(Versíon en Español aqui). After lunch we met with two organisations working together in the same building: Accion Ecologica and Yasunídos. It seemed like one big collective, mostly made up of foreigners. We sat and chatted with them for a while. They were entirely focused on collecting signatures to petition for a public consultation on whether to drill for oil in Yasuní National Park.
For those who haven’t heard of it, Yasuní National Park is an area of the Amazon recently found by scientists to be the most bio-diverse on the planet and probably unmatched by any other park in the world for total numbers of plant and animal species. The park was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989. Yasuní is also home to indigenous peoples with legally recognised territorial rights (Waorani) and two of the last native communities living in voluntary isolation (Tagaeri and Taromenane).
As part of their Yasuní ITT Initiative, the Ecuadorian government offered to refrain indefinitely from exploiting the oil reserves of the currently untouched Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field within the National Park, in exchange for 50% of the value of the reserves, or $3.6 billion over 13 years from the international community. A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) fund was set up in 2010 to receive contributions. But on 15th August 2013 the President, stating that only $13.3m had been received from foreign nations, signed a decree to liquidate the UNDP fund. Drilling for oil was declared to be in the national interest, a move which threatens 10,000 hectares of virgin jungle within the Yasuní National Park and goes against the constitution, which states:
“The territories of the peoples living in voluntary isolation are an irreducible and intangible ancestral possession and all forms of extractive activities shall be forbidden there. The State shall adopt measures to guarantee their lives, enforce respect for self-determination and the will to remain in isolation and to ensure observance of their rights. The violation of these rights shall constitute a crime of ethnocide, which shall be classified as such by law”.
One reason for the lack of international donations to the Yasuní fund is that the government’s credibility was undermined when it announced its plans to auction off all the virgin rainforest in the southern Amazon region with the XI Oil Round auction. Indeed, one international NGO described the Yasuní ITT Initiative as “a fig leaf to build political capital while planning for more destruction”.
Ecuadorian society at large has mobilized to reject oil drilling in Yasuní and to demand their constitutional right to a public consultation. In response, the government has promised to hold the consultation if civil society presents 600,000 signatures to Congress by the end of March.
It’s a tall order, but it may be the only way to save the planet’s most bio-diverse region: recent polls suggest that up to 90% of Ecuadorians would vote to keep Yasuní oil underground, despite a savvy PR campaign from the government. In an advert played regularly on the several state-controlled television channels, the government liken drilling in the national park to a baby getting vaccinated; a small scratch which is painful for a second but goes on to benefit the whole body.
Accion Ecologica and Yasunídos invited us to accompany them collecting signatures, but we declined. We had another meeting to prepare for. We’d decided to embark on our new project immediately, by asking Carlos Pérez Guartambel if we could finish our meeting with a brief video interview. C spent the rest of the afternoon researching into questions about Decreto 16 and the government’s oppression of NGOs. I wanted to speak with him about how to be most useful in the fight against big oil in the Amazon and spent the time preparing what I wanted to say in Spanish.
I was in awe of the guy I was about to meet, whose background in activism centres largely on the fight against mega-mining in the southern Ecuadorian region of Kimsachocha. The Ecuadorian constitution guarantees indigenous communities the right “to free prior informed consultation, within a reasonable period of time, on the plans and programs for prospecting, producing and marketing nonrenewable resources located on their lands and which could have an environmental or cultural impact on them”.
When it became clear that the government had no intention of holding a public consultation on whether to allow mining in the Kimsacocha region, Carlos was part of a team which organised their own consultation process, without state authorization. This grassroots process was legitimised by the presence of international observers and the result was 93% against mining. Not surprisingly, the government disagreed with the consultation process (and even more with its outcome) and declared the consultation fake. However, the United Nations came to Kimsacocha to learn about the process, took testimonies, and established a report that identified the process as one of the best practices of participatory democracy in the world.
As if an impressive background in activism isn’t enough Carlos Pérez also has five degrees (in law, indigenous justice, environmental law, watershed management and criminal justice) and is the author of several books on indigenous rights and law. From humble beginnings (his parents are ‘campesinos’ or peasant farmers), Carlos put himself through university with scholarships and by playing the saxophone.
