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.


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