude” had generated “serious political turmoil and internal crisis”. Pachakutik assemblyman Cléver Jiménez backed the actions of police who had mobilised against the President, saying “The situation of the police and members of the Armed Forces should be understood as a just action by public servants whose rights have been made vulnerable”.

In 2011, Jiménez and his advisor Fernando Villavicencio filed a request for a criminal investigation against Correa for allegedly committing crimes against humanity, among other offenses, during the police revolt. The attorney general’s office rejected the criminal complaint, deeming it malicious and reckless. Correa responded by suing Jiménez and Villavicencio for “judicial libel.” In April 2013, the National Court of Justice of Ecuador (CNJE) sentenced both men to 18 months in prison. They were also ordered to issue a formal public apology to President Correa and to pay him US $145,000 in damages.

Jiménez and Villavicencio’s appeal was rejected and last month warrants were issued for their arrest, alongside political activist Carlos Figueroa, also accused of insulting the President. On 24th April, the Sarayaku community announced that all three men had been offered sanctuary there “until their situation is resolved favourably and there are guarantees by the State with regard to their physical integrity, their human rights and, particularly, their lives”. In the meantime, the community promised to provide the men with “moral, physical and psychological support and full backing”.

The Sarayaku are usually cited as the most successful example of resistance in Ecuador, best known for winning a historic case against the Ecuadorian state at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). In 2012, the Court ruled that the government had violated the community’s rights when it granted an oil company permission to prospect for oil in Sarayaku territory, without consulting or even notifying them. The community remains at the forefront of the resistance against oil exploitation in the Amazon.

With regard to Jiménez, Villavicencio’s and Figueroa, the IACHR has issued a precautionary measure which states that, based on the information presented, the rights of the three men are “in a serious, urgent situation of irreparable harm”. The Court has recommended that Ecuador suspend its sentences against them.

The Ecuadorian government has publicly announced that it will not abide by the precautionary measures issued by the IACHR.

Yesterday, 26th April, the Sarayaku issued a press release stating that the community had been subject to “assault and harassment of its people by the police and military forces” in response to its decision to offer sanctuary to the sentenced men.

Sarayaku President José Gualinga speaking at their annual congress (image courtesy of Sarayaku)

Sarayaku President José Gualinga speaking at their annual congress (image courtesy of Sarayaku)

Sarayaku can only be reached via plane from the tiny airport in the Amazonian town of Shell, or by motorised canoe from Canelos on the Bobonaza River. On 24th April, shortly after the Sarayaku announced they were sheltering the fugitives, military and police mobilized to the airport and the boat departure point, where they began harassing and inspecting Sarayaku members seeking to enter the territory for the community’s annual congress, which is currently taking place.

On April 25th at approximately 5 pm, two helicopters landed at the river mouth of the Sarayakillo River, just half an hour away from the Sarayaku community. At 7:57 pm another helicopter hovered over Sarayaku territory, generating panic among its inhabitants, particularly the children. The attempted invasion violates the Ecuadorian constitution and international law, which guarantees and protects the rights of indigenous peoples, and goes against the 2012 judgement of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

A Sarayaku statement read: “Uniformed forces just landed in Sarayaquillo, half an hour from Sarayaku Tayjasaruta. If they enter the community, they will confirm the dictatorship present in Ecuador, the abduction of the judicial function and the unwillingness to abide by international law. Fear does not exist!”

In another statement, the community promised “we will be watching and if there is aggression against our people we will resist under Article 98 of the Constitution”.

Article 98 states that “Individuals and communities shall be able to exercise the right to resist deeds or omissions by the public sector or natural persons or non-state legal entities that undermine or can undermine their constitutional rights or call for recognition of new rights”.

Sarayaku President Jose Gualinga has asked for international witnesses to prevent further government oppression: “We are a land of peace; we defend Mother Earth, human rights, and nature. We call upon national and international human rights organizations, as well as organizations of indigenous peoples and nationalities of Ecuador, to join in solidarity with the just cause of the Sarayaku. We ask that international observers intervene to avoid aggression, with which we are already being victimized”.

