Supporting the Siekopai Part 2
Meeting the Sarayaku
We would spend that night at a hostel near the main bus terminal in Quito, from where we would depart the following morning for the Amazonian city of Puyo, but first we had a rescue mission to complete. We’d inadvertently left some sacred yokó plants at the hotel where we’d stayed before our meeting with the Ministry three days before. These plants were perhaps the most important thing that we carried with us, as they were a gift for our next hosts.
We were on our way to Sarayaku, an indigenous Kichwa community that has been at the forefront of the battle to defend the Amazon for three decades. Putting their cosmovision and spirituality at the centre of their struggle, the Sarayaku are like the Jedi Masters of peaceful resistance. In a great gesture of solidarity, they had offered to host us at fraction of the usual cost for visitors. In return, they had only asked for one thing: some yokó plants. Arriving empty handed was not an option.
(The Sarayaku people. Photo Selvas Producciones)
The yokó plant has become scarce and it had been difficult for Ribaldo to find five healthy specimens, but he’d managed it. He’d carefully packed them into a box and transported them via canoe and bus from Siekoya Remolino to Quito, where they had been forgotten in the excitement of leaving for Pambiliño. It had taken a couple of days for their absence to be noticed, upon which Jimmy had called the hotel. Luckily, the manager had kept the plants and they were sitting on the floor of reception waiting to be retrieved! When we arrived, we peered anxiously into the box and found the plants a little droopy but unharmed after their urban vacation. Phew!
That evening we dined at a fast food restaurant and went to bed early. We had tickets booked on the 7am bus to Puyo, from where we would leave for Sarayaku. I’d organised breakfast for 6am and was a little worried that the group wouldn’t get up on time. Punctuality isn’t a prized cultural norm in Siekopai culture and I’d felt as though I’d been herding cats (or perhaps ocelots) a few times during the tour. However, I hadn’t reckoned on the bustling efficiency of the hotel manager who, having been asked to provide breakfast an hour earlier than usual, was determined that no-one would miss it. I watched admiringly as he cheerfully hustled everyone into the restaurant and then magicked up three taxis, which were waiting outside as we finished eating. In fact, I was the last person to leave the hotel, as I ran back to get the yokó plants, which had nearly been forgotten again. It would be a miracle if they made it safely to Sarayaku, I thought!
At the Quitumbe bus terminal, we had to bid farewell to two members of the group. Ruth had to return to university in Lago Agrio. Joffre was due to leave shortly for South Africa, where he would represent the Siekopai Nation at an international event on water scarcity. This is a critical issue for the residents of Siekoya Remolino, where the river water is too contaminated to drink. In the dry season, they are forced to collect ground water, which can take a couple of hours to fill a small pan. Joffre was hoping to learn about possible water solutions at the event in South Africa, but didn’t have a passport yet. He was heading back to Quito for an appointment with the passport office. Desperate to come to Sarayaku, Joffre made a couple of last minute calls to see if the appointment could be postponed, but alas no. His eyes filled with tears as we bid him farewell.
As the rest of us boarded the bus to Puyo, I was looking forward to the scenery en route. The universe had rewarded us for getting up early by giving us a beautifully clear morning. As the bus passed through the legendary Avenue of the Volcanoes, we had spectacular views of the serene, snow-capped Cotopaxi and her more jagged neighbour, Antisana. These peaks are often shrouded in cloud and it felt like a blessing that they had chosen to show us their magnificent faces. In the hours that followed, we descended from 2850m above sea level to just 950m, with all the corresponding changes in landscape and vegetation. As we approached Puyo, the road followed the Ruta de las Cascadas, a series of waterfalls tumbling into the Rio Pastaza gorge. No matter how much I travel in Ecuador, I am always amazed by the scenery. I was happy to see the Siekopai as excited as I was by the views.
That evening in Puyo, most of the group headed out to look for some typical Amazonian cuisine. They had missed familiar food during our time in Quito and Pambiliño. Wherever they went, they requested hot sauce, which they eat with everything. “Without hot sauce, it’s not food”, they were fond of saying. I was struck again by how much the Siekopai truly love their own way of life. I reflected that this was what had kept their millennial culture alive over the centuries, despite all the attempts to destroy it.
The following morning after breakfast, three 4x4s were waiting for us outside the hostel to take us to the departure point for the canoes to Sarayaku. As we travelled further from Puyo, the countryside became jungly and the road increasingly bumpy, until we were driving along a section that was still under construction. I had read so much about the damage caused to the Amazon by road building, that it was shocking to suddenly see for myself the ugly tear that had been ripped out of the forest by the heavy machinery. Not yet asphalted, it was still a raw wound in the earth. Not even the four-wheel drive could manage the last ten minutes of the journey, which we completed on foot.
When we arrived at the departure point, the canoes hadn’t arrived yet. It was suffocatingly humid and there was no shade on the stony beach. I perched on a log, sweltering in my jeans, resigned to a long, hot wait. The Siekopai were already running into the river, where they started doing somersaults into the water, laughing. “I can learn lot from these folks!” I thought to myself, as I changed into my swimming costume and joined them.
We’d had just enough time for a refreshing dip when two motor canoes rounded the bend of the river, each manned by a driver and a navigator. Our transport to Sarayaku had arrived.
