Protecting the Amazon.
A community faces human rights abuses for defending its land
Sarayaku is a community at the forefront of the resistance against oil exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Numbering around 1,200, the Sarayaku people are divided into six neighbourhoods on both banks of the Bobonaza River, about 25 minutes by plane from the city of Puyo.
The Sarayaku have successfully defended their territory from a number of invaders over the last 40 years. Well organised, well educated and united, the Sarayaku have in recent years embraced a new tool in the fight to protect their ancestral lands: technology.
Although there is no mobile phone signal in the area, the Sarayaku people have satellite internet access in one of their community huts in the centre of the village, powered by solar panels.
When we visited the internet hut (wittily named “WayusaNet” after the medicinal tea which the Sarayaku drink to aid communication), there were a number of young people there accessing Facebook and Youtube on their smartphones. However, as there is only internet access in one location, being online isn’t a constant distraction, but a small part of everyday life.
One Sarayaku community member, a biologist, explained the role of the internet in his life. Jose Luis is 30 years old, the grandson of the Sarayaku “yachak” or shaman and the son of their current President. He accesses Facebook for social purposes and Youtube for music. He looks up information about local flora and fauna for his role, which is to ensure that the available natural resources (e.g. yucca) are sufficient for their growing community. Traditionally, the Sarayaku pass all their knowledge on orally, so he also uses the internet to improve his written Spanish.
Now that 7,000 hectares of the Sarayaku’s sacred land has been sold to a Chinese oil company in the XI Oil Round, the role of technology has become a vital tool in their resistance. The Sarayaku now have their own website, Facebook page, Twitter account and Youtube channel.
The Sarayaku use these channels of communication to several ends, the simplest of which is to let people know that Amazonian tribes are not a myth; they are a real part of today’s world. These are people who are regularly denounced by the Ecuadorian President as violent terrorists standing in the way of the nation’s development. By sharing their way of life online, they hope to show that this isn’t the case.
The Sarayaku also use technology to raise awareness of their struggle. One member of the community, Eriberto Gualinga, studied communications technology at university and has made a number of documentaries about Sarayaku life and resistance. The Sarayaku leader responsible for external relations, Franklin Toala, told us that it was a 2002 documentary by Eriberto which enabled the community to share with the world how the Ecuadorian government treats indigenous peoples. A 2013 documentary, “Children of the Jaguar”, created collaboratively with Amnesty International, documents the Sarayaku people’s progress as they go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights after the government gave an oil company permission to exploit their land without consulting them. The documentary went on to win "Best Documentary" by the All Roads Film Project of the National Geographic Society.
The leaders of Sarayaku have spent many hours analysing and debating the best way to harness technology for their community and are well aware of the impact it can have. Whilst they seem to have mastered the art of using technology as a tool, it’s a different outside influence which is a constant source of worry for their leaders.
The Sarayaku community has its own primary and secondary schools. For over a decade they have been working on their own bilingual (Spanish & Kichwa) education programme which is delivered by teachers from the community so that urban thinking is not introduced to their children. However, young people who wish to continue studying go to universities all over Ecuador. Many seem to study subjects which are of the most use to the community. Jose Luis, for example, told us that he’d really like to be an artist, but because the community needed someone to manage their natural resources, he studied biology in Quito.
Allowing their young people to study in urban environments brings many benefits to the community, not least keeping their knowledge of technology current. However, the influence of state education on their youth also brings many dangers. Indeed, when we asked the Sarayaku President, Jose Gualinga, to name the biggest threat facing his community, he mentioned the state education system before he mentioned oil exploitation, saying that it is “changing the mentality of the youth, colonising the brains of the young”.
Frankin explained to us that the traditional knowledge of the Sarayaku is in danger of dying out because of the state education system. There are fewer and fewer yachaks because young people are opting for a university degree, rather than taking the long and difficult road to shamanism.
However, the Sarayaku leaders we spoke to did not want to eradicate all western influence from their community. Even whilst telling us that outside education is one of the biggest threats to the future of his community and its resistance movement, Jose Gualinga recognised the importance of Western technical and professional knowledge. In fact, his daughter has just graduated in Graphic Design from a university in Quito.
Rather than rejecting all occidental knowledge, the Sarayaku people would like to see their knowledge, their science treated as equal to western knowledge, to western science.
Mario Santi, who previously served as President of the community, had this to say:
“We must respect Western support, but it must be support which is compatible with us. We must adopt technology, communication, IT, the technological revolution, but western and ancestral education and knowledge should work in parallel; they should be united and treated as equal to build a better world”.
Tupak Viteri Gualinga, the Sarayaku Vice President, echoed Mario:
“Our education is of no value in the west. We believe that our knowledge, our science should be treated as equal to western education. We can be participants of globalisation, of technology in some respects, but without forgetting who we are. If we don’t retain our knowledge, we have no value, we’ll just be a ghost town, and this must not happen”.
Surviving in today’s globalised world, embracing technology, university educations and international relationships, whilst preserving their cultural identity and traditional knowledge is an extremely complex and delicate balancing act, but one which the Sarayaku people seem to be managing with intelligence and grace.
Far from being violent terrorists, we found the Sarayaku people to be wise, reasonable, articulate, accomplished, kind and quick to laugh. We left their community wondering if, rather than standing in the way of the nation’s development, they might just hold the key to it. Ecuador, and the world, could learn a lot from this this community, which adopts the most useful parts of modern life whilst living in harmony with nature and acting as guardians of the global resource which is the Amazon rainforest.
To read the full story of the Chakana Chronicles time with the Sarayaku community, keep an eye on their website over the coming weeks: www.chakanachronicles.com
Children of the Jaguar documentary, with Amnesty International:
—by Chakarna Chronicles
Photos: Chakarna Chronicles (2 + 3); SARAYAKU DEFENSORES DE LA SELVA (Cover + 4)