Today, 27th April, the community remains on high alert for further invasions by the military. Keep an eye on this blog in the coming weeks for articles and videos from our visit to the Sarayaku community earlier in the year.

Comunidad Amazónica Invadida por Militares Ecuatorianos Buscando Fugitivos

Jiménez, Villavicencio’s & Figueroa en Sarayaku (imagen cortesía de Sarayaku)

Jiménez, Villavicencio’s & Figueroa en Sarayaku (imagen cortesía de Sarayaku)

(English version here). Esta semana, tres fugitivos de alto perfil que huyen de las penas de prisión por insultar al presidente de Ecuador, fueron ofrecidos santuario por el Sarayaku, una comunidad amazónica en la vanguardia del movimiento de resistencia indígena. A pesar de las súplicas de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos de suspender las sentencias contra los tres hombres, el viernes un helicóptero militar aterrizó cerca de la comunidad de Sarayaku y otro se cernía sobre su territorio, violando toda norma constitucional y derecho internacional. La comunidad está en alerta por nuevas incursiones e intentos de detener el asambleísta Cléver Jiménez, su asesor y periodista de investigación Fernando Villavicencio y el Presidente del Sindicato de Médicos, Carlos Figueroa. El Presidente de Sarayaku José Gualinga ha emitido una petición de observadores internacionales para intervenir y prevenir nuevas agresiones de parte del gobierno.

El intento de invasión de Sarayaku por los militares está recibiendo la cobertura en los redes sociales de aquellos en el movimiento de resistencia, pero ¿cuáles son las circunstancias que llevaron a este dramático giro de los acontecimientos?

Los disturbios civiles y el saqueo fueron generalizado debido a la falta de aplicación de la ley (imagen cortesía de Germán López https://www.flickr.com/photos/germunchis/)

Los disturbios civiles y el saqueo fueron generalizado debido a la falta de aplicación de la ley (imagen cortesía de Germán López https://www.flickr.com/photos/germunchis/)

La historia comienza en septiembre de 2010, cuando la policía de Ecuador se declararon en huelga para protestar una nueva ley que afectó a sus beneficios. Tras un intento fallido de negociación en el cuartel general de la policía en Quito, Rafael Correa acusó a la policía de la traición y atrevió a ellos a matarlo. En respuesta, los oficiales de policía lo llevaron como rehén en un hospital cercano por diez horas. En los enfrentamientos resultantes entre la policía leales, la policía rebeldes, el ejército y la población civil y, 8 personas quedaron muertos y más de 250 resultaron heridas. El partido político  indígena Pachakutik posteriormente llamó a Correa a renunciar o ser despedido en razón de que su “actitud dictatorial” había generado “disturbios políticos serios y crisis interna”. Pachakutik asambleísta Cléver Jiménez respaldó las acciones de la policía que habían movilizado contra del Presidente, diciendo que “La situación de la policía y miembros de las Fuerzas Armadas debe ser entendida como una acción justa por servidores públicos, cuyos derechos se han hecho vulnerables.”

En 2011, Jiménez y su asesor Fernando Villavicencio presentaron una solicitud de una investigación penal contra Correa por la presunta comisión de delitos de lesa humanidad, entre otros delitos, durante la rebelión policial. La oficina del fiscal general rechazó la denuncia penal, desestimandolo como maliciosa y temeraria. Correa respondió demandando Jiménez y Villavicencio por “difamación judicial.” En abril de 2013, la Corte Nacional de Justicia de Ecuador (CNJE) condenó a los dos hombres a 18 meses de prisión. También se les ordenó a emitir una disculpa pública oficial al presidente Correa y pagarle EE.UU. $ 145,000 en daños.

