Ecuador's next Amazon oil battle: Indigenous Peoples on the front line

Never again! Texaco-Chevron's toxic oil legacy at Lago Agrio in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest. Photo: Julien Gomba via Flickr (CC BY).
Never again! Texaco-Chevron's toxic oil legacy at Lago Agrio in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest. Photo: Julien Gomba via Flickr (CC BY).
The rights of nature and of indigenous communities are enshrined in Ecuador's constitution, writes Kevin Koenig. But down in the Amazon the government is going full speed ahead with oil extraction on indigenous territories whose owners are committed to keeping their forests and waters pollution-free. A mighty battle is brewing that looks certain to come to a head this year.
Our forest is full of spirits that maintain the balance of life in the forest. If we do not listen to them, the balance of life will be altered and we will not survive. We have to maintain this spiritual space that guards the world's natural functions.

Several hours down the fast-moving Bobonaza River, churning brown with sediment and swollen from recent rains, our dugout canoe careened around the bend, forest on each side, and came upon a bridge spanning the river.

Kids were strewn across it, jumping into the water, in an afternoon post-school ritual.

We had arrived in Sarayaku, the pillar of resistance to resource extraction in Ecuador's Amazon, thorn in the side of the oil-hungry administration of President Rafael Correa, and home of Kichwa indigenous people named for the husks of corn that would float down the rivers throughout their ancestral homeland.

Accompanied by our Executive Director Leila Salazar-López and others, we journeyed into Sarayaku and the remote mountainous rainforest territory of the Sápara to hear firsthand from leaders and community members about the Ecuadorian government's aggressive push to open up their lands to new oil drilling.

As I write this article, the Ecuadorian government has just announced that it began drilling the controversial ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) oil field in Yasuní National Park. It hopes that the first oil will be produced by the end of 2016.

The well platform, known as Tiputini C, is on the border of the park, while the rest of the field and Block 43 concession overlaps what is widely understood as one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and home to indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation.

With freshly-inked oil contracts with Chinese state-run Andes Petroleum for two blocks covering a majority of Sápara territory and an important swath of Sarayaku lands and plans to auction off several more oil concessions in late 2016, the fate of the people and forests of Ecuador's southern Amazon hang in the balance.

We are defending Mother Earth

The next day, Gerardo Gualinga led us further downriver. Known as Charapa, a small but strong species of turtle from the region, Gerardo is a member of the WIO, Sarayaku's traditional security patrol named for a fierce jungle ant that has been critical in monitoring attempts by the government, military, and oil companies to enter their territory illegally.

He is also the son of Sarayaku's most renowned medicine man, Don Sabino. We pulled off the river, tied up the canoe, and after a short walk through the forest, Gerardo brought us to a towering ceibo tree, teaming with life. Gerardo explained the importance of these sacred giants:

"For us, the conservation of nature, of Mother Earth, is very important. Here we have a great sacred tree. If you visualized, in the vision of Ayahuasca, it's like a great city, like a house. Here are the sacred spirits. So we conserve that. We respect it very much. The new threats that the government is pushing will destroy this. This is what we're defending here. Mother Earth."

Returning to Sarayaku, we turned into a small tributary, where the brown turbulent water slowly turned a crystal clear turquoise, gurgling over perfectly rounded stones and smooth pebbles - a perfect swimming hole. And an ever better place to find lunch.

Our forest is full of spirits that maintain the balance of life in the forest. If we do not listen to them, the balance of life will be altered and we will not survive. We have to maintain this spiritual space that guards the world's natural functions.

Several disoriented fish floated by, still inebriated and slow from the barbasco root being used upstream by families fishing, which makes for an easy catch in shallow water. Families walked by with an impressive haul of a variety of species of fish - and baskets full of harvest from their chackras - yucca, plantains, and papa china.

But these are more than just idyllic, postcard scenes. They are the rituals of daily life in the forest. They're the physical and spiritual sustenance of indigenous peoples like Sarayaku and the Sápara. Tragically, however, they are few and far between further north, where some fifty years of oil extraction at the hands of Chevron, PetroAmazonas, Repsol, and others has ravaged the forests and cultures of Sarayaku's indigenous northern neighbors.

"In the rainforest, everything is possible", explained Gerardo. "Here are our pharmacies. Here are our libraries. Here is our treasure, our life. Not only for us, for the entire world. So our future generations, your children, your children's children, can live and breathe clean air."

We heard similar sentiments from the Sápara over several days with women, men, youth and elders in the community of Llanchama.

In the place where the spirits dwell

Our three-passenger Cessna slammed down on a dicey airstrip filled with weeds and rocks, stopping just short of a palm frond abyss. Surrounded by mountains, it was hard to grasp that this was the Amazon Basin. Steep ravines, cloud vapor clinging to treetops, rocky rivers: the topography is stunning and unexpected.

