Tag Archives: Ecuador

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:

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A Historical Perspective

P1020158(Versíon en Español aqui). We woke up to this beautiful view on the first day of our second trip to Quito. We made our way to the Parque La Carolina for our first interview of the day, with Ecuadorian film maker Manolo Sarmiento, best known for his documentary “La Muerte de Jaime Roldós” (“The Death of Jaime Roldós”). This masterpiece of a film looks at the mysterious death of Jaime Roldós, who was President of Ecuador from 1979 until his death in a plane crash two years later.

Jaime Roldós became known for his firm stance on human rights. In his short tenure, he reduced the workweek to 40 hours, doubled the minimum wage and proposed a Charter of Conduct with Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru, in which the principles of universal justice and human rights were re-affirmed. In an era in which most Latin American countries were military dictatorships, Roldós became a moral compass for the region, antagonising neighbouring military governments and going out of his way to reveal evidence of the “dirty wars” in several countries.

In one widely reported incident at an international summit in Colombia, El Salvador’s Napoleón Duarte (a U.S.-backed dictator) accused Roldós of being young and inexperienced, to which Roldós responded: “I may be inexperienced, but my government perches on a mountain of popular votes, while yours is perched on a mountain of corpses.”

La Muerte de Roldos

Manolo Sarmiento’s award winning film, “La Muerte de Jaime Roldós”

The crash in which Roldós died left no survivors: killed along with the president were the First Lady Martha Bucaram, the Minister of Defense and his wife, as well as two aides and three other passengers.

The American author and activist John Perkins, in his book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, concludes that Roldós was assassinated by the U.S. government, allegedly by a bomb located in a tape recorder, because his plan to reorganize the oil industry would have threatened U.S. interests. Just months after Roldós died, Panama’s leader Omar Torrijos, who had been at odds with the U.S. over control of the Panama Canal, died in another plane crash, perceived by some to have been a CIA-conducted assassination.

 

Manolo is a great person to talk to about history, so we also spoke with him about the indigenous uprising of 1990, an event that forever changed the country. After that day of massive actions in cities across the nation, Ecuador’s native peoples could no longer be ignored.

CONAIE (The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) organised the uprising with 16 demands, amongst them:

  • A public declaration that Ecuador is a plurinational country (to be ratified by the constitution).
  • The government must grant lands and titles to lands to the nationalities.
  • Solutions to water and irrigation needs.
  • Free commercial handicraft activities.
  • Official recognition of Indian medicine.
  • The government should grant funds for bilingual education.
  • Respect for the rights of the child.

Early in the morning on June 4th 1990, thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians blocked the access routes to the capitals of seven provinces with boulders and trees. They also blocked routes into Quito and cut off travel along the Pan-American highway.

Food supply to the cities was cut off and the country was effectively shut down for a week. The majority of the indigenous actions were peaceful, often including dancing and music, which proved disconcerting to the police forces.

The uprising caused so much disruption to federal commerce and social order that the government relented and met with the leaders of CONAIE. Although the movement did not gain the indigenous peoples much ground in terms of agrarian reform, it shook Ecuador’s white elite power base. “It was because of the uprising that they began to recognise us as people, as human beings, and that we had a voice and we could take action,” commented Norma Mayo of CONAIE.

The uprising also triggered a wave of sympathy among the urban middle class. “I love the indigenous part of me,” was painted on many walls in Quito.

Over the next two decades, CONAIE led a dozen more uprising and mobilisations. Election after election, indigenous Ecuadorians took power in more and more local governments — which had been unthinkable prior to the 1990 uprising.

Today, in 2014, as the government’s extractivist policies threaten the environment and human rights to an ever greater degree, resistance is building.

We asked Manolo about the significance of the 1990 uprising and whether he believes that the current resistance to oil exploitation could lead to a similar event.

 

We finished by asking Manolo 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 he had to say:

Una Perspectiva Histórica

P1020158(English version here). Nos despertamos con esta hermosa vista en el primer día de nuestro segundo viaje a Quito. Nos dirigimos al Parque La Carolina para nuestra primera entrevista del día, con el cineasta ecuatoriano Manolo Sarmiento, más conocido por su documental “La Muerte de Roldós”. Esta obra maestra de una película trata sobre la misteriosa muerte de Jaime Roldós, quien fue presidente de Ecuador desde 1979 hasta su muerte en un accidente de avión, dos años después.

Jaime Roldós se dio a conocer por su firme postura sobre los derechos humanos. En su breve mandato, se redujo la semana laboral a 40 horas, se duplicó el salario mínimo y se propuso una Carta de Conducta con Venezuela, Colombia y Perú, en la que se reafirmaron los principios de la justicia universal y los derechos humanos. En una era en la que la mayoría de los países de América Latina estuvieron bajo dictaduras militares, Roldós se convirtió en una brújula moral para la región, antagonizando a los gobiernos militares vecinos y saliendo de su camino para revelar la evidencia de las “guerras sucias” en varios países.

