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Sarayaku’s Fight for the Survival of Their Culture

Keeping land free of big scale oil companies is the fight, the indgenous community Kichwa Sarayaku (Tayjasaruta) has maintained since the 1990s. That fight reached a final hearing before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in San Jose, Costa Rica in July.

Now, the Sarayaku people – located in the Amazon rainforest of south-central Ecuador – expect the definitive closure of the possibility for new companies to explore and exploit these lands that are linked to the community not just in a physical but in a spiritual way.

"This was the opportunity for the Sarayaku to present their arguments and to compare their views with the ones of the State," said attorney Mario Melo from Fundación Pachamama, who is handling the case along with attorneys from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL).

The history of non-previous consultation

This story started in 1996 when, according to CEJIL, Ecuador illegally signed a concession with argentine oil company Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC) for drilling and exploring in indigenous territory. “The Sarayaku community was not consulted, even though it was granted legal ownership of its land in 1992. Additionally, no studies to evaluate the social and environmental impact of exploring and drilling in the area were carried out.”

At the end of 2002 and early 2003, members of the Ecuadorean armed forces and company workers forced their entry in to the territory to undertake seismic testing activities in search of oil. The company forged trails, introduced 1,400 kilograms of explosives in an area covering 16,000 hectares (39,537 acres) and deforested large areas, including sacred trees and plants of high cultural value for the Sarayaku community. In the process, Sarayaku leaders were threatened and harassed for defending their territory.

Since then, members of the community have tried to talk with both national and international authorities. In 2009, the Washington based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made recommendations to Ecuador to ensure the life and physical integrity of the community’s inhabitants, but, according to their lawyers, Ecuador has not complied with the recommendations. In addition, Ecuador has not implemented the protection measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights related to the explosives left in their land.

Melo explained to Indian Country Today Media Network that in 2009 Ecuador began to withdraw the explosives, but barely managed to remove 14 kilograms of the 1,400 that were left there, so the community is confined to 16,000 hectares (39,537 acres) – the Sarayaku territory has 130,000 hectares (321,237 acres).

That is why, during the last hearing in July the victims asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to determine Ecuador’s responsibility for the violation of the Sarayaku people’s human rights. The victims’ lawyers also asked that Ecuador adopt reparations for the damages caused, as well as measures to ensure that this type of violation is not repeated.

Impacts on the spiritual life

The Sarayaku use the land for their traditional activities such as hunting, fishing and fruit collecting, but the territory is also important for their spiritual life, as they believe there are sacred beings living in the forest and helping to keep it in harmony.

“We are determined to protect our territory from destruction. We are a community of only 1,200 people but I know that in each of our hearts there is a fighting spirit,” said José Gualinga, the community president during the hearing.

In an interview with ICTMN, Gualinga explained that according to the spiritual leaders the explosions produced during the seismic testing activities in 2002 and 2003, made half of the sacred beings from this forest disappear and this affected the ability of the spiritual leaders to communicate with nature in order to keep the harmony and cure the members of the community from the different illnesses. “Explosives interfere with the order of nature. They affect us internally and interrupt our communication with nature. This has terrible consequences on our community,” he said.

The Sarayaku believe, for example, that the emergence of diseases that were nonexistent to them before, such as hepatitis B, is caused by the imbalance created by the absence of those spiritual beings. They also believe that the absence of herds of wild boar that used to come to their territory in certain seasons is related to the fact that spiritual leaders can no longer communicate with nature and so they cannot call them.

They believe that if new oil companies enter their territory, spiritual beings will completely disappear and so will their culture.

The Ministry of Natural non-Renewable Resources recently announced that in the coming months a tender for new oil blocks in the south-central areas of the country will open, including parts of the Sarayaku territory—keeping the threats active. Therefore, the expectations of the community depend on the Court’s final verdict about the possibility or not to do large-scale extractive projects in their area. The sentence is expected for the end of the year.