As described in the article below, the Sarayacu have long been the staunchast most implacable opposition that the oil companies have faced in the Amazon headwaters and are the key to the protection of millions of hectares of pristing tropical rainforest. We at the Rainforest Information Centre have financially supported their struggle for some years now and encourage others to do the same. Donations from the US,UK, Canada and Australia are tax-deductible, please contact for details.


by Marisa Handler

Orion Online (Orion Magazine)

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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."

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

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."

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

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