An unusually severe drought had left the Bobonaza River very low and the Sarayaku transportistas had to use every ounce of their considerable skill and expertise to get us there without the canoes capsizing. It was fascinating to see how connected the driver and the navigator were, communicating with each other using a series of hand signals. Fortunately for us, they knew every curve of the river, avoiding the barely submerged boulders and steering into the deepest parts of the water. Several times, the underside of the canoe scraped against the stony river bottom, and the navigator had to jump out and pole the boat along, arm muscles straining.
It was a beautiful day, sunny with enough cloud cover and breeze to keep us cool. Exuberant jungle rose up on either side of the river, the tallest trees adorned with oropendola nests like teardrop earrings. When the canoes navigated close to the banks, we could hear the cicadas singing. Every now and then we passed a community, where a mud track on the riverbank led up to wooden huts. Children fishing in dugout canoes waved at us as we went by.
Photo Credit Selvas Producciones)
Reaping the benefit of the not-yet-built road, which cut off an oxbow and shortened the journey by a couple of hours, we arrived in Sarayaku by mid-afternoon. We were met by José Gualinga, who had been President of Sarayaku during my first visit in 2013 and remains one of their great leaders. He greeted us warmly before escorting us to the house of his brother, Gerardo.
José Gualinga (credit: Samaï Gualinga)
Gerardo’s house, like all houses in Sarayaku, was made in the traditional Kichwa style. The living space and kitchen consisted of an oval, open-sided hut with an earthen floor and a roof made of woven leaves. We took our seats on the wooden benches that ran around the edge of the hut. Already seated was a most distinguished welcoming party. Alongside José Gualinga were two other former Sarayaku Presidents and the current President, Tupak Viteri, holding his ceremonial staff. It was Sunday and they were all drinking chicha, a mildly alcoholic cassava drink that is made by the women of Sarayaku using their own saliva.
Chicha is made by boiling and mashing cassava root before chewing it and spitting it out. Thanks to an enzyme in the saliva, when the chewed cassava is put into large clay pots and left for a number of days, it ferments. The chicha that men take with them when they are working in the forest is fermented for fewer days than the more alcoholic chicha that is served at festivities. Community life in Sarayaku revolves around the sacred beverage, which represents fertility and is served by the women in traditional ceramic bowls.
(Credit: Selvas Producciones)
Sure enough, here came Rosa, Gerardo’s wife, with a bowl of chicha. According to custom, she offered it to each guest in turn, who drank from the bowl before returning it to her. Slowly, she made her way around the circle, offering chicha to each of us in turn, waiting patiently while we drank.
One by one, the assembled Sarayaku leaders gave a welcome speech. There were words of solidarity between peoples, of brotherhood, of knowledge sharing. Tupak Viteri told us that this was the first time that representatives of the Siekopai Nation had visited Sarayaku. José Gualinga recounted that his father, the most eminent Sarayaku shaman, who had died recently aged almost 100, had visited the Siekopai territory in his youth. He had travelled there by canoe to learn from the Siekopai shamans, achieving such a high level of knowledge that he had transformed into a jaguar. Instead of returning to Sarayaku by river, he had travelled back through the forest in his feline form. Jimmy was incredibly moved by this story, which showed that the two communities had forged a connection several decades ago.
I felt very alive as I listened to Tupak and José, so excited at this historic moment, as two groups of indigenous defenders came together. Jimmy then spoke, expressing gratitude for the warm welcome, for the opportunity to learn from a community so famous for their defence of the Amazon, for their organisation and unity. Yadira told the group that she had grown up hearing stories of the Sarayaku’s resistance on the news, how she had always dreamed of visiting one day, how excited she was to be there.
José indicated that he’d like me to say a few words. I find public speaking difficult and hadn’t been planning on saying anything, but large quantities of party-strength chicha on an empty stomach helped the words to flow. I talked of how I had met José in 2013 and had been working with him ever since, putting my writing and translating skills at his service. It was my work with José that had inspired me to write my guidebook on Ecuador, which highlights the eco-tourism projects of indigenous communities defending their territories.
While researching for my book, I had met Jimmy and we had started the process that would eventually lead us here, to Sarayaku, thanks to our collaboration with Big Canopy Campout. I was honoured to be there as the connection between two such inspirational millennial peoples.
When the speeches were over, Gerardo showed us to our accommodation, a beautiful two-storey maloca with the second floor partitioned into visitors’ quarters. When we’d settled in, Jimmy indicated that the group would like to speak with me. We sat in a circle on the balcony and, one by one, the Siekopai expressed their gratitude to me and to Big Canopy Campout for all the work we had done to make the tour possible.
Ribaldo spoke of how, as teenagers, he and Jimmy had seen a road being built in their territory. Distraught at the destruction, they had sworn to do something to stop it. The community had united to oppose the construction project, which they managed to halt before it was finished. The road had never been used and the jungle has since reclaimed the land. The path that the youngsters had embarked upon that day had led them to this point, years later, of being here together in Sarayaku, a big step closer to their dream of protecting their territory and culture.
Wiping away tears, Yadira said how hard it had been to leave her two young children at home, but she couldn’t possibly have missed the opportunity to visit Sarayaku, a community that fills her with hope and inspiration. Lili spoke of how the Sarayaku’s attitude and strength make her feel proud to have her ancestors’ blood running through her veins. His eyes filling with tears, Jimmy explained how many times he had almost given up over the last couple of years, but that his work with me and Big Canopy Campout had kept him going. As a thank you, the group presented me with a beautiful seed necklace and bead earrings. I hadn’t expected any of this and was very moved.
With everyone gathered together, I took the opportunity to tell the group a little about Sarayaku. I wasn´t sure how much they knew about the amazing community that we found ourselves in, apart from what they had heard on the news.
The Native People of Sarayaku are best known for their historic 2012 victory against the Ecuadorian state at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which found that the government had violated their rights by allowing an oil company to enter their territory without consulting them.
(Sarayaku at the ICHR, credit Selvas Producciones)
That same year, the Sarayaku created the Kawsak Sacha (Living Forest) Declaration asserting that, as a living entity, their territory is subject to legal rights and demanding that these rights be upheld according to existing national and international law. In 2015, the proposal was presented at COP21 and to the President of France. To mark the occasion, the Sarayaku transported a wooden canoe to Paris and sailed it down the Seine. The Kawsak Sacha Declaration went on to win the prestigious UN Equator Prize in 2021.
Seeing small-scale air travel as an alternative to the ever-encroaching network of roads in the Amazon, the Sarayaku used the compensation from their 2012 court victory to establish Aero Sarayaku, the only indigenous-owned airline in Latin America, purchasing a three-seater and a five-seater plane. The airline prioritises Amazon defenders, offers emergency evacuation to indigenous communities, and refuses to serve any extractive industry. Proceeds from the company are shared between all members of the community.
The Sarayaku have also launched a professional football team, the Sons of the Jaguar, to spread the word about oil exploitation in the Amazon. They have released two award winning documentaries, Descendants of the Jaguar, which won Best Documentary at the 2012 National Geographic Film Festival, and The Return, which was made for The Guardian in 2021.
(credit Selvas Producciones)
To represent their peaceful resistance to extractivism, the Sarayaku are in the process of planting a perimeter of flowering trees around their territory. Known as the Sisa Ñampi or Border of Life, it currently stretches for 100km and will take decades to complete, eventually encircling their territory of 135,000 hectares.
As I recounted this list of achievements, I reflected again how impressive it is that all of this has been accomplished by a community of 1400 people living in the remote Amazon rainforest!
Turning to why we had decided to come here as part of the tour, I explained that, apart from being a shining example of organisation and unity, the Sarayaku have also implemented a number of projects that would be of great benefit in Siekoya Remolino.
Most relevant is the Tayak Wasi School of the Living Jungle, also known as the School of Peaceful Resistance, which was founded in 1994 to strengthen and teach ancestral knowledge and bilingual intercultural education. Many of the great Sarayaku leaders were trained at the school, where they learned about art, history, knowledge of the forest, the Kichwa worldview, and the philosophical thought of the Living Jungle. The school had been washed away in a terrible flood that had hit Sarayaku at the start of the covid-19 pandemic, but they had since rebuilt it.
As well as the school, we would also be able to visit the Sarayaku’s fish farms to learn about this potential solution to the Siekopai’s severe food sovereignty problem. We would, I hoped, also be able to speak with Gerardo about the internal security team that he managed, the Wios, which is named after a small but ferocious ant. Sadly, violence is an increasing problem in Siekoya Remolino.
That evening, after we dined at the long table on the earthen floor of our maloca, we were invited to a party hosted by a family who lived on the other side of the Bobonaza River. Crossing the river on foot had become impossible after the Sarayaku’s main bridge was washed away in the same flood that had destroyed the school, so we made the brief journey by canoe.
We arrived at the party to find a large maloca full of people, some sitting on benches around the edge of the hut, others dancing next to an enormous speaker in the middle. Among the guests, I recognised our canoe drivers and gave them a wave. Also present was Nina Gualinga, perhaps the most internationally recognised figure in Sarayaku and Yadira’s personal hero. A little while later, I saw Yadira introduce herself to Nina and ask for a photo, wiping away tears of excitement. The music was a mix of cumbia, reggaeton and traditional Kichwa songs. Everybody was dancing with everybody. As Angelo and I attempted a basic cumbia, Robinson was next to us twirling Noemi Gualinga, Nina’s mum. I was sweltering in long leggings and rubber boots and felt frumpy alongside some of the Sarayaku women, who wore party dresses. The hostess looked particularly ravishing as she brought round chicha in a red mini dress and a feather in her hair.
At some point, the whole party decamped to another maloca, where the dancing continued. Yadira, Lili and Milena were asked to dance by several of the Sarayaku men, who approached politely, offering a hand. Our canoe driver asked me to dance, checking with Angelo first that it was ok. I saw that a bottle of whisky was doing the rounds, alongside the chicha. It felt terribly late, but I saw that it was only 7:30pm. Tired after our long day, we left the party early and returned to our accommodation, once again crossing the river by canoe. It was a beautiful night, with a full moon in a cloudless sky, the stars just starting to come out. As we slept, a chorus of frogs and cicadas accompanied our dreams.
The next day we participated in a minga, which roughly translates from the Kichwa as “communal working party”. It’s a concept that lies at the heart of the indigenous way of life from the Amazon to the Andes. One of the great things about a minga is that everybody participates. If the leader of any of the seven small neighbourhoods in Sarayaku calls a minga, all residents of that neighbourhood must attend, including the President, which makes it a wonderfully democratic and socially levelling activity. On our first day in Sarayaku, a minga had been called in our host community, so we were to spend the day helping to thatch a roof.
The roofs in Sarayaku are made from the woven leaves of the wayuri palm. Men had travelled for hours by canoe and then hiked deep into the jungle to harvest the leaves, which they had tied into bundles and brought back to the community by river. In recent years, the Sarayaku have started to plant wayuri gardens near the community, but the trees won’t be ready to harvest for another twenty years. Until then, the arduous harvesting expeditions will continue.
José asked us whether we’d be willing to carry some of the wayuri bundles on the last leg of their journey, from the riverbank to the minga. We all said yes. I watched as my companions, backs bent under their loads, made their slow way up the hill that led away from the river. When José placed a bundle on my back, I staggered. I couldn’t believe how heavy it was! Despite my daily yoga and push-ups, I could only make it a few steps before I had to throw the stack of leaves on the floor. I couldn’t do it. I watched in awe as Yadira and Lili carried their bundles for a full fifteen minutes, including climbing a number of hills. Amazonian women are strong in a way that I can’t even fathom.
When we arrived, we found the minga already in full swing, a hive of activity around the skeleton of a maloca with the start of a thatch around the edge, like a monk’s tonsure. José explained that the men were up in the rafters, weaving the roof. The women were on the ground providing the men with a steady supply of leaves. He indicated the pieces of string hanging down from the rafters, most of which had handfuls of leaves tied to them, ready to be pulled up by the weavers.
My task, along with Yadira, Lili, Milena and Kumiko, was to tie leaves to any bare pieces of string. José taught us a special knot, which Lili had to show me three more times before I got the hang of it. And this was how we spent the morning. Jimmy, Angelo, Ribaldo and Robinson up in the rafters, weaving, the women on the ground tying leaves to string. There was a constant supply of chicha. All the while, a group of men and women were carrying in more bundles of leaves, which seemed to be a task for both sexes. The women had the technique down, using a strap on their heads to bear the weight. We definitely had the cushy job, I thought. During the morning, we came to appreciate why Gerardo’s internal security team was named after the wio ant. The tiny red critters were hiding in the wayuri leaves like ninjas and could deliver a stinging bite.
Lunch consisted of agouti soup and boiled plantain. As I looked at the agouti legs protruding from the bowls, I felt very thankful to be a vegetarian. I was touched at the effort that the hostess had made to provide me with a dish of broccoli and other vegetables, which must surely have come from Puyo. I saw Angelo casting an envious look at my plate as he bravely attempted the soup.
The table only sat a dozen people, so lunch was served in shifts. As guests, we were served first, then the men, then the women. This was a long process. The minga had finished and there was nothing to do but wait. I felt a little frustrated that our first day in Sarayaku had coincided with a minga. The Siekopai already knew how to thatch roofs and there were so many other things we wanted to see and learn in our limited time there. I knew, however, that Sarayaku customs are inviolable. Nobody, not guests nor the internationally-known Sarayaku leaders, are too busy or too important to attend a minga.
(credit Selvas Producciones)
As we waited for everyone to finish eating, we sat on the benches around the edge of the maloca, where the hostess brought us ever more chicha. Even after lunch was finally over, none of the Sarayaku made a move to leave. I could see the Siekopai starting to get restless. Gerardo noticed too and came over to explain that the event would only end when the host, whose roof we had been thatching, thanked the participants of the minga. By that point I was sloshing with chicha and felt full to burst. I started making strategic forays to talk with people on the other side of the hut when I saw the ceramic bowl approaching.
“I just don’t think I can drink any more chicha, but I don’t feel as though I can refuse”, I explained to Jimmy and Ribaldo as I sat down next to them. “I know”, said Jimmy, “you might have it thrown in your face if you say no!” Before my first visit to Sarayaku in 2013, I had heard that people who refuse their chicha are never seen again. Obviously, this was a ridiculous myth, but I knew that chicha is a great source of pride and I didn’t want to cause offense.
Jimmy told me that he and Ribaldo had been talking about the differences between Sarayaku and Siekoya Remolino. They were marvelling at how happy the Sarayaku were, how cooperatively they worked together, how much effort they were willing to make to preserve their traditions. In Siekoya Remolino, rather than venturing into the jungle to harvest wayuri for their roofs, most people used corrugated metal. People only went to the mingas for the chicha, said Jimmy, and then just sat around drinking. It was hard to motivate them to work together. He and Ribaldo were wondering how to change this culture in their community. I was glad that the minga had shown them something, even if they did already know how to thatch roofs.
At one point, Angelo and I left the hut and went to sit outside in the sunshine to escape the chicha. I saw Ribaldo perched on the stairs behind the hut, clearly doing the same. Caught hiding, he gave us a rueful smile. But even out here there was no escape, as the hostess spotted us and came over to offer us the ceramic bowl. Angelo took a small sip and handed it back, but the hostess gave him such a steely look that he took a few more swallows.
Gerardo motioned for us to come back into the maloca, so that the host could give his speech of thanks. By now it was mid-afternoon. After that were more speeches from various leaders, welcoming us to Sarayaku. Members of our group also spoke, thanking the Sarayaku for their hospitality. As I saw the chicha bowl approaching again, I knew I couldn’t get up in the middle of a speech to avoid it. I also knew I couldn’t drink any more. Plucking up my courage, I thanked the hostess very much but explained that I was too full. “No problem”, she said, moving on to the next person. Phew!
After the speeches, it was time for dancing. An enormous speaker was carried in to the maloca and we were given a demonstration of a traditional Sarayaku dance. The men made spearing motions with their arms while the women spun in circles, swishing their beautiful hair. Unlike my hair, which grows ever more spindly as it approaches my waist, the Sarayaku and Siekopai women’s hair remains thick and lustrous as it cascades down, sometimes to their knees.
(credit Selvas Producciones)
Hair is very important in Sarayaku, where both men and women use the extract of the wika fruit as a natural conditioner. The wika fruit juice is a deep indigo blue and, as anyone who has ever tried to dye their own hair without gloves and Vaseline will understand, it’s impossible to prevent colouring the hands, forehead, temples and neck in the process. In Sarayaku, having blue body parts is a price worth paying for having beautiful hair. In fact, it is considered attractive, as it indicates that the person cares about their appearance.
Following the traditional dance, the women in our group were invited on to the floor by a number of the Sarayaku men. We danced in pairs somewhat awkwardly, with everyone else looking on. It turned out that my partner was the leader of the fish farming project, so at least we had something to talk about as we bobbed around.
By that time, everyone in our group was exhausted. While chicha is only mildly alcoholic, in large quantities it has a soporific effect, especially when drunk during the daytime. Even the Siekopai weren’t used to drinking this much of it. I asked José if it would be possible to take us back to our accommodation so that we could rest.
It was clear that José wanted us to stay and I felt bad about disappointing him, but, in response to the Siekopai’s imploring looks, I repeated that we were ready to go. On the way back to the canoe, José gave us a brief tour of the centre of Sarayaku. He showed us the main square, an expanse of red earth surrounded by various wooden buildings and malocas, explaining that this was the heart of Sarayaku. “If the square ever falls, we are lost”, he said, in a stark reminder of the ever-present threats faced by communities in resistance to the government’s extractive projects. Sadly, the Ecuadorian Government’s plan to auction 3 million hectares of largely virgin rainforest to oil companies includes nearly all the Sarayaku territory.
Showing us the solar-powered internet hut, José told us a story to illustrate its strategic importance. Years ago, an army general had arrived unannounced by helicopter, invading the Sarayaku’s sovereign territory and landing in the central square. Introducing himself to José, the general had proposed a “friendship” that involved the Sarayaku permitting an oil company to exploit in their territory. The military man had made it clear that refusal would lead to the deployment of 5,000 troops. “So, shall we be friends?” the general had asked, sticking out his hand for José to shake. When José had declined the proposal and ignored the proffered hand, the general had got back into his helicopter and left. Thanks to the humble internet hut, news of the general’s threat was circulated around the world before the helicopter had landed back in Puyo. The troop deployment has yet to materialise, though the Sarayaku remain alert for it.
Before bidding us farewell for the evening, José invited us to a wayusa ceremony at his house at 4am the following morning. By that time, I was exhausted and had a terrible headache from the chicha. I just needed a good night’s sleep and knew I wouldn’t be getting up for the dawn ceremony.
Early the next morning, Angelo and I were woken by Robinson arriving back at the maloca after the ceremony, talking excitedly. They had drunk wayusa (a type of Amazonian tea) and inhaled tobacco juice infused with floripondio (datura). Both these plants are sacred medicines in Amazonian cultures. I wondered how the floripondio had been prepared, as I knew it could be brewed into one of the most psychedelic substances on Earth. I guessed it must have been a non-psychotropic recipe, as Robinson seemed quite himself as he told us how much he’d learned about medicinal plants during the ceremony. “I want to live here forever!” he said, happily.
After breakfast we were invited to join a meeting of the Sarayaku education department, the Sacha Runa Yachay, which roughly translates from Kichwa as “the wisdom of the inhabitants of the jungle”.
The meeting had been called to discuss how to incorporate the Kichwa cosmovision into the school curriculum. While the Tayak Wasi, or School of Peaceful Resistance, had been teaching ancestral knowledge since 1994, the other five schools in Sarayaku were still using the standard educational model. The newly formed education department’s mission was to create and implement a curriculum based on the Kichwa cosmovision, with all the corresponding educational materials.
Nina Gualinga spoke of her time at the Tayak Wasi School, where she had spent the early part of her childhood. There, she had learned the importance of her own roots by studying the songs and legends of the Sarayaku, and by making traditional ceramics, baskets and woven bags. Later on, she had gone to school in Sweden, where the Scandinavian educational model had taught her how to question, how to think critically, how to actively participate in class. Coming back to Ecuador to attend college had been a shock for her. Suddenly, she was expected to remain silent, to copy and memorise, not to ask questions. She’d been thrown out of class after she’d corrected the teacher, who was mistakenly telling the students that there were 100 millimetres in a metre. She hadn’t gone back. In Ecuador, the current educational model only teaches children how to obey, Nina said.
Nina’s sister Helena highlighted the importance of having relevant educational materials. In the current school books were pictures of apples, she said, a fruit which doesn’t exist in the Kichwa language. Helena, who had also been partly educated in Europe, went on to talk about the importance of creating a curriculum that fuses the Scandinavian educational model with the Kichwa cosmovision. It was fascinating to hear the Sarayaku discuss the very issues that we were just starting to wrestle with.
José spoke about the importance of education in general. If the world was well educated, he said, we wouldn’t have war, genocide or ecocide. He touched upon the threat that the current education system poses to the Amazon and its peoples. College teaches students to seek employment and few young people stay in the community afterwards, he said. Newly graduated engineers go to work for the oil companies. He stressed the need to educate young people to stay in the community, not to migrate. He lamented the fact that the Sarayaku’s constant struggle against oil exploitation had distracted them from their educational project.
José indicated that the rest of the meeting would be a discussion of the finer details of who would be in charge of creating the new curriculum, and how. Up until now the Sarayaku had been speaking in Spanish so that we could understand, but from now on the meeting would be in Kichwa. Leading us out of the meeting, José took us on a guided tour.
First, we visited the garden of medicinal plants, which was of great interest to the Siekopai. There was much discussion on the various uses of different plants. Next, we stopped by the office of the territorial monitoring team, which is led by José’s Belgian wife, Sabine. From here, her team coordinates a group of rangers equipped with GPS equipment to create digital maps of the Sarayaku territory. They draw up resource management and zoning plans that designate spaces for hunting, agriculture, experiential education and medicinal plant ceremonies. Also plotted on the maps are the tambos, huts in the remote jungle where the Sarayaku “get away from it all”. I found this a striking concept considering that the Sarayaku already live in the remote jungle, several hours by canoe from the closest town.
We paid a visit to Franco Viteri, the former President of the Confederation of Amazonian Peoples of Ecuador (CONFENAIE), an organisation that has played a key role in several historical indigenous uprisings. Franco was welcoming and charismatic, with something of a rock ‘n’ roll air about him. As we took our seats on the benches in his maloca, the Siekopai were initially reserved, but Franco soon drew them into conversation, asking them whether they had any roads in their community yet. Jimmy responded by saying that Siekoya Remolino has so far managed to resist the incursion of any roads, despite constant pressure from the state oil company. Franco was delighted at this, offering words of encouragement about the importance of continuing to resist.
José told us about the Shuar, who are such fierce warriors, so proud of their ability to make tzantzas (shrunken heads). Despite their fearsome reputation, the Shuar had allowed roads to be built within their territory, which permitted the transnational mining companies to enter and wreak destruction. In Canelos, a Kichwa community not far from Sarayaku, the residents had permitted a highway to cross their territory twenty years ago, with disastrous results. Far from bringing the promised economic development, the road had only brought increased deforestation, contamination, migration and alcohol. In the end, José said, roads only facilitate the invasion of the armed forces and the extractive industries.
Before lunch, we made one last stop, at the Tayak Wasi, or School of Peaceful Resistance, which, José told us, had been founded with the aim of creating revolutionaries. Milena took one look at the school, with its beautiful woven roof, and burst into tears. “We don’t have anything like this in our community!”, she exclaimed. “So many of our traditions have been lost. I used to think that I wanted to go and live in the city, but now I think I want to live here, in Sarayaku!” I was astounded. Milena was the youngest member of the group, still a teenager, and I’d spotted her looking bored on a couple of occasions. I hadn’t been sure that the tour had really been getting through to her. I was happy to see that I’d been wrong about that!
After lunch, a bowl of tobacco water was passed around for inhaling. Native tobacco is one of the most important medicinal plants for Amazonian indigenous communities, who smoke it during ceremonies and also inhale it in liquid form. After being dried and rolled into cylinders, slices of tobacco are steeped in water to make a dark brown tea, which is inhaled from the palm of the hand into the nose. It clears the sinuses instantly and gives a powerful jolt of energy. I’ve never been a fan of inhaling tobacco and politely declined the proffered bowl.
In the afternoon, we visited one of the Sarayaku’s fish farms, which consisted of two shallow rectangular pools cut into the jungle floor. Just downhill from a waterfall, they fill automatically and don’t need to be lined. I was glad we were able to visit the fish farm, as Jimmy had told me of his hopes to create a pisciculture project to solve the severe problem of food sovereignty in Siekoya Remolino.
As the fish farmer threw pellets of food into the pools, the fish rose to the surface to eat, upon which he expertly cast a net into the water. It only took a couple of throws before we had enough fish for dinner. Robinson, seizing any opportunity to learn, wanted to try his hand at throwing the net. On his first attempt, he nearly threw himself into the pool along with the net, but had better luck on his second try.
The farmer’s wife showed us how to wrap the fish in leaves and grill them over the fire to make maito, one of the Amazon region’s most traditional dishes. While the maito was cooking, Mario Santi, the Sarayaku leader of education, showed Jimmy, Ribaldo and Robinson how to use a blowpipe. He set an apple on a stick at the other side of the garden and challenged them to hit it with the tiny dart. No-one managed it, but they had a lot of fun trying.