Carlos happened to be in Quito for an important two-day summit of the indigenous leadership (another serendipitous piece of timing) and he suggested we meet at the Universidad Andina, the venue for the meeting. When we arrived, the summit was still in session and it was open to the public, so we took chairs in and sat at the back.
Seeing Carlos at the top table, presiding over the meeting, made me feel even more nervous. The last person to speak was a woman who talked about resistance and the government’s reaction to it. “They are trying to frighten us, but we are not afraid!” she said.
After the meeting, we went with Carlos to the hotel he was staying at, in order to find a quiet place to conduct the interview. It was apparent that Carlos was not in it for the glamorous lifestyle: swanky it was not.
We found a quiet landing to sit on and pulled up some chairs. I told Carlos how delighted we were to meet him and how much I admired the work he had done in Kimsacocha. I then asked him my two big questions:
How can we be most useful in the fight against Big Oil in the Amazon? How can we best support the indigenous peoples who are defending their ancestral lands against the invasion of oil companies?
Carlos responded by echoing what K had said; that Pachamama would not be the last organisation to be closed by the government; that now was not the time to draw attention to ourselves. He went on to explain that, for Ecuarunari, the urgent priority is the collection of signatures for the Yasuní public consultation. He said that the time to fight for the 8 million acres being sold in the XI Oil Round would come, but the more immediate concern was for Yasuní. He explained that even though the government is making the task difficult by being very stringent over the validity of signatures (e.g., one smudge on the page invalidates every signature on it), Ecuarunari and other organisations would do their best to achieve the impossible and submit 600,000 impeccable, digitally documented signatures by the end of March.
He liked the idea of travelling around Ecuador and documenting stories of life and resistance. He said that next time he goes to Yasuní we would be welcome to go with him and interview people there. Of course, we said we’d love to! What an adventure that would be, travelling into the heart of the struggle with a leader of the resistance.
Then it was over to C, who conducted this interview about Decreto 16 and the future of NGOs in Ecuador. As Carlos says “This is life or death. And resistance is life!”
We liked Carlos a lot, for his humble manner and utter dedication. He was so generous with his time, especially after an all-day meeting. He even passed up on an invitation to have dinner with a friend in order to keep speaking with us. At the end of our meeting, Carlos gave us both his business card, which had the following printed on the back:“We only receive what we give. Giant inequalities have made us natural rebels. Freedom is a reachable ideal; we just break the physical and mental chains. It’s better to live an agitated life than a sepulchral peace. We are water; we come from her and we return to her. If we take care of water today, tomorrow we will achieve peace in the war between the peoples”.
Definitely the coolest business card I’ve ever been given!
He also gave us each this ‘Chakana’ or Andean Cross, which is an ancient native indigenous symbol from the central Andes that represents, among other things, the equality, communalism and balance that make harmony possible. According to indigenous beliefs, whoever lives based on the knowledge of the Chakana achieves a harmonious life in individual, family, social and community spaces, and with Mother Earth.
After our meeting with Carlos, I was absolutely exhausted and my brain was barely coping with everything that had happened. Under the frazzled feeling, I was delighted with the way the day had gone and that both K and Carlos had taken us seriously.
The next morning we were on the 6:30am bus to Guayaquil. There was a march for ‘Resistance & Life!’ there in the early evening and we wanted to make it back for that. The journey ended up taking 11 hours and en route I hatched plans for this blog.
Towards the end of our journey, we made banners for the march. On one side, C’s banner quoted Carlos (“Giant inequalities have made us natural rebels”) and the other protested the advance of oil companies into the Amazon. Mine quoted Helen Keller (“Life is a daring adventure or nothing”) and on the other side “Say ‘No!’ to Oil Companies in the Amazon!”).
There weren’t many people at the march (not surprising, as it had only been organised two days previously), but it was fun showing our banners to all the people stuck in traffic.
After the march we went to see a film at the cinema, a real relief after such an intense couple of days. “The Hunger Games 2” was full of symbolism about revolution and I enjoyed it, especially as the lead character was a strong female. After talking of almost nothing but resistance for two days, being in the mall felt very surreal and plastic. As C commented “being here makes it feel impossible to change the world”.
I can’t wait for the next instalment of the adventure, which I hope will take us back to Quito at the end of January.