Eye on the Amazon

Sarayaku's "Canoe of Life" Has a Valiant Spirit

The Sarayaku delegation and Amazon Watch staff with the Canoe of Life.

"When a person has a weak spirit, his body arrives first and then his spirit appears later. Maybe you hear a bell ringing minutes after they show up," Franco Viteri told me. "But when someone has a strong spirit, you can feel their presence before they arrive."

The story, related this past Sunday night within a barge along a Paris canal, was a reflection on an Amazonian canoe that was running late. The vessel, built by hand by members of Franco's indigenous community of Sarayaku, had inspired a brilliant action for which it ultimately didn't need to be present for it to all come together.

Rewind a year earlier. Amazon Watch was given marching orders by Paty Gualinga of Sarayaku: Accompany a delegation of community members as they would bring their Canoe of Life from their rainforest territory to the climate summit in Paris. The craft, carved from a single pinchi tree, would imitate the form of the pez colibri. This "hummingbird fish" lives in the depths of Sarayaku's black lagoons along with large anacondas and the supreme spirits of the forest that protect the Living Jungle.

On its face, the idea of hauling a canoe to Paris smacked as impractical, at best. We knew it would require a significant effort and simply might not be logistically possible. Early indications of the canoe's spirit, however – long before it was constructed – began to avail themselves. The proposal captured the imagination and sparked the enthusiasm of everyone who heard it, especially indigenous colleagues of North America. Quickly, the vision expanded to include watercraft of other indigenous peoples, from other regions of the world. The spirit seemed to be insisting that the chilly December waters of Paris would be blessed by a flotilla of indigenous peoples.

Improbably, perhaps somewhat miraculously, the vision of the Canoe of Life has been realized.

Sarayaku delegates rowing the Canoe of Life.

This past Sunday, December 6th, several dozen indigenous rowers took rented canoes and kayaks into the Villette Canal in central Paris, with the message that indigenous rights can't be negotiated away in the UN climate summit (COP21). The colorful armada passed under a pedestrian bridge adorned with large banners reading, "Living Forest – Indigenous Territories Free from Oil" and "Defend the Sacred, Protect the Water."

Following the action – which brought smiles to the faces of the rowers and cheers from the crowd gathered on the banks – indigenous spokespeople laid out visions for real solutions to the climate crisis faced by all humanity. A packed press conference featured the words of six leaders from Ecuador, Brazil, and the United States. Many other indigenous activists were interviewed one-on-one by the press immediately thereafter. The multiplicity of powerful voices – women and men, from so many different peoples – was remarkable.

Franco Viteri with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!Through an exemplary communications team with the Indigenous Environmental Network, many of those insights were made available immediately through their social media and the IndigenousRising.org website. On short order, extensive coverage – like this excellent report by Democracy Now! – began to appear through a number of outlets, some more well known than others. The inspirational day helped send a message to the COP21, while strengthening connections between the participants.

But the story was not over. Though it was unable to participate in the action, Sarayaku's Canoe of Life was then en route to Paris. Its departure from Ecuador had been delayed by a plane malfunction and overzealous scrutiny and red tape from Quito customs. We spent most of the following day (Monday) arranging the logistics of the canoe's arrival and actually receiving it into the same canal where we did the flotilla. After so many delays and deceptions, we were overjoyed to lay eyes for the first time on the canoe.

Today has been a whirlwind. The day started before dawn, when Sarayaku's delegation of 10 converged on the canal once again to properly welcome the canoe. They were joined for a sunrise ceremony by the Lummi youth delegation from the U.S.' Pacific Northwest region and a scrum of media cameras. The ceremony involved rhythmic drumming by the men, dancing by the women, and the canoe's inaugural voyage through the waters of Europe. Following more media interviews, the canoe was loaded onto a large truck and hauled off to the Climate Generations space within the COP21 climate summit.

The Canoe of Life in the Indigenous People's Pavilion.

The Canoe of Life's final destination (at least for now!) is now the Indigenous People's Pavilion, a special space within the climate summit to systematically highlight the lives, struggles, and voices of indigenous peoples. Its entry caused a sensation and it will certainly contribute to the high profile Sarayaku has achieved through many presentations, media coverage, and the intrinsic charisma of the canoe, which has been described as the eleventh member of the delegation.

For months Sarayaku – with our help – has been planning the canoe's journey to Paris. In the end, the canoe had its own plans. And, I'm realizing, the canoe's ultimate trajectory might well have been more wise than what we had laid out. The Canoe of Life's spirit continues to reveal itself.

You can support this important delegation directly and become an advocate by starting your own fundraiser on its behalf.
Stay tuned as we journey through COP21 activities, join us if you're in Paris!

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