Eye on the Amazon

Uyantza Raymi and the People of the Zenith

Photos by Romina Luna

Observing the mountains on a sunny afternoon in the Amazon, my home, I began to reflect on the past few months I have spent on the road as an active voice advocating for the defence of indigenous territories, our rights and the rights of the future generations who have an inherent right to live in a healthy world. We all do.

Looking back at all those meetings, rallies and encounters there is one thing most people agreed upon – that we all need this planet to live. But is anyone really trying to do anything to keep our planet safe? Governments keep on talking and creating new initiatives, saving the planet on paper, but what we really need is for something to be done now, in real time, that can save us from the damage we ourselves have caused – all of us. This issue is not the responsibility of the indigenous people alone, but every human being that breathes and lives on Earth.

I recently visited the Sarayaku community, a people well known for their tenacity and struggle to resist oil development in their territory. Less than three years ago the "People of the Zenith" as they recall themselves won a case in front of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IAHCR), which ruled that the Ecuadorian government should have obtained the consent of the native people when it permitted oil drilling on their territory. We all remembered this as Sarayaku celebrated the Uyantza Raymi festivities, reminding local and foreign visitors of the importance of traditional practices. The ceremonies are the essence of life, given in gratitude to the Kawsak Sacha ("Living Forest"), they establish a connection that grounds us to the earth and connects us to life.

The Uyantza Raymi festival happens every two years. Four community members are chosen to become Yachukkuna – festival leaders – and are given responsibility for planning this important event. The Yachukkuna lead preparations for four household celebrations: lanza, warmi wawa, kari wawa and rusariu mama. Each family prepares chicha, a fermented cassava drink, to welcome visitors and family members who have ventured into the forest for 12 days to bring home food for the celebrations.

Five important ceremonial activities mark the festivities over 15 days. In the first of these, Yantankichu or Minga de leña, all community members are called upon to support preparations of the festivities, such as collecting yucca from the family chakras (gardens) and firewood from the surrounding forest. The second is Ringuichu, where some 200 courageous men are sent deep into the Amazon, far from their families, for 12 days to demonstrate their ability to survive in the jungle and "become one with the Living Forest." In the third ceremony, Shamunkichu, the men return to the village. They arrive on the Bobonaza river, accompanied by the sound of shouts and beating drums and their canoes full of animals that await blessings from "Amazanga" – the "Protector of the Animals." Fourth is Sisa Kamari, a day when all community members collect flowers and palms to adorn the village center. Men and women walk around the four household celebrations to the sound of the drums while drinking chicha and pouring it on each other as a sign of the abundance the Living Forest has afforded them. This is also the day when villagers elect the next Yachukkuna, who will be responsible for the celebrations in two years time. The final ceremony, Kamari, is the day of the great feast, where all community members and visitors are invited to treat themselves to the delicacies brought by the men from the forest. The Ayudantes, as the men who went to the forest are known, walk in circles playing the drums while the women dance at the sound of the beat.

Sarayaku is an inspiring model of strength and resilience that gives hope for other indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon who continue to fight a long-running battle over Ecuador’s natural resources. We know that at least two thirds of all known reserves of fossil fuels must not be extracted. But instead of mandating reserves that should be kept in the ground in the earth’s last remaining wild places like the Amazon, industry and governments are scouring the earth for more. The search has pushed forward, powered by corporate interests and greed, into the most treasured places on the planet such as the headwaters of the Amazon, the Arctic and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. In Ecuador alone there are 16 new oil blocks poised to be auctioned off to the highest bidder at any time. This would bring upon the destruction of some ten million acres and the lives of seven indigenous nations: the Andoa, Achuar, Kichwa, Sapara, Shiwiar, Shuar and Waorani who live throughout the sacred headwaters of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

While last in Sarayaku I spoke with Franco Viteri, Sarayaku resident and President of the Indigenous Confederation of Ecuador (CONFENIAE). He told me, referring to the government and oil companies threatening the existence of life in the Amazon, "We just want them out of our territory, we are not even asking them for money, we want them to leave us alone."

On a personal level, being in Sarayaku territory reminds me that the way to live in harmony with the planet is by replicating the way indigenous nations have been living for thousands of years. At the core is finding that connection that grounds us to the earth and connects us to life. We may not always be the ones directly causing destruction to the planet, but we are the ones at the forefront of the world’s greatest modern challenges – like climate change – the people whose lives depend on avoiding imminent impacts.

Last December while in Lima for the UNFCCC COP20 events with Amazon Watch, fellow indigenous partners, grassroots organizations and, of course, government representatives who were slated to reach binding agreements on climate change. In the end, no concrete resolutions that fully integrate the indigenous perspective were made, only those of governments and corporate lobbyists were truly prioritized and moved forward. As we head down the road to Paris COP21, we must seek comprehensive agreements that include indigenous perspectives and meaningful indigenous participation.

Back in Sarayaku, Zenaida Yazacama, President of the Kichwa Pacayaku community (located in the south-central Ecuadorian Amazon next to Sarayaku) confidently posed the question: "How can we talk about preventing climate change if we are drilling in the very heart of the Amazon for more oil?"

Is it not blatantly obvious that governments should prioritize this in the battle to tackle the current climate crisis?

My generation will be remembered for the things that we do in order to avoid a global catastrophe. WE are the ones who must make the call to Keep the Oil In the Ground, starting in my home and the most magical, wild place I know – the Amazon rainforest.


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