Cry in the Jungle: Defending Life, Resisting Devastation
By Saq’ Be’
For so many of those reading this, the lands of Latin America may seem like a distant place and the Amazon basin like a remote exotic location that bears little relevance to our everyday lives. The reality is this region holds great relevance to all of our lives, on both the physical level as well as a symbolic and spiritual one. The Kichwa community of Sarayacu, located in the central Amazon Basin in Ecuador, find themselves on the front lines in the struggle for preserving a natural and traditional way of life in the face of the continued drive to conquer Nature in the name of profit and greed. Sarayacu is a strong community, and one that survives to this day in part because of the citizens of the world who recognize they share an intricate connection with the people and have raised their voices to holdup the actions of petrol companies that would see the forest leveled and the people destroyed in the name of oil. Yet, unless the eyes of the world continue to carefully watch the unfolding of events in this region, and the stream of letters, emails and phone calls continue to flow to let governments and companies know who is watching, this place of life and magic can cease to exist.
Sarayacu is a territory spanning some 135,000 hectares and is the ancestral land of its roughly 1,200 Kichwa inhabitants. There is a centralized region consisting of five villages where the majority of the community resides. The people travel out to the further regions for activities such as hunting, gathering medicinal plants and even vacations. It is a region without electricity, without plumbing. The pristine nature allows the people to drink the water from the rivers, to eat the fish and live sustainably off the land. Gardens, cultivated over many years, called chacras yield amongst other things staples such as plantains and yucca. Cooking is done over fires using ceramic pots made by the women of the village. Chicha, a beverage made from fermented Yucca, is also a mainstay of social and ceremonial life. It is served and produced in special ceramics with intricate designs produced by women. There are different classes of Chicha, some with more potency for celebrations, others for work or for meetings.
Sarayacu is a community in balance, intricately tied to the jungle environment that survives them – not out of luxury, but out of necessity. There is a rhythm of life that mirrors the rhythm of the jungle. People wake at sunrise and sleep shortly after sunset. The pace is steady, not fast for the heat in the jungle forbids that, but not slow and lazy because survival demands otherwise. It is a rhythm that is so natural, after only a few days of living at such a pace the beat of our modern world appears to be so out of sync with what is natural, what is healthy that it seems absurd. One is left to wonder, on a global level, as the pace of modern society quickens to a deafening rhythm, what impact does the steady pulse of life in the jungle have upon tempering this hectic beat? This natural rhythm helps to produce a certain vibrancy that is evident upon meeting the people of Sarayacu. Only in ignorance would one dare call these a primitive or backwards people. On the whole, they are very intelligent – in both the traditional ways of life as well as having been educated in the western world. There is an honesty and directness that is permitted to shine through their eyes, because they are content in their way of balance and do not seek to undermine or fear being undermined in the name of material gain.
All the members of the community are skilled, and the skill sets are broken down by gender. The women all know how to make ceramics, chicha, how to paint faces, prepare foods amongst their many abilities. “Women have spiritual power. In each household there is usually at least one woman who has the spiritual power to clean bad air (mal aire), to use tobacco, to help things grow. It is a power that is passed down to the younger girls according to their capacity,” explains Marcia Gualinga, who serves as president of the Women’s Association in Sarayacu. The men all know how to fish and hunt and are responsible for all the heavy labor in the community. Decisions are made based on a community consensus. Meetings are held where representatives of different parts of the community gather and hand down their decisions. There are representatives for the women, the elders, the youth, the five villages and others. One president is elected every three years to represent the community and follow the will of the council. Shamanism, including the use of Ayahuasca, has an important role in treating the imbalances within society as they arise. There is a wealth of medicinal plants that are used to treat all of the traditional ailments, including snake and insect bites, stomach illnesses and plants that can be used to camouflage one’s smell and give energy for travel through the jungle. “Our ancestors have been here for thousands of years. There is a relationship between earth, man and time and we need to respect this,” explains Marlon Santi, president of Sarayacu. This is a community of peaceful people living in a harmonious way that imposes upon no one. Yet, it is a community that is willing to fight, to the end if necessary, to defend their home and way of life.
