Tag Archives: Indigenous peoples

Good News for Julian Assange, Bad News for Manuela Picq & Ecuador’s Indigenous Peoples

This week, as Julian Assange marks his fifth year inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, international media coverage continues to strengthen Ecuador’s image as an international champion of free speech. While the diminutive Latin American nation should be applauded for its courageous stance against the US, the good PR masks much darker truths about Ecuador which rarely reach the attention of the international community.

The recent election of President Lenin Moreno, former Vice-President to Rafael Correa and candidate of Ecuador’s ruling party Alianza País, was good news for Assange. Polls had predicted the victory of Moreno’s rival, conservative banker Guillermo Lasso, who had promised to evict the Wikileaks founder from the embassy should he come to power.

As Moreno’s election victory was announced and Assange celebrated his continued safe haven, another political refugee wept. That April night, French Brazilian professor and journalist Manuela Picq was finally forced to accept her exile from Ecuador, the country she had called home for nearly a decade. In 2015, she had been peacefully covering a protest with her husband when the couple were set upon by police officers, beaten with batons and separated. Picq’s visa was revoked overnight and she was detained as an irregular migrant. Days later, she was expelled from the country for ‘participating in politics’.

Manuela and Carlos at Lake Kimsacocha, which Carlos has spent over a decade defending from mega-mining

In fact, Professor Picq was forced into exile by the very same government, led by Rafael Correa, which offered sanctuary to Assange and Edward Snowden. As Moreno was announced President-elect she knew she would be denied re-entry to Ecuador. After two years in limbo, she would have to start building a new life away from her husband, the indigenous lawyer and water defender Carlos Pérez Guartambel, and her job as a Professor of International Relations at a prestigious Quito university.

Picq’s detention was the culmination of months of government harassment against her for expressing criticism of Correa’s government, such as an article about the Vice-President’s father raping and impregnating a 12-year old girl. Without doubt, her detention was also a political retaliation against her husband, a key figure in the indigenous resistance movement, who has been imprisoned three times by Correa’s government for defending water against international mega-mining projects.

Picq was detained at a national protest against a law that would have permitted Rafael Correa’s indefinite reelection. The official version of events was that a foreign national had been attacked by unknown assailants in the street and rescued by police, who then discovered her illegal visa status and handed her over to immigration. However, a journalist filmed the moment that she and Pérez were brutally attacked by police, exposing the government’s lies. In fact, there were no ‘unknown assailants’ and her visa was valid at the time of her arrest, as verified by Human Rights Watch.

The attempt to silence Picq is just one example of many in Ecuador’s crackdown on dissenting voices. The day after her detention in August 2015 the government declared a state of exception to quell the protests, raiding houses in the indigenous town of Saraguro, beating and arresting hundreds. Picq is one of 700 people criminalized by Ecuador’s government, the majority indigenous leaders and environmental activists. While the government positions itself in the media spotlight as an international champion of free speech, within its own borders it is quietly implementing the most repressive media legislation in Latin America and forcibly closing NGOs and unions that disagree with its policies.

Ecuador became the first foreign government to advertise during the US Super Bowl with this $3.8m commercial, soundtracked by The Beatles “All You Need Is Love.”

Many governments use oppressive tactics to silence critics. What sets Ecuador apart is a world class marketing department that proactively defines Ecuador’s brand. Public relations and marketing are the biggest ministerial expenditures, used to generate a smokescreen behind which the government feels free to implement its own agenda, largely free from scrutiny and media criticism.

It’s not just in the area of free speech where positive PR acts as a fig leaf for the Ecuadorian government’s less palatable activities:

Ecuador was applauded by the global community for its high profile Yasuni Initiative in 2014, when the government sought international funds in exchange for not exploiting the oil under the most biodiverse national park in the world. However, the Guardian revealed that the administration was simultaneously negotiating a secret $1bn deal with a Chinese bank to drill for the very same oil.

The use of PR as smokescreen can be blatant. In 2015, Ecuador was awarded the Guinness World Record for planting the most tree species in a single day. No mention was made of the auction of 3 million hectares of pristine Amazon rainforest to oil companies, a process known as the XI Oil Round.

The Ecuadorian government is widely viewed as an environmental pioneer for awarding legal rights to nature in its constitution, even though it constantly prosecutes, threatens, or assassinates those who attempt to uphold these rights. The rights of nature have become rhetoric, disconnected from the constant attacks against environmental defenders.

Ecuador promotes itself as plurinational state with constitutionally guaranteed indigenous land rights, however it commits ethnocide (according to the same constitution) by exploiting for oil in the territories of the country’s last two uncontacted tribes; and has undertaken the largest licensing of land for extractive industries in the history of Ecuador, much of it in indigenous territory.

The government celebrates the indigenous Shuar’s contribution to the war against Peru, while carrying out a campaign of repression against these war heroes’ communities. It has even fired upon them from helicopters and is actively militarizing their territory to make way for a billion-dollar Chinese-owned copper mine.

Correa often boasted about Ecuador’s financial independence from US, however, his administration more than doubled Ecuador’s external debt to $32 billion (32.9% of GDP), mostly in loans from China.

Protesters outside the national electoral council headquarters in Quito, Ecuador, April 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

The recent Presidential election was one more example of things not being what they seem. Guillermo Lasso, who narrowly lost a second round vote to Lenin Moreno, presented convincing evidence of election fraud and a partial recount was undertaken, but with every institution controlled by Correa, there was little hope for a transparent outcome.

In the limited international media coverage it has received, the continuation of Correa-ism under Lenin Moreno has largely been portrayed as the triumph of a democratically elected socialist government over a right-wing, corporate-friendly, US-backed opposition. Many Ecuadorians, however, would tell a different story. In fact, a broad coalition of normally left-leaning Ecuadorian civil society groups, indigenous organisations, academics, activists and NGOs united behind Lasso. “Better a banker than a dictator,” explained Carlos Pérez succinctly.

To these sectors of Ecuadorian society, the election of Moreno represents the triumph of oppression, fraud and good marketing. It would be some comfort to these Ecuadorians if the international community recognized their government for what it is: an authoritarian, extractivist regime.

It is distressing that even world renowned critics and thinkers such as Chris Hedges appear to have been taken in by Ecuador’s PR. Chakana Chronicles wrote to Chris Hedges following this pro-Correa-ism podcast from his show ‘On Contact’, suggesting he does not limit his story to a government’s official narrative and proposing he interview Professor Picq to present a countervailing view, but received no response.

Why does the international left, including influential dissidents like Hedges, prefer to believe the lies of Ecuador’s government than the cries for help of Indigenous peoples and journalists on the ground? Indigenous peoples are stewards of the most threatened biodiverse regions, such as the Amazon rainforest, and play a key role in combatting climate change. As they put their bodies on the line to defend their lands from extractivist regimes, the left chooses to turn a deaf ear to their cries, continuing their oppression, rendering them voiceless.

So, as Julian Assange begins his sixth year inside the Embassy, the continuation of such an extractivist regime under Lenin Moreno might be good news for Julian Assange, but it is bad news for Manela Picq, Carlos Pérez and the indigenous peoples of Ecuador.

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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.

P1020244

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.

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.

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:

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: