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Teaching from the
                   rain forest

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The indigenous village of Sarayaku in Ecuador tries to do the balancing     

act between the traditional and the modern

Sandra Weiss


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For five hours the boat with the outboard motor chugs along the endless twists of the Bobonaza river in the Amazon region of Ecuador. Five hours from Canelos to Sarayaku, a stretch that covers a beeline distance of 50 kilometers. Five hours sitting on a narrow plank, surrendered equally to the glaring sun and to the downpour which falls like a raiding party. “Five hours means we are making good time”, grins the boat operator Humberto Huilo. “At low water it can even take up to seven.” It is, like so many things in Sarayaku, a little lecture: one about timelines in the Amazon, where it is nature, not the hours, that determines the rhythm.

"They learn mathematics equally with our old myths.”

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The 31-year-old guides the boat stoically through the rapids, past gigantic ceiba trees, white sandy bays with colourful swarms of butterflies and sharp-edged rocks. Traces of civilisation quickly become fewer: a stretch of gravel loses itself on the horizon, the pipes of an oil pipeline flash briefly and disappear again, at some time or other the boat passes an over-sized concrete pier sloping dangerously at an oblique angle into the water. A present from the government, which wanted to bring the achievements of civilisation close to the indigenous people. One of many wild flood-waters has washed away the jetty and torn away the posts. “That is unusable,” comments the boat operator dryly. Hence in his home village of Sarayaku one berths as ever on the muddy bank, from which four dozen steps lead off up to the village square.

What appears to be a colourful cultural potpourri obeys strict rules.

surprise is then in store: the houses of the 1400 inhabitants are indeed made of wood and palm-leaves in the traditional way, however they obtain electricity thanks to solar panels. The people cook over an open fire but there is an internet café that works via satellite – providing a thunderstorm is not just happening to break above. And in the large meeting-hut a colourful welcoming committee awaits: severe, inward-looking older men and women with the traditional wooden ruler’s staff, many with the traditional black face-painting. They are flanked by young men and women at their laptops, with reflex cameras and smartphones in their hands. A little girl, perhaps three years old, leafs engrossed through a Spanish book of fairy-stories.

what appears to be a colourful cultural potpourri obeys strict rules: “Our young people are taught in Spanish and kichwa”, explains Patricia Gualinga. She is something like Sarayaku’s international ambassador. “They learn mathematics equally with our old myths.” Thanks to partnerships with the church and foreign aid organisations there are photography courses, computer courses or sports contests as well. However, the training given in hunting with blowpipe, in fishing with liana poison, in traditional body-painting or the art of pottery with which many women get extra earnings, does not come off badly as a result. The village has an airline service and a community bank. Roads, alcohol and oil concerns, on the other hand, are taboo. “We are all about introducing progress in controlled amounts, no matter who comes into our region, because we ourselves want to decide what is important for us and what is not,” Gualinga says, summing up.

Roads, alcohol and oil concerns are taboo.

"Sumak kawsay“, the philosophy of Good Living, is the supreme law in Sarayaku. What exactly is understood by it is discussed endlessly by Western philosophers and economists – but for the inhabitants of Sarayaku this is clear: “A life of self-determination in harmony with nature and with people reciprocally,” Gualinga summarises. And that also sometimes means renunciation. Fishing with liana poison is only allowed every six months so that fish stocks are not endangered. The big collective hunt, which formerly took place every six months, is now only on the program every two years because the number of wild animals decreased sharply. Instead of this, there is now money from the local bank for fish ponds.

“We are a people of resistance, heirs of great warriors”,

relates Patricia’s uncle, José Gualinga (54), proudly. The warring spirit was sorely tested 20 years ago when, out of nowhere, a helicopter landed in the village central square, some white men climbed out and declared to the village community that oil-drilling was now to take place in their tribal area because the mineral wealth belonged to the nation and not to them. José, then the curaca (chief), had feared this day. He knew from other people of the power of the black gold. Therefore he had prepared his people. As a community they had already decided well before this fateful day against the advancement of oil-drilling.

