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The Difference a Day Makes: Part 2: Resistance is Life!

(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.

One single hectare of rainforest in Yasuní harbours more tree and insect species than all of the USA and Canada combined.

One single hectare of rainforest in Yasuní harbours more tree and insect species than all of the USA and Canada combined.

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”.

Despite savvy marketing from the government, the majority of Ecuadorians are against drilling in Yasuni

Despite savvy marketing from the government, the majority of Ecuadorians are against drilling in Yasuni

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.

Indigenous art in the Universidad Andina

Indigenous art in the Universidad Andina

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!

The Andean Cross symbol dates back over 4000 years

The Andean Cross symbol dates back over 4000 years

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.

"Life is a daring adventure, or nothing!"

“Life is a daring adventure, or nothing!”

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.

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The Difference a Day Makes: Part I: Have Freedom, Will Travel

(Versión en Español aquí). Thus, the following week on 18th December, we found ourselves eating countless bananas on the long bus journey to Quito and half watching the Sylvester Stallone movies dubbed into Spanish which pass as passenger entertainment. As we neared our destination, the banana plantations turned into stunning mountain scenery and finally the glittering lights of Quito.

We arrived at our hostel and confirmed the arrangements for the following day’s meetings. We were delighted when our contact at the NGO suggested we meet at a vegetarian restaurant which C had visited a few months previously and loved. Feeling that this was a good omen for the day to come, we had dinner and went to bed.

The next day was one of the most exciting, nerve wracking, fascinating and exhausting days of my life. I considered the meeting with the contact from the NGO, henceforth known as K, to be possibly the most important meeting of my life so far, so I was feeling jittery as we made our way to the restaurant. The hour which followed turned out to be the biggest turning point of the campaign so far, leading to the creation of this blog.

Fundacíon Pachamama was closed by police on 4th December

Fundacíon Pachamama was closed by police on 4th December

First we discussed with K the government’s oppression of NGOs. Just a few days previously, Fundacíon Pachamama, an organisation which had been operating in Ecuador for 16 years, had been shut down by the government, sending shockwaves around the activist community. The Ecuadorian President had accused members of the Fundacíon of attacking a Chilean ambassador at a demonstration against the XI Oil Round auction on 28th November (a partly Chilean consortium having that day submitted a bid for one of the oil blocks). The Fundacíon deny any involvement. The general consensus is that the Fundacíon was dissolved for protesting about the XI Oil Round.

The closure order was issued by the Environment Ministry citing Executive Decree no. 16, issued in June by the President, which essentially forbids social organizations to disagree with the government. The Decree overrides the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution, which guarantees “the right to voice one’s opinion and express one’s thinking freely and in all of its forms and manifestations” and “the right to practice, keep, change, profess in public or private one’s religion or beliefs and to disseminate them individually or collectively, with the constraints imposed by respect for the rights of others”. The constitution also grants right to nature and states that “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes. All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature.”

Banner protesting Decreto 16 at the Human Rights March in Guayaquil on 10th December

Banner protesting Decreto 16 at the Human Rights March in Guayaquil on 10th December

To quote a frightening article by Manuela Picq: “Decree 016 is a bit like a Big Brother of civil society, monitoring [social organisations’] internal functioning and banning them from political life … The controversial decree requires social organizations to register with the state, to meet a specific list of requisites, and publicly justify their budgets to receive legal recognition.  In addition to this administrative surveillance, the decree forbids political partisanship. Social organizations that participate in politics or disrupt the public order automatically become illicit”.

According to the closure order, Fundación Pachamama violated articles 2 and 7 of Decree 16: “Deviation from the aims and objectives for which it was created” and “Engaging in political activities reserved for political parties and movements registered in the National Electoral Council, that affect the public peace or that interfere in public policies that threaten the internal or external security of the state”.

As well as dissolving Fundación Pachamama, the government has launched a smear campaign against them – and other foreign-funded NGOs. Whilst were on the bus to Quito the day before our meetings, the Telegrafo newspaper had printed a piece about NGOs being a “mask that hides imperialism”, propagating Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera’s theory that “NGOs are the vehicle for a kind of colonial environmentalism that relegates the role of the Amazon’s indigenous peoples to forest caretakers, creating a new kind of privatization and denationalization of parks and protected areas …  The Amazon is ours. It doesn’t belong to business, nor to the NGOs which claim to teach us how to protect it”. It also quoted Juliana Botero of the Marcha Patriótica organisation, saying that what NGOs “really want is to get money and endorse policies which are often conservative”.

Government oppression is not restricted to those dissenting exploitation of the Amazon.  Just after our trip to Quito, a student was sentenced to four years in prison for protesting about the government. A couple of days later, Amnesty International issued a statement expressing its concern for activist Carlos Zorilla, after the President accused him of ‘destabilising activities’ and ‘defending foreign interests’ and called on Ecuadorians to react.

K emphasised that now is not the time to stick our heads above the parapet and urged us think strategically; to plan for a long game. He warned against a reckless and pointless sacrifice.

Indigenous woman at a Quito protest against drilling in Yasuni National Park (photo credit Manuela Picq)

The conversation turned to our 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?