La apelación de Jiménez y de Villavicencio fue rechazada y el mes pasado se emitieron los órdenes de arresto, junto con el activista político Carlos Figueroa, también acusado de insultar al presidente. El 24 de abril, la comunidad de Sarayaku anunció que los tres hombres había sido ofrecido refugio allí “hasta que su situación se resuelva favorablemente y existan garantías por parte del Estado, a su integridad física, respeto a sus derechos humanos y, particularmente a sus vidas”. Mientras tanto, la comunidad se comprometió a proporcionar a los hombres con “el apoyo moral, físico y psicológico y el total respaldo”.

El Sarayaku generalmente se cita como el ejemplo más exitoso de la resistencia en Ecuador, mejor conocida por ganar un caso histórico contra el Estado ecuatoriano en la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH). En 1996, el gobierno ecuatoriano otorgó una empresa argentina de petróleo, CGC, el permiso para la prospección de petróleo en el territorio de Sarayaku, sin consultar ni siquiera notificar a la comunidad. La comunidad se mantiene a la vanguardia de la resistencia contra la explotación petrolera en la Amazonia.

En cuanto a Jiménez, Villavicencio y Figueroa, la CIDH ha emitido una medida cautelar que establece que, en base a la información presentada, los derechos de los tres hombres están “en una situación de gravedad y urgencia y de daño irreparable”. La Comisión recomendó que Ecuador suspende sus sentencias en su contra.

El gobierno ecuatoriano ha anunciado públicamente que no va a cumplir con las medidas cautelares emitidas por la CIDH.

Ayer, 26 de abril, el Sarayaku emitió un comunicado de prensa que indicaba que “la fuerza pública (ejército y la policía) han iniciado una agresión y hostigamiento a los habitantes de Sarayaku”, en respuesta a la decisión de garantizar la protección a los hombres condenados.

Presidente de Sarayaku José Gualinga habla en su congreso anual (imagen cortesía de Sarayaku)

Presidente de Sarayaku José Gualinga habla en su congreso anual (imagen cortesía de Sarayaku)

Sarayaku sólo se puede llegar por avión desde el pequeño aeropuerto en el pueblo amazónica de Shell, o en canoa motorizada desde Canelos en el río Bobonaza. El 24 de abril, poco después de la Sarayaku anunció que habían ofrecido refugio a los fugitivos, los militares y la policía se movilizó hacia el aeropuerto y el punto de partida de los barcos, donde comenzaron a acosar e inspeccionar a los miembros de Sarayaku que desean entrar en el territorio para el congreso anual de la comunidad, que actualmente está llevando a cabo.

El 25 de abril aproximadamente a las 17:00, dos helicópteros aterrizaron en la bocana del río Sarayakillo, a sólo media hora de distancia de la comunidad de Sarayaku. En 19:57 otro helicóptero sobrevoló el territorio de Sarayaku, generando el pánico en sus habitantes, en particular a los niños. El intento de invasión viola toda norma constitucional y derecho internacional que garantiza y protege los derechos de los pueblos Indígenas, así como la sentencia 2012 de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos.

Un comunicado Sarayaku dijo: “Fuerzas uniformadas acaban de desembarcar en Sarayaquillo a media hora de la comunidad de Sarayaku Tayjasaruta, si ingresan a la comunidad habrán confirmado la dictadura presente en el Ecuador y el secuestro de la función judicial y la falta de voluntad en respetar el derecho internacional. Miedo no existe!”

En otro comunicado, la comunidad se comprometió “estaremos atentos y si hay agresión a nuestros pueblos resistiremos al amparo del 98 de la Constitución”.

Articulo 98 dice “Los individuos y los colectivos podrán ejercer el derecho a la resistencia frente a acciones u omisiones del poder público o de las personas naturales o jurídicas no estatales que vulneren opuedan vulnerar sus derechos constitucionales, y demandar el reconocimiento de nuevos derechos”.