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„The pumps frighten the animals, the gases pollute the air, the retention basins with the mud from the drills poison our water, the roads destroy our culture and corrupt our youth”, says Patricia. Oil prosperity is only temporary. But we live from the rain forest, which is disturbed by oil-drilling. We cannot give our children oil to eat.” Nevertheless, these overpowering enemies could not be tackled with arguments, bow and spear. The Sarayaku inhabitants understood that quickly. That the indigenous people made their disapproval clear, that they possessed the land title and a right to be consulted about such intrusive measures, all this carried little weight against the combined might of the state and big money. The concern offered the tribe US $10,000, then more and more and with every “no” the pressure grew.

The concern offered the tribe US $10,000, then more and more and with every “no” the pressure grew.

An amateur video about the intrusion by the concerns, filmed by Patricia’s brother Eriberto, that was shared by sympathisers on social networks and produced a wave of international solidarity, finally brought the stroke of liberation. Dozens of foreign visitors came to Sarayaku during the following years. “That way we understood the power of communication,” says Gualinga.

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Over and over again the indigenous people marched into the capital, Quito, in protest. In 2012 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights decided in their favour and ordered the Ecuadorian state to make a compensatory payment of US $1.2 million because of the disregard for the rights of the indigenous people. With this money the local bank, scholarships for the young people and the airline service” Aerosarayaku” were financed. “The air service is important because we want to have contact with the outside world; when, for example, someone is bitten by a snake, that person can be flown out so quickly,” explains Samai Gualinga. “We need a bank to finance projects, for fish breeding or for communitarian tourism,” she continues. And she herself is a good example of the scholarship program, through which the 29-year-old was able to study design in Quito and is now drafting the colourful logos of the campaigns. Many of the young people are well educated and want to put their training at the service of their people. Rony (23), for example, has studied tourism and is planning a bird-watching venture in Sarayaku.

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A roundhouse for tourists is presently just being built. Farsightedness, stubbornness and cohesion distinguish the Sarayaku from other indigenous communities. A cleverly devised political organisation is the foundation. The official positions rotate so that no clan misses out. All decisions are discussed in hour-long meetings until a consensus is reached. Great emphasis is put on community life, community work and community celebrations. Controversies are discussed and voted on conjointly.

The indigenous people have thus decided not to let any evangelical free churches into the village and not to admit any political propaganda, because both would split the village and create conflicts if they were to be brought into a meeting. Even the suggestion of José Gualinga to issue CO2 certificates and thereby to finance new projects was unsuccessful. Gualinga regrets this. “It is a complex subject and most have not really understood what it is about”, sighs the 54-year-old. Instead, he is now seeking alternatives. Private supporters, for example.

On the Sarayaku front-line, attempts by the state and the concerns to divide the community have shattered so far. Instead of this, the Kichwa even succeeded in anchoring the idea of Good Living in the new Ecuadorian constitution of 2008. The village became the model; many delegations from other indigenous communities have already visited Sarayaku and gained stimulation for themselves. This exchange is being promoted, as is the establishment by the Catholic church of schools of human rights in the whole Amazon region. As a result, indigenous peoples are being empowered following the Sarayaku example, to expose and document human rights violations against their own populations and to bring this information before the international human rights committees.

Farsightedness, stubbornness and cohesion distinguish the Sarayaku from other indigenous communities


In advance of the Amazon synod in the autumn of 2019, the peoples of the Amazon were pulled into the centre of interest of the church. Two years ago Patricia Gualinga met with the Brazilian cardinal Claudio Hummes, president of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (Repam). “The way in which the world sees indigenous people is changing,” she added with satisfaction. “We are no longer the wild savages who must be evangelised, clothed and educated.” Instead, the world is ready to listen to the wisdom of indigenous people. Pope Francis has opened the doors to them in the environmental encyclical “Laudato si” in order to give a platform to their spirituality, their concern for “the common house”.


Gualinga does not want to let this slip by unutilised. Sarayaku already has a new concept up its sleeve: Kawsak Sacha.

The still pristine primary forest itself, in which, according to the myths, not only many wild animals but also the spirits of nature and of the ancestors live, will now achieve a valid status in law, making it “forever inviolable”.

Pope Francis has opened the doors to them in the environmental encyclical “Laudato si” in order to give a platform to their spirituality, their concern for “the common house”.

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