En un incidente ampliamente reportado en una cumbre internacional en Colombia, Napoleón Duarte de El Salvador (un dictador apoyado por E.E.U.U.) acusó a Roldós de ser joven y sin experiencia, a lo que Roldós respondió: “Puedo ser inexperto, pero mi gobierno se encarama en una montaña de votos populares, mientras que el suyo se alza sobre una montaña de cadáveres”.

El galardonado documental de Manolo Sarmiento

El galardonado documental de Manolo Sarmiento

El accidente en el que murió Roldós no dejó ningún sobreviviente: junto con el presidente murieron la Primera Dama Martha Bucaram, el Ministro de Defensa y su esposa, así como dos de sus colaboradores y otros tres pasajeros.

El autor y activista norteamericano John Perkins, en su libro “Confesiones de un Sicario Económico”, llega a la conclusión de que Roldós fue asesinado por el gobierno de los E.E.U.U., supuestamente por una bomba situada en una grabadora, porque su plan para reorganizar la industria petrolera habría amenazado los intereses de los E.E.U.U. Apenas unos meses después de la muerte de Roldós, el líder de Panamá Omar Torrijos, que había estado en desacuerdo con los E.E.U.U. sobre el control del Canal de Panamá, murió en otro accidente de avión, percibido por algunos como un asesinato llevado a cabo por la C.I.A.

 

Manolo es una gran persona para hablar de la historia, por lo que también hablamos con él sobre el levantamiento indígena de 1990, un evento que cambió para siempre al país. Después de aquel día de las acciones masivas en ciudades de todo el país, los pueblos indígenas del Ecuador ya no podían ser ignorados.
CONAIE (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador), organizó el levantamiento con 16 demandas, entre ellas:

  • Una declaración pública de que Ecuador es un país plurinacional (para ser ratificado por la Constitución)
  • El gobierno debe otorgar tierras y títulos de tierras a las nacionalidades
  • Las soluciones a las necesidades de agua y de riego
  • Las actividades artesanales comerciales libres.
  • Oficialización de la medicina indígena.
  • El gobierno debe otorgar fondos para la educación bilingüe
  • El respeto a los derechos del niño

Temprano en la mañana del 4 de junio de 1990, miles de ecuatorianos indígenas bloquearon las vías de acceso a las capitales de siete provincias con rocas y árboles. También bloquearon las rutas a Quito y cortaron los viajes a lo largo de la carretera Panamericana.

El suministro de alimentos a las ciudades fue cortado y el país se cerró durante una semana. La mayoría de las acciones indígenas fueron pacíficas, a menudo incluyendo el baile y la música, que resultó desconcertante para las fuerzas de la policía.

El levantamiento causó tal interrupción del comercio federal y del orden social que el gobierno cedió y se reunió con los dirigentes de la CONAIE. Aunque el movimiento no ganó para los pueblos indígenas tanto terreno en materia de reforma agraria, sacudió la base de poder de la élite blanca del Ecuador. “Fue a causa del levantamiento que empezaron a reconocernos como personas, como seres humanos, y que teníamos una voz y podíamos tomar medidas”, comentó Norma Mayo de la CONAIE.

El levantamiento también provocó una ola de simpatía entre la clase media urbana. “Me encanta la parte indígena de mí”, fue pintado en muchas paredes en Quito.

Durante las próximas dos décadas, la CONAIE encabezó una docena más de levantamientos y movilizaciones. Elección tras elección, los indígenas ecuatorianos tomaron cada vez más poder en los gobiernos locales – lo que había sido impensable antes del levantamiento de 1990.

Hoy, en 2014, como las políticas extra-activistas del gobierno amenazan el medio ambiente y los derechos humanos en un grado cada vez mayor, la resistencia está creciendo. Hablamos con Manolo acerca de la importancia de aquel levantamiento y sobre si la explotación petrolera podría provocar un evento similar en la actualidad.

 

Terminamos haciéndole a Manolo la pregunta que nos hacemos todos: “¿Cómo puede la gente de todo el mundo apoyar la lucha para salvar el Amazonas de la explotación petrolera?”. Esto es lo que dijo:

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.

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.

Cómo Empezó Todo

Quito 2009(English version here). Para mí, Quito, la capital de Ecuador, es un lugar de cielos azules y brillantes; noches frías y frescas bajo mantas pesadas de lana; caminatas jadeantes en calles  empinadas y empedradas; paredes encaladas y el chic de anticuarios.

Fue un solo día en esta hermosa ciudad que llevó a mi amiga C y yo, a aceptar el desafío más emocionante de nuestras vidas.

Habíamos hecho el largo viaje a Quito parapoder  encontrar las respuestas a las siguientes preguntas:

¿Cómo podemos ser más útiles en la lucha contra las grandes petroleras en la Amazonía? ¿Cómo podemos apoyar a los pueblos indígenas que estan defendiendo a sus tierras ancestrales frente  la invasión de las compañías petroleras?

Retrocediendo un poco, ¿qué fue lo que llevó a nosotros dos a emprender un viaje como esto, a hacer preguntas como éstas?

Nuestro interés común en el tema surgió con este documental de bajo presupuesto sobre la explotación petrolera en la Amazonía ecuatoriana.

