(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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.