Beneath the feet of these people, below the territory of nature in its most pristine form, may lie that which has arguably been the cause of more destruction of man and nature in the last 100 years: oil. A consortium, led by Argentinean petrol company CGC, wants to find out if there is oil in the territory and has no qualms about removing whatever “obstacles” lie in their path of discovery and extraction. Sarayacu’s struggle with petrol interest goes back many years. In 1989 the community successfully repelled an attempt by the ARCO company to complete petrol exploration within their territory. According to the official Sarayacu website,www.sarayacu.com, “The conflict with CGC started in 1996 when CGC and the government of Ecuador signed a contract for petrol exploration in the “Block 23″, comprising 200,000 hectares, most of which is Sarayacu territory. Sarayacu was not consulted and opposed the petrol exploration all from the beginning. Because Sarayacu is the community that has the largest number of inhabitants and most of the territory within the block 23, CGC first approached Sarayacu, trying to deceive the people offering money and development works. They managed to bribe Telmo Gualinga, president of Sarayacu 1997 – 1999, giving him a personal contract for construction of a system of running water in his own neighborhood. The company was so sure that it would convince us that it publicly assured that they would not start any exploration work until they had 100% support from the communities within the block. Nevertheless, the people of Sarayacu did not accept the petrol activities, and the later presidents did not accept bribes. Therefore, from the year 2000 up until now, CGC has maintained a real war of calumnies against Sarayacu, in order to destroy the confidence between the community and its own elected leaders.” The present effort to conduct petrol exploration is being conducted by a consortium of companies including Burlington Resources (US), CGC (Argentina) and Perenco (UK/France). Sarayacu is among the most organized communities in the Amazon basin and was the first in the region to reject the advances of the petrol industry. According to Gerardo Gualinga, a guide and resident of Sarayacu, “the elders have a prophecy that say Sarayacu is like the marker of the mid-day. We are the front line for the remaining communities in the region. If we fall, it will not be long before the others follow. But if we can turn back the companies, this will greatly strengthen the other territories.” Sarayacu has received the attention of international bodies. In May, 2004 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered precautionary measures to be applied in favor of Sarayacu. According to Amazon Watch (www.amazonwatch.com), these measures “…included as principle points that the physical integrity of Sarayacu’s community members and its leaders be respected, that an investigation of the incidents which occurred in January of 2003 should take place, and that special protection be given to the relationship that Sarayaku people have with their territory.” These measures were extended in December, 2003 since the measures were not complied with by the Ecuadorian government and the situation had worsened. In February, 2004, the government of Ecuador declared its support for the oil conglomerate, prompting Sarayacu’s leaders to declare a state of emergency, fearing the companies would be entering the territory by force with the backing of the Ecuadorian military.