K considered our strengths and skills. Rather wistfully, he told us that now he has a family, he no longer has the freedom to travel within Ecuador as much as he’d like. He pointed out that our freedom is a major strength and suggested we make the most of it in our campaign. He then came up with the inspired idea of travelling around Ecuador, interviewing people, capturing stories and publishing a series of short videos about life and resistance. The idea would be to amplify the indigenous voice, making our work accessible internationally by adding English subtitles to all our videos. He told us that this was the kind of work which his organisation, and others in the field, just don’t have time to do, but would be very useful. He suggested that perhaps they might even use our videos in their work.

Just as excitingly, he told us that his organisation’s Founder and Programme Director would be in Ecuador in early 2014 and suggested we might like to meet with them. By then they would have worked out their strategy for the coming year and would have a better idea of how we might be able to work together.

C and I were delighted with both proposals and discussed them at length over a delicious lunch in the vegetarian restaurant after K left for a conference call. In the hour he’d spent with us, everything had changed.

How It All Began

Quito 2009(Versión en Español aquí). To me, Ecuador’s capital city of Quito is a place of bright blue skies; cold crisp nights under heavy woollen blankets; breathless walks up steep cobbled streets; whitewashed walls and junkshop chic.

It was a single day in this beautiful city which led to my friend C and me accepting the most exciting challenge of our lives.

We’d made the long journey to Quito to find the answers to the following 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?

Backtracking a little, what was it that led us to undertake a journey such as this; to ask questions such as these?

Our shared interest in the topic stemmed from watching this eye opening low-budget documentary about oil exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

As I watched this documentary for the first time, I was horrified to see the terrible social and environmental impact of existing oil exploitation in Ecuador’s rainforest. I was also absolutely shocked by the government’s plans to sell all of Ecuador’s remaining virgin jungle, totalling 8 million acres, to oil companies in an auction known as the XI Oil Round. As I discovered the scope of the calamity, I became increasingly determined to spread the word as widely as possible about this enormous environmental crime.

2013 Rio Napo Spill

2013 Rio Napo Spill

I began by writing articles, one attempting to appeal to a wider audience by comparing the situation in Ecuador to the plot of the movie Avatar.  I sent countless emails to environmental radio stations; local, national and international news outlets; celebrities; and university environmental groups, trying to raise awareness of the XI Oil Round.

The lack of response was such that, at times, it felt like all my messages must be going into recipients’ junk folders. Nevertheless, whenever I felt really discouraged, something would happen to rejuvenate me exactly when I needed it most. At one such moment, Amazon Watch posted one of my articles on their Facebook page, which has 75,000 Facebook followers. At another, a captain of a Greenpeace boat I’d been in contact with, emailing from his boat in the South Pacific, introduced me to the organisation’s Lead Forestry Campaigners with the following words, which brought a tear to my eye:

“When the Earth is beset by bulldozers, drilling-platforms and leaky pipelines and we feel dizzy in the ensuing dust bowl of depravity – we need to put down our maps and look about to track the signs and symbols that are left, to recognise the chance meetings and then to know there is a way out. Above all else we need to recognise the warriors who are making a stand. And so it is that I introduce you to one such person. I do hope you are able to share information or ideas, but also inspiration”.

If being called a warrior by a Greenpeace captain is not incentive to go on, I’m not sure what is.

Blood of the AmazonA major milestone for me was a screening of a film about oil exploitation in the Ecuadorian rainforest called Blood of the Amazon. By a serendipitous stroke of luck, the event was happening during a brief visit to the UK. I ended up speaking at the event and was struck by two things. Firstly, even in that informed crowd, not a single person knew about Ecuador’s impending rainforest auction. Secondly, that a number of people were interested in supporting the indigenous communities resisting the invasion of oil companies into the Amazon. I started to wonder whether my role might be to gather international support for the indigenous resistance, as well as to spread the word about what was happening.

The creator of Blood of the Amazon, environmentalist Nicola Peel, has been working to protect the Ecuadorian Amazon for many years and is involved in some incredible projects, including research into the use of mushrooms to clean up oil pollution (amazingly, 95% effective). I’m a big believer in the universe putting the right people in your path at the right time and so I’d reached out to Nicola before the event and we had a strategy meeting the following day. We discussed plans for gathering support for the indigenous resistance and she subsequently introduced me to some key contacts.

After months of knocking on doors, it was a huge breakthrough when one of Nicola’s contacts responded to one of my emails and I was offered a meeting with a very well respected international organisation with a small presence in Quito.

CarlosPerez

Carlos Pérez Guartambel, President of ECUARUNARI, the Confederation of Kichwa People of Ecuador

The capital city is a hub of resistance in Ecuador and I wanted to make the most of my time there. Through a mutual friend I set up a meeting with Carlos Pérez Guartambel, leader of Ecuarunari (the Confederation of Kichwa people of Ecuador). Carlos is a long-time activist dedicated to the indigenous resistance and I was star struck at the prospect of meeting him (to understand why, read this wonderful interview, which has been a real source of inspiration to me).

A couple of months previously C had happened to watch  “The Dark Side of the Amazon” on the internet and was so moved by it that we began to discuss what we could do about it. We decided to go to Quito and find out.

To be continued …