Mientras observaba el documental por primera vez, me quedé horrorizado a ver el terrible  impacto social y ambiental de la explotación petrolera que existe ya en la selva tropical del Ecuador. También estaba totalmente chocada por los planes del gobierno a vender todo lo que queda de la  virgen del Ecuador, un total de 8.000.000 hectáreas, a las empresas petroleras en una subasta conocida como la XI ronda petrolera. Descubriendo el alcance de la catástrofe, me hice cada vez más decididos a correr la voz lo más ampliamente posible acerca de este enorme delito ambiental.

2013 Rio Napo, Derrame de Petróleo

2013, Rio Napo, Derrame de Petróleo

Comencé con artículos, uno tratando de atraer a un público más amplio usando la comparación de la situación en Ecuador a la trama de la película Avatar. Envié un sinnúmero de correos electrónicos a las estaciónes de radio ambientales; prensas locales, nacionales y internacionales; celebridades; y grupos ambientales de las universidades, tratando de crear conciencia de la XI Ronda Petrolera.

La falta de respuesta fue tal que, por momentos, estaba convencida de que todos mis mensajes estaban siendo entregados en las carpetas de basura de los destinatarios. Sin embargo, cada vez que sentí muy desanimada, algo pasaba para levantar  las fuerzas de Nuevo, en el momento preciso y mas necesitada. En uno de esos momentos, Amazon Watch publicó uno de mis artículos en su página de Facebook, que cuenta con 75.000 seguidores. En otro, el capitán de un barco de Greenpeace, con quien estaba en contacto me mando un correo electrónico de su barco en el Pacífico Sur, me presentó a los activistas forestales principales de la organización con las siguientes palabras, que trajo una lágrima a mi ojo:

“Cuando la Tierra se ve acosada por las excavadoras, plataformas de perforación petrolera y oleoductos con fugas y nos sentimos mareados en el resultante tazón de polvo de la depravación – necesitamos poner nuestros mapas a un lado y mirar al alrededor para rastrear los signos y símbolos que se quedan, a reconocer los encuentros fortuitos y entonces,  saber que hay una salida. Mas alla de todo, tenemos que reconocer los guerreros que están apoyando. Y así es que les presento a una de esas personas.  Espero que ustedes pueden compartir información y ideas, también la inspiración”.

Siendo llamado una guerrera por un capitán de Greenpeace esta, sin duda,  todo el incentivo necesario para poder seguir por adelante!

Blood of the Amazon

Sangre de la Amazonía

Un hito importante para mí fue un evento, la proyección de una película sobre la explotación petrolera en la selva Ecuatoriana llamada Sangre de la Amazonía. Por un golpe fortuito de la suerte, el evento estaba ocurriendo durante un breve visita al Reino Unido. Termine hablando en el evento y me di cuenta de dos cosas. En primer lugar, entre las personas en esa audiencia bien informada, ni uno sabía de la subasta  iminente de la selva tropical del Ecuador. En segundo lugar, habian varias  personas con bastante interes en apoyar a las comunidades indígenas que estan luchando contra la invasión de las compañías petroleras en la Amazonía. Empecé a pensar que mi trabajo sera la de conseguir apoyo internacional para la resistencia indígena, mientras difundiendo la palabra acerca de lo que esta sucediendo.

La creadora de Sangre de la Amazonía, ecologista Nicola Peel, ha estado trabajando para proteger la Amazonía Ecuatoriana desde hace muchos años y está involucrada en algunos proyectos increíbles, incluiendo la investigación sobre el uso de hongos para limpiar la contaminación causado por petroleo (tienen un sorprendente  95% de efectividad) . Creo mucho en que el universo se pone en el camino  las personas adecuadas en el momento oportuno, y yo había contactado a Nicola antes del evento y tuvimos una reunión de estrategia el día siguiente. Nos discutimos planes para juntar apoyo para la resistencia indígena y mas tarde ella me presentó a algunos contactos clave.

Después de meses de tocar puertas, fue un gran avance cuando uno de los contactos de Nicola, trabajando con una organización internacional muy respetada que tiene una pequeña presencia en Quito, respondió a uno de mis correos electrónicos y ofreció una reunión.

CarlosPerez

Carlos Pérez Guartambel, Presidente de ECUARUNARI, la Confederación de los pueblos Kichwa del Ecuador

La ciudad capital es un centro de la resistencia en el Ecuador y  quería aprovechar lo mas posible mi tiempo alla. A través de una amiga común, organicé una reunión con Carlos Pérez Guartambel, Presidente de ECUARUNARI (Confederación de los pueblos Kichwa del Ecuador). Carlos es un activista con mucho tiempo dedicado a la resistencia indígena y estaba super emocionada a poder reunirme con él (para entender por qué, lea esta maravillosa entrevista, que ha sido una tremenda fuente de inspiración para mí).

Un par de meses antes, C ha visto “El lado oscuro de la Amazonía” en Internet y ella estaba tan conmovido que empezamos a hablar de lo que podríamos hacer al respecto. Nos decidimos a ir a Quito y averiguarlo.

Continuará …

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 …