The methods used by the oil company and their supporters may lend insight into what would lie ahead for the community and region should they get their way. A campaign of intimidation, coercion and torture has been leveled against Sarayacu for the last several years. CGC has found an alliance in the Ecuadorian Government and its military that has set the stage for documented human rights violations. According to Marlon Santi, “the leaders (of Sarayacu) can never be tranquil. We are constantly receiving threats, and perhaps these threats are connected with the government.” Indeed, these threats have not always turned out to be hollow ones. In late February, 2004, Mr. Santi was preparing to travel to Washington, D.C., to present the case of Sarayacu before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. As he was in Quito preparing to make the journey, he was assaulted at gunpoint by an individual who claimed “You Sarayacu people will die like dogs.” Mr. Santi was pistol whipped and his travel documents as well as documents for the hearing were taken. Detention and the accosting of villagers happen illegally with an alarming frequency by the petrol company. There are two ways in and out of Sarayacu: by airplane and along the Bobonaza River, which has been the common route for inhabitants of the villages. CGC has established an illegal checkpoint on that river and often turns away villagers that have made the two day journey, preventing the community from raising its voice at national councils and in protests. In December, 2003 violence once again erupted as members of Sarayacu, including women and youths were assaulted at the checkpoint by drunken individuals with ties to CGC as they attempted to make their way to a March for Life and Peace in the city of Puyo. The actual situation was documented on video by one of the members of the community. The media in Ecuador and elsewhere has been used in a systematic campaign to discredit the community at every turn. The community has been labeled as “devils of the jungle”, as being irresponsible with the management of their own natural resources (the jungle itself), and even as “terrorists”, all assertions without any factual basis. This misinformation has been distributed to local, national and international media as well as directly to those who have expressed support for Sarayacu, organizationally or individually. Perhaps the most frightening unveiling of to what ends the petrol company, government and military are willing to go to lies in the recent military buildup surrounding Sarayacu and the discovery of a massive tract of explosives within Sarayacu territory. There are now several military bases on the perimeter of Sarayacu and military personal have been caught entering the territory while performing tactical maneuvers. We were told that recently, a large tract of explosives were discovered within the territory. Once a munitions expert was brought in, it was determined that there was enough TNT to level Ecuador’s capitol city of Quito. It was presumed these were brought in to clear tracts of land following a potential oil vein. This is just a small sampling of the devious tactics being used to undermine Sarayacu’s efforts of self preservation. With such a demonstration of disregard for either environmental concerns or human rights, what will become of the village should the petrol companies have their way?
Impact -The Effect on the peoples of Sarayacu and other Territories
The struggle to resist the destruction of their territory has taken its toll on the members of Sarayacu on different levels. “The women are intermediaries in the situation [with the oil companies],” explains Marcia Gualinga. “The situation comes first and the women are being strong by going out [of the village] with the men. The children and old people are not calm. We are being affected emotionally and morally. We are always worried, always maintaining contact with those that leave the community.” Felix Ramon Santi Santi explains, “Everything is here: school, university. We don’t have to pay for our way of life. The young people don’t even consider abandoning Sarayacu.” Felix explained the different ways that the situation is affecting young people: “Psychologically it is hard because we have to focus on going into the jungle to fight to defend our lands so we are being forced to leave our studies behind. Our morale is low because it is hard to leave our studies and fight in the jungle. Physically, we have become more susceptible to illness.” Marlon Santi spoke about how the situation is affecting the community on a spiritual level. “There is a relationship between earth, man and time and we need to respect this on a spiritual level. Cutting away the rainforest would gravely affect us as well as those inhabiting the forest spiritually. There are spirits in the rivers, the mountains; these are the places the shamans go. The explosives are scaring these spirits away. The destruction of our environment makes the cosmos run away from the beings.” Sarayacu is well aware of the impact petrol companies have had on the surrounding territories. On a more physical level, the entrance of the petrol companies into surrounding territories is creating other problems for Sarayacu. “They are coming into Sarayacu territory to hunt, because their territories have been contaminated and there is no longer enough wildlife for the other communities to hunt.” This is taxing the wildlife populations within Sarayacu and is placing a further burden upon inhabitants to keep their neighboring peoples from poaching.
Sarayacu Community is opposed to this activity taking place as it involves clear cutting, dynamiting and drilling in their pristine virgin rainforest home. During exploration and extraction, hundreds of hectares of pristine forest are deforested, decimated, and contaminated and consequently the indigenous people suffer grave impacts. “We have already seen this occur in the Northern provinces where oil extraction has already occurred,” states Mario Santi. The communities suffer serious socio-cultural and psychological impacts. The oil company activities and ensuing toxic contamination bring grave diseases such as high incidences of cancer, strange diseases and other health epidemics. The oil company also builds roads that open up the communities to further onslaught of mostly the negative aspects of western civilization and colonists who settle along the road further encroaching on indigenous lands. Following the oil company workers is the side businesses of alcohol, prostitution and consequent diseases. The way of life as the communities know it becomes destroyed. The overall destruction and impact is massive.
