Tag Archives: XI Oil Round

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.


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:

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.

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.


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 …