Sarayaku: People of the Zenith
"When others have surrendered, Sarayaku will not back down."
Deep in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest live the Kichwa people of Sarayaku. Their name means "pueblo del medio dia," or the People of the Zenith, after the time when the sun reaches its highest point above their forestlands. As in other parts of the Amazon, in 1996 the Ecuadorian government imposed oil concession blocks in Sarayaku territory without permission of the 1,200 people who live there. The Sarayaku people only learned that their land had been opened for oil exploration when the helicopters arrived, followed by men with guns.
But instead of becoming another story of pollution and devastation, the story of Sarayaku has been one of resistance. Managing to beat back oil drilling plans on their lands, the Sarayaku people have come to symbolize indigenous resistance against oil, logging, and mining throughout the Amazon.
2012 was a year of groundbreaking victories for the people of Sarayaku. In April the government of Ecuador acknowledged responsibility for illegally licensing an oil company to do business on indigenous territory without the community's consent. Then in July the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruled that the government must consult with indigenous communities prior to such enterprises and pay for physical and "moral" damages to the community. In September, Children of the Jaguar, a documentary film about the Sarayaku people's struggle to protect their land, won Best Documentary at the National Geographic All Roads Film Festival.
These victories stem from the concerted efforts of the people of Sarayaku to build a network of national and international allies and to employ international human rights instruments in their defense. They have used media to promote their struggle across the globe, and have never succumbed to intimidation, political pressure, or fatigue. The IACHR verdict is a major step forward in the safeguarding of indigenous rights—particularly the right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) in development decisions that affect their territory—and sets a precedent for cases around the world in which the indigenous peoples struggle to defend their territories and rights.
The fight is not over for the people of Sarayaku. More than two months after the IACHR decision, the government of Ecuador has yet to comply with the ruling, which requires the payment of $90,000 for material damages and $1,250,000 for moral damages, and the removal of more than 1 ton of dynamite still buried on community lands. In addition, Sarayaku is threatened by the Ecuadorian government's auction of 21 new oil blocks in the XI oil licensing round. Block 74, whose auction has been postponed until 2013, contains all of Sarayaku territory.
For the past decade, Amazon Watch has joined the people of Sarayaku – along with other organizations like Fundación Pachamama, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and Amnesty International – in their effort to assert their rights and prevent oil development on their ancestral lands. Our strategic support has included helping the Sarayaku people confront the U.S.-based oil company ConocoPhillips, facilitating meetings with policymakers in Washington, D.C., and promoting international media coverage of their case.
The Kichwa people of Sarayaku won two major victories this year: in April, for the first time in their history, the government acknowledged responsibility for illegally licensing an oil company to do business on indigenous territory without the community's consent; and in July the ICHR ruled that the government must consult with indigenous communities prior to such enterprises and pay for physical and ‘moral' damages to the community.
"We weren't expecting this award – it came as a surprise. Being chosen from among hundreds of films is a great honour," said Sarayaku filmmaker Eriberto Gualinga, who received the award on behalf of his community in Washington DC.
On the heels of their victory before the Inter-American Human Rights Court of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Kichwa of Sarayaku held a major celebration over the weekend on their rainforest lands.
Statement of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Ecuador on the Historic Day of Celebration in Sarayaku Regarding the Sentence of the Inter-American Human Rights CourtAugust 15, 2012
We, as the legitimate authorities and governors of our territories, reaffirm the full exercise of our constitutional collective rights that guarantee the continuity of our identity and the territorial life spaces of the Selva Viviente (Living Jungle).
Governments across the Americas are putting profit before the physical and cultural survival of thousands of Indigenous peoples, said Amnesty International in a briefing paper published ahead of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples.
Amazon Watch has been proud to accompany the Kichwa indigenous people of Sarayaku. In the wake of the historic sentence coming forth from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, our colleagues in Sarayaku issued the following expression of appreciation for all the solidarity they have felt over the years.
Inter-American Human Rights Court finds Ecuadorean govt guilty of violating physical and cultural wellbeing of the Sarayaku peopleJuly 31, 2012Earth Island Journal
"When I heard about the court's decision, I cried," said Cristina Gualinga. "I thought, 'After fighting for so long, after 30 years of invasions, the companies are finally going to leave us alone'."
Mario Melo, lawyer of the Kichwa people of Sarayaku shares some initial reflectionsJuly 27, 2012
After almost a decade of litigation, the international justice system has ruled in favor of an indigenous nation whose territory, life and culture were threatened by an oil project imposed on them by the state.
A ruling on an oil project reasserts the indigenous' right to consultationJuly 28, 2012The Economist
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Ecuador's government had ignored the rights of Sarayaku's residents when granting permission for an energy project – putting governments in the Americas on notice that big physical investments are not legal until the indigenous people they affect have had their say.
A regional human rights court has come down in favour of the Sarayaku Indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon in what Amnesty International has called a key victory for Indigenous Peoples.
Continent-wide Implications as Inter-American Court Finds Ecuador Government Guilty of Rights Violations in the Sarayaku CaseJuly 26, 2012
Quito, Ecuador – The Inter-American Court has issued an unequivocal sentence in favor of the Kichwa indigenous community of Sarayaku, culminating an 8-year process that establishes new guidelines on the right to consultation of indigenous peoples.
Top judges of the Inter-American Human Rights Court visited the Kichwa indigenous community of Sarayaku to investigate their long-running case against the Ecuadorian government over rights abuses.
Ecuador improperly handled relations with the indigenous community of Sarayaku a decade ago in a dispute over oil exploration, president Rafael Correa said Tuesday in a meeting with the head of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is hearing a case against the country about the issue.
As demand for natural resources impacts Latin America's indigenous groups we ask if their interests will ever be on topMarch 2, 2012Al Jazeera
A discussion with Peter Hakim, the former president of the Inter-American Dialogue; Kevin Koenig, the Ecuador program coordinator for Amazon Watch; and Greg Palast, an investigative reporter and author.
The Sarayaku are a native people who live in several villages along a stretch of the Bobonaza river in the province of Pastaza in the southern part of the Ecuadorean Amazon. They number about one to two thousand and lead a frugal, self-contained life that has changed little in the last 100 years. But all that is now being threatened. The threat is oil. Lots of it. And, unfortunately for them, it sits right under their ancestral lands.
Sarayaku at the Inter-American Court in Costa RicaJuly 11, 2011
Last decade, the Ecuadorian government made the mistake of trying to force oil exploration on the Kichwa, without any prior consultation. In this case, however, they didn't anticipate the community's fierce and dogged resistance.
The Kichwa of Sarayaku explain their trip to the Inter-American Human Rights Court in Costa Rica in their own words.
In a packed press room in Ecuador's National Congress building yesterday, leaders of Sarayaku brought their calls for justice to the country's capital en route to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.