Once the oil well starts operating, both routine contamination as well as accidental occurs. Contamination occurs when the formation water (a by-product of the refining process rich in salts and toxic elements) is separated and the associated gas is flared. This affects mainly water sources, thus all aquatic life and the fish people depend on as an important food source. “If we eat sick fish and sick animals, then we will get sick,” explains Corina Montalvo, “and oil development would also affect the planting and gardens, where we grow food staples.” Trees will die, and the animals that live in that area will die and become scarce. During oil and exploratory perforation and extraction hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of toxic waste are thrown into the environment without any treatment and then the soil will not produce anything. In the northern provinces, where oil extraction has already occurred there are elements such as cadmium, nickel, lead, benzene and hydrocarbons present in toxic quantities. According to reports, some in quantities 40,000 times higher than what is allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States. An elder woman in Sarayacu stated, “We live from the land, we grow yucca, plantain and if the oil companies destroy the land…then how will our children grow, what are we going to feed our children?”
Oil company representatives have promised the people that they will provide food such as rice and canned tuna, but several times we have already seen in the northern provinces that these are only temporary tactics to get to the oil. Once the oil companies get what they want, they soon forget the promises of food, funding schools and other such promises (signed or not signed) and leave the people of the communities to fend for themselves in an environment that can no longer support them.
How to Help
The following link has models of protest letters:
You can help by writing protest letters to the following addresses. Your letters will have a greater impact if you print them and put them in a stamped envelope or fax them. Please CC a copy to: firstname.lastname@example.org and if you receive a reply to your letter, please provide also send a copy to Sarayacu.
Sr. Lucio Gutierrez
Presidente de la Rep�blica
Palacio del Gobierno
Calle Garcia Moreno y Espejo
Quito – Ecuador
Mr. Diego Garz�n Duarte, CEO
Compa�ia General de Combustibles (CGC)
Av 12 de Octubre, Torre 1492 N� 2697 y Lincoln
Oficinas 602 y 603
Quito – Ecuador
Mr. Bobby S. Shackouls
Burlington Resources Inc.
5051 Westheimer, Suite 1400
Houston, TX 77056
Mr. Miguel Caro
23-25 rue Dumont d’Urville
75116 Paris FRANCE
Tel : +33 (0)1 53 57 66 00
Fax : +33 (0)1 47 20 38 43
Sr. Norberto Morita, Gerente General
Southern Cross Capital Mngt.
Cerrito 1294 – 8�
(1010) Capital Federal
Fax/Tel: 54 11 4816 5054
Or 54 11 4816 2469
You can also support and visit Sarayacu Community through its sustainable Community Eco-tourism Program. You can arrange visits by contacting SARAYACUINFO@YAHOO.COM
You can also send funds through Saq’ Be’. 100% of the funds will be passed on to the community. Donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law. Funds can be sent to: Saq’ Be’; PO Box 31111; Santa Fe, NM 87594 or visit www.sacredroad.org for other ways to donate. Please make a clear note that funds are for the community of Sarayacu.
Saq’ Be’: Organization for Mayan and Indigenous Spiritual Studies is a non profit organization based in New Mexico, US. Saq’ Be’ works to bring people, especially young adults, together with ancient traditions for the purpose of cultural and spiritual preservation and to open the doors of opportunity for those traditions to share their teachings with the rest of the world. Preservation programs include Radio broadcast capacity for the Native community in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, support for the community os Sarayacu in Ecuador in their struggle against petrol interests, and support for filmed documentation efforts of elders and guides of the Mayan tradition. More information can be found at: http://sacredroad.org, or by email at: saqbe[at]sacredroad[dot]org.