Presidente de Sarayaku José Gualinga ha solicitado los testigos internacionales para evitar una mayor opresión del gobierno:

“Somos un territorio de paz, defendemos la madre tierra, los derechos humanos y la naturaleza. Hacemos un llamado a las organizaciones de derechos humanos a nivel nacional e internacional, de igual manera que las organizaciones fraternas de los pueblos y nacionalidades indígenas del Ecuador se solidaricen con las causas justas del pueblo de Sarayaku, y pedimos a los observadores internacionales que intervengan a fin de evitar la agresión de la que estamos siendo víctimas”.

Hoy, 27 de abril, la comunidad se mantiene en alerta roja ante nuevas invasiones por parte de militares.

Mantenga un ojo en este blog en las próximas semanas para los artículos y videos de nuestra visita a la comunidad de Sarayaku a principios de año.

(Esta entrada del blog fue traducido a toda prisa, por favor, perdona errores)

From the Frontline of the Battle for a Referendum

(Versión en Español aqui).“Do you agree that the Ecuadorian government should keep the crude in the ITT, known as block 43, underground indefinitely?”

This is the question that will be put to a national referendum in Ecuador if 584,000 valid signatures are collected before the deadline of 12th April 2014.

For those new to this blog, ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) refers to oil fields within the Yasuní National Park. After abandoning an initiative to save Yasuní from oil exploitation, in October 2013 the Ecuadorian government announced drilling plans within the Park, which is not only a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and the most ecologically diverse spot on the planet, but home to the last two indigenous tribes in Ecuador living in voluntary isolation.

In response, civil society came together to call for a national referendum, which is constitutionally guaranteed if 5% of registered voters request it by signing a petition.

YasunidosThe signature collection effort has been led by YASunidos, a collective whose name is a word play of ‘Yasuní’ and ‘unidos’, Spanish for ‘united’. This alliance has quickly become a national movement, consisting of different environmental, animal protection, feminist and indigenous groups as well as individual volunteers.

YASunidos this morning (10th April) announced that they have so far collected 727,947 signatures, but the battle is not yet won. Whilst only 584,000 signatures are needed, the government has set extremely stringent rules on the validity of signatures, meaning that many will be rejected.

When we handed in the signatures we had collected, it was heartbreaking to see that the pile of invalid forms was thicker than the pile of valid ones. Hundreds of thousands of people who signed the petition in good faith will have their voice ignored because there is a smudge on the signature form, someone has signed outside the box, used the wrong colour ink, or the paper has been folded.

It is going to be an anxious wait to find out whether enough valid signatures have been collected. The aim was to collect 1 million signatures to allow a sufficient margin for error.

In addition to the rules about validity, the government is thwarting the signature collection in other ways. As well as attempting to discredit YASunidos by levelling accusations of violence at its members, the government is using intimidation tactics against them. Last month, a signature collector was detained and beaten after giving a thumbs down sign to the Presidential motorcade as it passed.

We’d met briefly with YASunidos during our December trip to Quito and we returned to interview Ivonne Yanez, a member of the collective and a founder of one of Latin America’s most well respected environmental groups, Acción Ecológica. For the last 20 years, Acción Ecológica has been a key player in the struggle against oil and mining exploitation in Ecuador, through tactics of nonviolent direct action and supporting local communities.

We spoke with Ivonne about the importance and challenges of the Yasuni signature collection and how, apart from signing the petition, Ecuadorians can support the struggle against oil exploitation in the Amazon.


It’s not just Yasuni which is under threat of oil exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In fact, a much bigger disaster is looming. With the XI Oil Round, the Ecuadorian government is in the process of auctioning off all the country’s remaining virgin rainforest, 8 million acres, to oil companies. Indigenous communities have vowed to resist the advance of oil companies into their ancestral territories. We spoke to Ivonne about this resistance and how non-indigenous people can also resist.


We finished by asking Ivonne the question which we put to everyone: “How can people all over the world support the struggle to save the Amazon from oil exploitation?”. This is what she had to say: