The New Amazon

Photograph | Claus Meyer/Minden Pictures

WHEN THE OIL WORKERS and soldiers arrived at their borders in December of 2002, the people of Sarayacu were ready. They had built twenty-five “Peace and Life” camps spaced evenly along the boundaries of their territory deep within Ecuador’s southern Amazon. Each camp held ten to fifteen people. When a work crew tried to enter Sarayacu land, members of the nearest camp formed a wall, holding the workers back by brandishing traditional chonta (palmwood) lances. Elsewhere, scouts detected four armed soldiers and radioed their location. The soldiers were met at the Bobonaza River by a cluster of enraged Sarayacu women. Their faces coated with traditional black wituk dye, their lances held upright, the women folded about the men as with one body. The outnumbered soldiers chose to surrender.

The women led their captives back to a village, where they requested the soldiers’ arms, sat them down, and spoke to them about the sanctity of the Amazon. They explained that the Sarayacu people are connected to the land, that it has held and supported them and their ancestors, that it is alive, that it must be treated with respect, and that oil drilling is an unacceptable violation. Then the women returned the soldiers’ guns, each one making an individual statement, a message of hope, as she handed back a weapon. Thus schooled, the soldiers were released.

Sarayacu member Rebecca Gualinga talks about proposed oil exploration in 2002.
Photograph | Sacramento Bee/Jose M. Osorio

This incident, memorialized in a video made by Heriberto Gualinga, has become a talisman for the Sarayacu and their allies, a shard of proof of what one determined community can accomplish in the face of some of the most powerful transnational corporations in the world — companies aided by the armed forces of a national government.

The oil workers were attempting to enter Sarayacu land at the behest of Compania General de Combustibles (CGC), an Argentine-based corporation that had won a government-auctioned concession in 1996 to explore the territory for oil. The concession, known as Block 23, covered a 494,200-acre quadrangle of dense tropical rainforest abutting the Peruvian border in south-central Ecuador. About half of the concession falls within the boundaries of Sarayacu.

The Sarayacu (the territory and its people have the same name) number about two thousand strong. They are among the tribes of the Quichua, one of five indigenous groups occupying Ecuador’s remote southern Amazon. Other indigenous communities within two of the groups, the Achuar and Shuar, have employed tactics such as civil disobedience to prevent oil exploration companies from entering their territory. So have the Huarani in northern Ecuador. But no indigenous community in Ecuador has succeeded like the Sarayacu at protecting their land from petroleum development. After years of attempts, oil companies have managed not even one unharassed visit on Sarayacu land. The resistance has combined the raw territorial vigilance captured in the video; sophisticated work with supportive nonprofit groups; and savvy intertribal organizing, making the region a critical battleground for the Ecuadorean government.
Both south and east of Sarayacu — all the way to Ecuador’s borders — indigenous territory has been blocked out for oil exploration in the southern Amazon. “The Sarayacu are the tipping point to the future of1 Ecuador’s forest and indigenous people,” says Kevin Koenig, Amazon Oil Campaign Coordinator at the California-based nonprofit Amazon Watch, which has worked with the Sarayacu for the past two years. “They are the gateway to the rest of the Amazon.”

The Ecuadorean government has developed a severe dependence on oil exports. Dominated by sales to American consumers — in 2001, 40 percent of the oil exported from Ecuador went to the U.S. — petroleum accounts for nearly half of Ecuador’s national budget income. Yet 70 to 80 percent of oil revenue goes directly to servicing the interest on Ecuador’s fourteen-billion-dollar debt. In thirty-five years of oil development, the debt has only increased, as has the nation’s poverty rate: from 47 percent of the population in 1967 to 70 percent in 2000.

International creditors, viewing the country’s oil reserves as assets to be liquidated, refuse to forgive Ecuador’s debt. The International Monetary Fund in particular is pressing Ecuador to open the southern Amazon to development so that the country may continue making interest payments and receiving loans. “Petroleum is at the heart of all the social and environmental crises here,” says Esperanza Martinez, founder of the Ecuadorean NGO Acción Ecológica. Government officials insist that oil exploration will bring “development” to people of the forest, but the Sarayacu aren’t buying it. They’ve seen the future the oil industry brings, and they don’t want it.

Ecuadorean national police at the courthouse where indigenous people sued ChevronTexaco.
Photograph | Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

THE SARAYACU could characterize the common threat in one name: ChevronTexaco. Under predecessor Texaco’s control from 1971 until 1991, and then under Ecuador’s state oil company, petroleum operations in Block 1 have devastated indigenous peoples to the north of Sarayacu. Eighteen thousand miles of seismic trails (cut to set explosives every hundred yards to sound for oil), 300 miles of roads, 339 wells, and 600 toxic waste pits have left a terrible legacy. Indigenous communities are suffering from disappearing game, damaged soil, spontaneous abortion, neurological disorders, and exceptionally high rates of cancer, along with prostitution, alcoholism, and displacement. “People in Block 1 are sick,” says Luis Yanza, of Ecuadorean nonprofit Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia, which is coordinating a historic $1.5 billion class-action lawsuit against ChevronTexaco. “They are still drinking contaminated water. Their animals are dying. They cannot cultivate the land.”

The Ecuadorean NGOs Acción Ecológica and the Centro de Derechos Economicos y Sociales have arranged for leaders from the affected regions to visit communities like Sarayacu to discuss the impacts of oil exploitation — and how oil companies have hidden them. They have also organized cultural exchanges. “The Sarayacu can get on a bus, head eight hours to the north, and see one of the worst oil disasters in the hemisphere,” Koenig says about Block 1. “And it happened to their indigenous brothers and sisters in territory exactly like theirs.”

Before we fly into Sarayacu, reachable only by plane, boat, or radio, Mario and I meet in the Sarayacu’s office in Puyo, the nearest city. This office, the hub of their outreach campaign, holds two desks, one laptop and one desktop computer, one fax machine, one printer. Its walls are decorated with posters decrying oil exploitation. One of them reads, “Our land is our future.” Mario himself is small, with a long ponytail and a wide smile. He holds himself with exceptional dignity and composure. “We are warrior people,” he tells me. “Our strategy has been threefold. One level is international, the second is within Ecuador, and the third is on the front lines of Sarayacu.”

When the Sarayacu decided to guard their territorial borders, they contacted Amazon Watch with concerns about the danger of violence; Amazon Watch sent them digital cameras to record the resistance and any potential abuse on the part of workers, plus solar panels to charge cameras and radios. Amazon Watch, in turn, uses the Sarayacu’s materials, including video documentation, to pressure Texas-based Burlington Resources Inc., which holds a 25 percent share of Block 23. (Paris-based Perenco holds the remaining 25 percent.)

Huarani indians wait to march to the Lago Agrio courthouse in 2003.
Photograph | Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

The Sarayacu are also media savvy. “They have done a great job of creating spaces where their message can get heard,” says Koenig, noting the tribe’s role in a successful press conference to publicize the 2003 intertribal alliance. “The Sarayacu were the ones with the press list, writing up the release, calling the reporters.”

The tribe has also pursued their campaign in the global arena. In March 2004, Sarayacu President Marlon Santi presented their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington D.C. After Ecuador’s government representative didn’t show up, the case went to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. On July 6, the court provisionally found in favor of the Sarayacu. On the same day, Ecuadorean Minister of Energy and Mining Eduardo Lopez announced a “total opening” of Ecuador’s southern Amazon to oil exploitation, and called organizations that oppose this opening “undesirable.”

The Sarayacu’s resistance to oil exploitation dates to 1989, when it used civil disobedience to prevent ARCO from completing a drilling project in Block 10, part of Sarayacu territory. That opposition prompted the 1989 Sarayacu Accord, which called for a halt to those oil operations until environmental measures were enacted, and promised the tribes communal title to all indigenous land in Pastaza.

The government renounced the agreement the following year. And so in 1990 the Sarayacu, along with tens of thousands of others, marched in the first of several massive peaceful uprisings in Ecuador held through the early 1990s. In 1992, President Rodrigo Borja bowed to the protests, this time granting actual title deeds to the Achuar, Shuar, Shiwiar and Quichua for approximately 70 percent of the Pastaza province — three million acres of land.

But Ecuador’s constitution retains the old Spanish principle that while the land belongs to the people living on it, the resources underground still belong to the state. In 1996, without consulting the Sarayacu, Ecuador auctioned off a number of land holdings for oil exploitation, and CGC bought one of them, Block 23, later selling shares to Burlington and Perenco. “They never filed an environmental impact report,” says Santi, noting that the constitution requires that CGC file such a report on the seismic testing it tried to conduct in 2002. “They broke the law.”

Because of political resistance in Pastaza, the CGC did not enter Block 23 between 1996 and 2000. But in a standard tactic employed by oil companies in Amazonia, it did attempt to buy the support of individuals within the native community. “They wanted to give me money because I am a leader,” says Medardo Santi, the Kuraka — traditional head — of Calicali, one of the five community centers that comprise Sarayacu. “I said, if I take money from you, it would kill my family.” Stymied in their divide-and-conquer tactics, the CGC offered the entire Sarayacu community $60,000 in a bid to gain community consent. The Sarayacu said no.

The company’s legal right to conduct seismic exploration expired in 2000. Nevertheless, in 2002, the CGC announced that it would be sending its workers into Sarayacu territory with armed escorts. That’s when the tribe decided to establish the Peace and Life camps, and the hard work began: cutting paths through the thick jungle foliage to mark borders, hefting huge supply sacks to the border, setting up the camps, taking fifteen-day shifts at the border for every two days’ rest at Sarayacu Center, the largest of Sarayacu’s five villages. Those not on the border stayed in the Center coordinating this resistance, or in Puyo organizing a global campaign. Every tribal member aged ten years and older participated in the campaign, occasionally with painful consequences.

“I went with the students in early 2003 to defend our land, and our natural resources,” says Maria Machoa, a teacher at the high school in Sarayacu Center. “I had to leave my little girl [with elderly caregivers]. She was sick, but we needed more people, so I went. When I returned,” she says, her voice low and rough, “she only lived another couple of hours more.” I ask her if she will return to the borders if the company tries to re-enter. “Yes, of course,” she replies quickly. “As if I’m not angry enough with those petroleros.”

U.S. lawyer Steven Donziger with some of his clients.
Photograph | Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

Since the December 2002 confrontation between the soldiers and the chonta-wielding women, the CGC has not returned. After eight years of attempting to enter Block 23, and an investment to date of ten million dollars, the CGC has gotten nowhere, and the other oil companies have fared no better.

But the standoff in 2002 has only raised the stakes. In March of 2003, the Ecuadorean government extended the CGC’s contract in Block 23 in response to the indigenous defense. In February 2004, then-Minister of Energy Carlos Arboleda stated that the government “is prepared to provide all security guarantees to the CGC so that it can continue operations in Block 23.” Should the CGC and military again attempt to enter Sarayacu territory, the community would immediately return to a state of emergency, re-mobilizing the twenty-five Peace and Life camps — this time with about one hundred fifty people each, incorporating new allies. “Right now, we need to continue with our lives,” says Mario. “But we are ready. As soon as they announce that they are entering, we go straight to the borders.”

UNLIKE MEMBERS of other communities in Amazonia, everyone I speak with in Sarayacu is well versed on oil exploitation and related global issues. And no other community in the region, perhaps on the continent, engages so thoroughly and openly in consensus-making deliberations. When the CGC announced it would be entering Sarayacu in 2002, for example, the matter went to the Consejo Gobierno, a democratic assembly that deals with the logistics of running Sarayacu. But like any major decision, the question of organizing the border camps first went through the entire community in a lengthy Asemblea del Pueblo.

Sarayacu’s own system of indigenous education, which ranges from preschool to a university, reinforces the communal spirit. “It is different here because we think like a family, and participate in all aspects of the community,” says Joel Malaver, Director of Sarayacu Center’s high school, which focuses on agriculture, accounting and management, and conservation of natural resources. “Other kinds of education are very individualistic; people only want to succeed themselves. We have a mix of traditional education and the positive aspects of modernity. We try to foster an awareness of the importance of ecological preservation.”

A wasi, or home, in Sarayacu territory in Ecuador’s southern Amazon.
Photograph | Clive Shirley/Globalware

One example: The tribe runs a sophisticated natural resources management program, developed in collaboration with a German university. For three years, Dionisio Machoa, who manages the program, enlisted the entire community to count the animals on Sarayacu territory. In 2001, the community decided to set aside land to preserve large animals fundamental to their diet, such as tapirs. It is the fauna that disappears first once oil exploitation begins: Large animals escape to quieter areas, detonations kill fish, and workers with sophisticated weapons swarm in, ignoring tribal hunting restrictions. “We are not indigenous without the wild meat we eat,” says Machoa.

Johnny Dahua, an attractive twenty-three-year-old who worked out of the Puyo office during the resistance, is a typical product of the education system. Like many other young Sarayacu men, he wears his black hair in the traditional waist-length style. And like other youths, he became familiar with the ChevronTexaco disaster at Sarayacu Center’s high school. “We learned how the petroleros come and offer us marvels,” says Dahua. “We learned about Block 1, and how they destroyed everything.” And they learned to fortify themselves against soldiers and the temptation of bribery and corruption. “Money comes and goes,” Dahua says, “but if you guard the jungle, it will be here a thousand years.”

MARISA HANDLER, a San Francisco-based writer, has covered anti-globalization and peace movements worldwide. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle,, Tikkun, Bitch, Earth Island Journal, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and several anthologies.