Eye on the Amazon

Amazon Justice: Sarayaku's Historic Week

Canoes converging on the Bobonaza River

Just past dawn, the cacophony of forest sounds that electrifies the Amazonian night slowly gave way to the eerie silence of morning, broken only by scattered rooster crows and the din of a small Cessna plane crossing high overhead. Canoes were being ferreted from up and down the Bobonaza River, converging on the riverbanks in Sarayaku. In what is a morning ritual, motoristas, or canoe drivers, scooped out the sloshing water, brown with sediment, from the bottom of the canoes, in anticipation of a long day's river journey. Families and leaders packed bags, with extra clothes for the cool Andean air, feather headdresses, necklaces of wairuru seed and snake vertebrae, and the all important huito, a fruit that when cooked, is used as elaborate black face paint for important events. The seven kurakas (community leaders) carried their carved staves in hand and congregated on the riverbanks before climbing aboard the canoes. It was an honor to witness this preparation first-hand, as I accompanied a delegation on an Amazon Journey to Sarayaku.

It was Tuesday, July 23, and some 80 Kichwa Indigenous people from Sarayaku were preparing to travel to Quito – the distant capital city and center of power. Since time immemorial, Ecuadorian governments have routinely made decisions there about the use and development of Indigenous Amazonian lands without the consent, or even consultation, of local communities.

Sarayaku was mobilizing to mark the anniversary of their victory at the Inter-American Human Rights Court, and to press for government compliance with the judgment. In 2012, after nine years of litigation, the Court found the Ecuadorian state guilty of rights violations when it authorized oil activities and the militarization of Sarayaku lands without consulting the community. The decision included the most detailed and binding language to date on the right to consultation for Indigenous people. The Court gave the Ecuadorian government a one-year timeframe to implement various measures included in its sentence, which was set to expire Thursday, July 25th at 5:00pm.

So Sarayaku set off on an eight-hour canoe ride to the jungle town of Puyo. , They were also busy organizing events to both mark the precedent setting legal victory and turn up the heat on the government to abide by the ruling. Unsure to what extent they would be celebrating at the end of the day on July 25th, Sarayaku sent several big buckets of chicha – the traditional fermented alcohol drink made of yucca – by plane, in case there was reason for a party.

In Puyo, Sarayaku – along with Achuar, Shuar, Sapara, and Shiwiar leaders – presided over the inauguration of a new photo exhibit "La Amazonia Que Nos Queda - Verde y Negro, En Contraste" (rough interpretation: The Remaining Forest - Contrasting Green with Black). The exhibit features images of oil destruction in Ecuador's northern Amazon rainforest at the hands of Chevron and PetroAmazonas. These are juxtaposed with photos of Indigenous resistance to new oil extraction plans in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon, along with images of traditional ways of life in the forest and Indigenous efforts to defend their culture and rainforest homelands. The Ecuadorian government is in the midst of auctioning off some 8 million acres of rainforest to new oil development, despite the opposition of seven different nationalities that call this area of roadless, pristine old growth forest home. The 11th Round as it is known, originally included Sarayaku lands. But their resistance and the Court victory forced the government to exclude them from the oil tender.

The exhibit was packed, with people overflowing the steamy room and spilling out onto the streets. The unprecedented turnout may be a sign that Puyo residents – some 40,000 people of mixed Indigenous and settlers – are wary of the fate of the two northern cities that have become a hub of oil activity. Lago Agrio (which translates to 'Sour Lake') and Coca, are two boom cities with high levels of social indicators such as violence, crime, prostitution, and infant mortality among others. They also bear the brunt of frequent oil spills. A June spill left Coca without potable water for three weeks. The two provinces are the poorest in the country, despite producing the majority of Ecuador's oil.

Sarayaku then departed for Quito by bus at 1am, climbing the eastern slopes of the Andes through the night and arriving in the capital by dawn. The group descended on Ecuador's congress building in the morning to the sounds of drumming and traditional flutes, and fifteen community leaders and their legal team entered the building for a press conference. Led by Jose Gualinga, Sarayaku President, and joined by Shuar congressional member Pepe Acacho, Sarayaku hailed their precedent-setting victory and warned the government that time was running out to comply with the verdict. They emphasized that the current crackdown on Indigenous and human rights being carried out by President Rafael Correa's administration would not be tolerated. Acacho recently received a draconian sentence by a local court for alleged 'sabotage and terrorism' for organizing a march via the Shuar radio station in which police forces shot and killed one demonstrator. Correa's government vigorously fought the Sarayaku case, and an attempt to derail and delay the verdict by inviting the Court for a site visit to Sarayaku backfired. Correa has referred to Sarayaku and other Indigenous groups who are fighting new drilling plans "terrorists" and "beggars sitting on a bag of gold".

