Can a Small Indigenous Community Be a Threat to a Nation?
By Javier Ponce*
dispute between the Kichwa peoples of Sarayacu and the Ecuadorian
government goes beyond petroleum exploitation: it challenges the
notion of a united and homogeneous state.
QUITO - In the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon
a battle has been brewing since 1996 between the small indigenous
Kichwa population of Sarayacu and the Argentine Compañía General
de Combustibles (CGC), which that year obtained the oil drilling
rights for the area known as Block 23.
The Sarayacu community, whose legendary name means "river of maize",
is home to around a thousand Indians, who defend their right to
maintain 135,000 hectares of virgin forest in its pristine state.
The conflict has had its violent side. A minority of Indians were
in favor of the oil company's drilling rights in exchange for 200,000
dollars in compensation through community projects, and have carried
out several armed attacks against the Sarayacu leadership. Meanwhile,
the government of Lucio Gutiérrez (himself a son of settlers in
the Amazon) has offered to militarize the region to protect CGC.
But this is something more than a dispute over oil drilling. What
is being called into question is the validity of a conception of
Ecuador as a nation and a state, unitary and homogeneous that has
historically ignored the existence of its indigenous communities.
Only the decision of Sarayacu to proclaim itself an Autonomous Territory
of the Original Nation of Kichwa Peoples is already a way of vindicating
the Indians' own history and rejecting the imposition of someone
else's. It is already an act of "subversion".
Here enter into the game not only the economic goals of a government
anxious to use petroleum to "honor" the country's foreign debt of
around 15 billion dollars, but also the political-administrative
structure of the country and a democracy that does not comprehend
the degree of autonomy and self-determination sought by the indigenous
organizations of the Amazon.
And if one sector has defended that conception of a unitary state
it has been the military, which today leads the Ecuadorian government
and its oil policy.
Despite the visibility and strong presence that the indigenous movement
has achieved, the dominant society continues to underestimate the
possibilities of a future that is based on the sustainable exploitation
of resources, as practiced for centuries by Ecuador's ancestral
peoples and allowing regions like Sarayacu to preserve 90 percent
of its status as the country's largest native forest reserve.
The Sarayacu problem is seen as "ancestralist" nostalgia that stands
in the way of extracting petroleum wealth. And the demand of the
community that its territory (the legalization of which was wrangled
from the Ecuadorian government in 1992) be excluded in perpetuity
from the petroleum exploitation "blocks" and recognized as an area
of biological interest, constitutes a threat to the government's
Every so often, the CGC returns to try to renew its geological exploration
activities. Twice the Gutiérrez administration has tried to pressure
the Sarayacu peoples. In May 2003 it used threats. In December the
government did it again. It has issued arrest orders for indigenous
leaders, which have only been overturned because the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights stepped in.
The Sarayacu case is motive for reflection on to substantial issues:
the rationality of intensifying petroleum exploitation that has
devastated enormous swaths of jungle, without improving the living
conditions of the Ecuadorian people; and the need to start imagining
and building a country based on "plurinationality" and "interculturality",
without prejudice or imposition.
The question that arises, however, is whether the battle of a small
community in a region isolated by the state is going to change the
way a republic has operated for nearly two centuries.
Ecuador has a Constitution that recognizes the ancestral rights
of the indigenous nations over their territories. Will today's reality
understand the precepts written in a Constitution?
The coming months will be crucial for the Sarayacu resistance. What
happens there -- one of the historic centers of greatest power of
the Kichwa universe, two days by riverboat from Puyo, capital of
Pastaza province -- will establish the terms under which Ecuador
continues its oil and mining policy in the Amazon.
* Javier Ponce is an Ecuadorian writer and
columnist. Among his books on the indigenous issue is "Y la madrugada
los sorprendió en el poder" (And in the morning they found themselves