Meanwhile, the farmer’s wife showed the women in our group her beautiful ceramics. It turned out that she was a master ceramicist. I had asked José whether it might be possible to talk with one of the Sarayaku women about their ceramics during our visit and he had said that he would try to organise it, but that it might be difficult, as the painted clay bowls are sacred and intimate, not meant for public viewing.
Each piece of ceramics made in Sarayaku is unique, moulded using clay from the forest floor and decorated using natural dyes applied with paint brushes made from the women’s own hair. As the farmer’s wife brought out a number of stunning bowls decorated with geometric shapes, she was happy to answer our questions about the creative process. Yadira was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from such a skilled artist.
When the maito was ready, we sat down to eat. Mario had spotted that I wasn’t eating the fish and came over to chat about food. He told me that in Sarayaku it used to be prohibited to eat eggs or fruit, because it is believed that these foods reduce one’s ability to be brave while out in the jungle. A hunter who eats eggs, Mario said, would find himself with shaking knees. A man who eats fruit would find himself with no breath for the blowpipe. These days, things are more relaxed, Mario told me, the children eat eggs and fruit, which is why they get scared when venturing out into the forest.
Returning to our maloca after dinner, we were reunited with Angelo, who had spent the day painting a mural in the main square. We had an early night, as we’d been invited to a wayusa ceremony at 4am the next morning and were determined not to miss it.
It was a struggle to get out of bed at 3:45am, but I was excited about the ceremony. It was still dark as we took our seats on the benches around Gerardo’s maloca. The only light emanated from the fire on the floor, over which a large pot of wayusa leaves was boiling. José gave each of us a gourd to drink from, which he filled with the hot tea. He opened the ceremony by telling us about the importance of wayusa, which is a native Amazon tree species in the holly family. The tea is high in caffeine, so aids mental focus and clarity.
In Sarayaku, José explained, it is traditional to start the day at 3am or 4am by drinking wayusa and talking around the fire. At these pre-dawn conversations, the Sarayaku discuss important matters, resolve conflicts and decide on strategies. The practice of getting up early instils discipline, José said, not like so many people today who lie around in bed until 7am! A person who honours the wayusa tradition will be a person of strength, a person of their word.
As José talked, one by one other Sarayaku leaders started appearing out of the darkness and taking their seats in the maloca. Over the next three hours, they each took a turn to speak, sharing words of encouragement and advice for the young Siekopai. For me the wayusa ceremony was perhaps the highlight of the whole ten days that we spent together. It was such a magical experience, sitting around a fire in the deepest Amazon, drinking sacred tea and listening to stories of resistance from such inspirational and eloquent people. I was so captivated that I couldn’t bear to miss even a few minutes of the ceremony to run to the bathroom, even as I drank gourd after gourd of tea.
(credit Selvas Producciones)
Some of the Sarayaku’s advice was very strategic. José spoke of the importance of having a network of allies, in the closest city to the community, nationally and internationally. Communication and media were vital tools. Listening to this, it struck me that, thanks to Big Canopy Campout, there are people in 75 countries who are supportive of the Sëra Foundation. Within the team, we have three documentary makers, a writer and an artist. If international allies and communication are important, the Siekopai are already on a good path.
Gerardo told us about the Wios, the internal security team that he leads, which consists of 50 trained volunteers. If there is conflict in the community, such as domestic violence or a drunken fight, the Wios are dispatched to deal with it. If necessary, they put the perpetrator in the small jailhouse on the central square for a day or two, where everyone can see them. They also undertake seek and rescue missions, should someone become lost in the jungle or disappear in the river when a canoe capsizes. In the face of constant threats of invasion by oil and mining companies, illegal loggers and the state, the Wios carry out regular patrols of the Sarayaku territory and protect its borders. Gerardo told us sadly that the group has been accused by the government of being armed paramilitaries and terrorists. While it’s true that they bear the guns that they use daily for hunting, he said, these accusations are just another attempt to cast Sarayaku as violent extremists who are standing in the way of economic development.
Franco Viteri advised us to be ever vigilant for spies. When a community is in open resistance to the government’s extractive projects, there will always be attempts to infiltrate it. Often, spies come in the guise of volunteers, he warned.
The Sarayaku President, Tupak Viteri, talked about the importance of having patience, of playing a long game. He said how much he would like to visit Siekoya Remolino one day, to continue the relationship between the Sarayaku and the Siekopai.
Noemi Gualinga spoke movingly about the need to remain guided by the wise elders and by ayahuasca. It is in drinking ayahuasca that we find God, she said.
Towards the end of the ceremony, Jimmy rose to speak. He talked about the importance of “the plants of resistance”, especially ayahuasca, but also yokó, wayusa and tobacco. He then presented the five yokó plants to Tupak as a token of gratitude and unity between peoples. I was very relieved to see our gift finally being safely delivered!