Sarayaku press conference

The press room was packed with every major outlet in Ecuador. Gualinga opened the press conference and addressed the current political climate in Ecuador for Indigenous peoples. "First and foremost, Indigenous people are not terrorists. We are defenders of life. We categorically denounce the idea that somehow defending our rights makes us terrorists. " He continued, "In 1996 CGC (Compañía General de Combustibles) arrived on our lands without our consultation, our lands were militarized, we were persecuted, we were defamed, and our rights were trampled on... [T]he Ecuador state, the justice system, turned its back on us, and we were forced to seek remedy from the Inter-American system...It has been a year since the Court verdict in our favor, and we're going to celebrate with dignity the historic process of struggle that we have gone through...in recognition of our resistance, and our defense of life, nature, sovereignty, and Indigenous rights."

After getting some much needed rest, Sarayaku took to the Santa Domingo Plaza in the afternoon to perform ritual drumming and dancing. They symbolically chose the site of the historic Indigenous occupation of 1992, which resulted in the awarding of hundreds of thousands of hectares of land titles for Amazonian Indigenous groups. The drummers walked in a circle, while women twirled inside, the sounds reverberating through colonial Quito. "We are from Sarayaku, Kichwa from the Amazon," Jose explained to the crowd and police that had gathered. "We have always defended nature, biodiversity, life, for everyone, not just Sarayaku. For humanity. We're here, celebrating one year since our victory before the Inter-American Court. This act, this ritual we've performed, is fundamental. It's symbolizes sun, it symbolizes the earth. We're here defending life, defending Pachamama, defending human rights, and seeking a sustainable economy for all future generations. !Que Viva Sarayaku!"

Sarayaku celebrating the state's compliance

The following day, word began to trickle in as to the extent of the state's compliance with the sentence. In accordance with the judgment, the government has translated the sentence into Kichwa and Shuar, publicly posted it, and conducted Indigenous and human rights training with military officials. As well, the government has committed to removing the explosives that the CGC oil company had left behind after abandoning its efforts to conduct seismic testing. The schedule and conditions for removing the pentonite will be determined by the community.

But by the start of Sarayaku's premier Ecuador screening of their award winning film Children of the Jaguar at the Hotel Quito in the afternoon, there were several major elements of the sentence that had not been met. The first is a public apology to Sarayaku by the government, in Sarayaku. The community is pushing for the apology to come from President Correa himself, which has become a contentious issue. The second is the payment of damages to Sarayaku for redress and expenses – some $1.38 million USD. And third, is the right to "no repetition" – meaning that Sarayaku should not have to go through similar violation of rights again, nor should their Indigenous neighbors in southern Ecuador threatened by the 11th Oil Round. In fact, the judgment is now law of the land through Organization of American States (OAS) signatory countries, bolstering the rights of all Indigenous peoples in the Americas.

The film screening was followed by a panel discussion on the implications of the Sarayaku v. Ecuador, and the state of Free, Prior, Informed, Consent in other countries in the Americas. After some original songs on guitar by Sarayaku, waiters in suits and ties began to pass around the chicha, which had left Sarayaku days before, in crystal glasses. It was a surreal scene for most of the eighty people from Sarayaku who had never not drank chicha out of traditional ceramic bowls, let alone served by waiters. As people drank, word began to circulate: Sarayaku's accountant had just checked their bank account, and a cool $1,380,000 was just deposited.

While the apology and right to no repetition is still pending, the state's transfer of funds is certainly historic in Ecuador – no government has been forced to hand over that kind of money to an Indigenous group. And it's hard to put a price tag on redress, but the funds are a welcome cathartic step in making the IAHCR decision real. Much to the government's chagrin, the settlement will keep Sarayaku's ongoing defense of its people, culture, and lands well-funded into the future.

Thanks for your ongoing support!

Share & Comment

Related Multimedia


Yes, I will donate to protect the Amazon!

"The work you do is vital, and I am happy to support it."
– Charlotte R. A.


The Amazon Is in Crisis

The survival of the Amazon and its Indigenous inhabitants depends on what we do together now. Every dollar you donate goes directly to our program work, and every little bit helps!