The Sápara are only 575 people, and they were often lumped in with the Kichwa, Shiwiar, or Waorani nationalities. Encroachment on their territory and inter-marrying among neighboring nationalities has left the Sápara culture at risk. Only a handful of elders speak fluent Sápara, and their traditions and customs as a people are eroding. After forming their first political federation in 1999, they gained recognition from UNESCO for their unique and vulnerable language and culture the same year.

Gloria Ushigua leads us through the forest, slashing her machete as needed. Every plant has a name, a use, or a reason to avoid touching it. There's what roughly translates as the 'Fart Plant', which you can drink as a tea to relieve gas, a sweet cane plant, and ants that taste like lemon.

She shushes us as we approach a dark, apparently bottomless cave off to the side of the trail. "This is where the spirits dwell", we are told. The Sápara make it a point to not be passing by here as evening approaches, as that is the time spirits are most active. Her brother Manari, current President of the Sápara federation suddenly and firmly grabs my ankle around my rubber boots. "Like this. This is how they can grab you."

Gloria has been the most outspoken and fierce defender of her people and lands, unwavering whether confronting government representatives, oil executives, or false climate change solution schemes like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) that offset northern contamination with alleged forest protection in the south using carbon markets yet strip communities near refineries and frontline forest peoples of rights and environmental equity.

Not surprisingly, she has become a repeated target of her powerful adversaries. Gloria has been detained at Ecuadorian immigration after traveling and speaking abroad, threatened after marches and press conferences, and attacked with tear gas inside her other house in the jungle town of Puyo.

An adamant opposition to extractive industries

In Llanchama, everything is moving. Everything is singing. Everything is growing. The unique call of the Oropendula and their hanging nests, flocks of parrots and toucans screeching overhead. The evening cacophony of insects and frogs. Over candlelight, people swapped jaguar stories - both sightings and the significance of the jungle's most powerful teachers and feared predators.

What we heard repeatedly from everyone we talked to was an adamant opposition to oil and other natural resource extraction, the failure of the government to properly consult them, and that they will die defending their lives, land, and cultures.

But we also heard frequently about the collective conscious of the forest itself, and the inseparable relationship between between the forest, spirit, and people. "The oil is underground, and that's where the spirits are", says Sápara leader Manari Ushigua. "If we extract the petroleum, a hole is left and the spirits are weakened. If we kill these spirits, we are killing ourselves."

"Our forest is full of spirits. These spirits maintain the balance of life in the forest. We must listen to them to defend the forest. If we do not, the balance of life will be altered and we will not survive. In the Sápara vision, we have to maintain this spiritual space that guards the natural functions of the world, not only for the Sápara but for the whole world. When we talk about petroleum, we are talking about ourselves. If we use the oil, we are damaging ourselves and all of nature."

One would think that in a country that was the first to include the Rights of Nature and includes the indigenous concept of Sumak Kawsay - or 'good living' - in its constitution, that peoples and places like the Sápara and Sarayaku would be iconic symbols of a country that respects rights, the environment, and its plurinational indigenous cultures.

However, the government's Amazonian drilling policies, driven by some $15.2 billion in oil-backed loans from China, are driving a new desperate drilling gambit.

There is nothing 'revolutionary' in drilling your way to prosperity

The administration of President Rafael Correa and his 'Citizens' Revolution' and '21st Century Socialism' portray the drilling plans as an essential part of a national poverty alleviation policy. Ecuador has reduced poverty under Correa's watch, but as Nina Gualinga, a youth organizer from Sarayaku, observes, "Poverty reduction can't come at the cost of rights violations of the country's Amazonian indigenous peoples."

It seems little has been learned since the early days of Ecuador's first oil boom, when the country pinned its high hopes on Texaco to bring the country out of poverty. Half a century later, Ecuador is still caught in the boom and bust cycles of commodity dependence, a classic symptom of the resource curse that has trapped so many countries.

There is nothing revolutionary about trying to drill your way to prosperity, particularly if you have to borrow from China to do it, and pay the piper in black gold. But Ecuador seems intent on continuing down the same road at any cost.

Make no mistake: it's time to sound the alarm. The fate of Ecuador's remaining rainforests are being decided as you read this. And with an estimated 60% of Ecuador's dirty Amazon crude going to California, it's time to take action and join the Sápara, Sarayaku, and the other indigenous peoples in Ecuador's southern Amazon whose lands are on the chopping block.

We must all work to #keepitintheground!



Action: 'Stand with the Sápara People to Reject This Sham Contract and Defend Their Territory Against Oil Exploration'.

Twitter: #keepitintheground

Also on The Ecologist: 'Ecocide in the Amazon - Chevron evades $9.5bn restitution order' by Orlan Cazorla & Miriam Gartor

This article was originally published by Amazon Watch.

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