Yadira also said a few words. She thanked the Sarayaku for welcoming us into their community and inviting us to the wayusa ceremony. She knew that in the Siekopai tradition, people would get up early to drink yokó in a similar way, but this custom was disappearing and she had never participated in a pre-dawn ceremony before. She told us about her grandma, who had been the last great ceramicist of the Siekopai Nation. Before Yadira’s grandma had died, she had told her that every master ceramicist must make at least one large clay recipient in her lifetime. When Yadira had arrived in Sarayaku and seen all the enormous clay chicha vessels, she had been incredibly moved. She had learned what she could from her grandma before her death and was doing her best to revive the ancestral Siekopai ceramic traditions, but sometimes felt alone without anyone to guide her on this path. Wiping away tears, she said how wonderful it had been to meet the Sarayaku ceramicist, how inspired she had been by our time there.
(credit: Karen Teran)
José closed the ceremony by presenting each of us with a bag of wayuri seeds, so that the Siekopai could grow their own palms for weaving traditional roofs.
As the ceremony ended, people got up and drifted into groups to start chatting more informally. I remained sitting on the bench, just taking a moment to appreciate the beautiful ceremony. I knew that no matter what happened now, our tour had been a success. A year of hard work had yielded more beautiful fruits than I could have imagined. José spotted me sitting alone and asked if I was alright. I went over to speak with him, explaining that I was more that alright, I was happy and grateful, my heart was full. I told him that I had been thinking back to the time, just a few months ago, when the idea of visiting Sarayaku with the Siekopai had been just a dream, and now here we were, sharing wayusa in brotherhood. I thanked José for all that he had done to make our visit so special. “I don’t usually act as personal tour guide for visitors, you know” he replied, “I did that to thank you for all the work you have done for me over the years”. If my heart was full before, in that moment it was fit to burst.
After breakfast, we walked to see a sample of the Sisa Ñampi, the border of flowering trees that the Sarayaku are planting around their territory. The 100km perimeter that has already been planted is located several days’ walk into the jungle, but the Sarayaku have established six sample sections on strategic hills close to the community, for easy monitoring and showing to visitors. We were accompanied by one of the young botanists who is working on the project, using the sample sections to study the feasibility of various trees species. We passed through one of the wayruri gardens en route, where the botanist carefully planted one of the yokó plants that we had brought. The walk to the Sisa Ñampi was long and steep, but we were rewarded with beautiful views when we reached the stretch of young flowering trees atop a hill, where a viewing platform overlooked the Sarayaku territory.
Heading back from our walk, we stopped in at Franco Viteri’s house, where a minga was in full swing. Exhausted after the pre-dawn ceremony and strenuous walk, none of us were very useful participants in the roof thatching effort. I marvelled at José’s energy as he macheted bamboo. At nearly 60 years old, even after leading a 4am ceremony and working all morning, he was fresh as a daisy.
In the afternoon, the Sarayaku President Tupak Viteri gave us a presentation on their organisational structure and life projects. The meeting took place in the main assembly maloca on the central square, which is known as the Casa del Medio Dia or House of Midday. This is in reference to an ancient prophecy of the Sarayaku ancestors claiming that they would be a pillar of resistance after other communities had surrendered, a beacon of light as strong as the midday sun.
Tupak outlined the Sarayaku’s life projects, including the airline, community bank, eco-tourism project, professional football team, centre for traditional medicines, agricultural cooperative, the Tayak Wasi school and the Sisa Ñampi.
He explained that the Sarayaku governance system is a bottom-up power structure, where all decisions are taken by the people in the general assembly. He talked us through the various departments, including Education, Health, Territory, Women & Families, Young People, Legal, Technical, International Relations, Finance and Security. Each department has an elected leader that sits on the Governing Council, which is advised by a counsel of former Presidents. Also part of the Governing Council are the kurakas, the elected leaders of the seven neighbourhoods that make up Sarayaku. All leaders meet every Friday afternoon to plan activities and review actions, Tupak said. I was starting to see how the Sarayaku’s astonishing achievements had been made possible!
After the meeting, Angelo presented his mural to the Sarayaku leaders. In homage to the Sarayaku’s spirit animal, he had painted a beautiful jaguar on the wooden building belonging to the communications team. The jaguar wore a toucan hat, inspired by the headwear that the Sarayaku use on special occasions. These striking millinery creations aren’t just made from feathers, but a whole toucan!
A crowd gathered to hear Angelo talk about his mural, which had generated much excitement. The leader of the communications team was so thrilled with the mural on his team’s building that he was almost in tears as he thanked Angelo.
That evening, we were invited to Franco’s house to participate in the end of the minga and to drink more chicha, but we were all exhausted after a long day and returned to our maloca for an early night.
The following morning, we set out for Puyo just after breakfast. On the return river journey, the canoes were driving against the current, which made the dry sections of river even more complicated. Along some stretches, Angelo got up to help the two Sarayaku men who were poling the canoe along using all their might.
The same three 4x4s were waiting to meet us on the unfinished stretch of road near the port. On the drive back to Puyo, I had time to think about the ten days that we had spent together. The tour had been an amazing success; everything I could have hoped for and more. The two places that we had visited had complemented each other perfectly, I thought, with Pambiliño so focused on education, and Sarayaku more of a general instruction in resistance, a chance to learn from the Jedi Masters of Amazonian defenders.
That evening we dined at the Café Escobar, a restaurant in Puyo known for its support of Amazonian communities defending their territories. The Siekopai were due to leave at 4am the following morning to catch an early bus, so we said our goodbyes after dinner. When Angelo and I got up in the morning, they were gone. After ten days of hearing them laugh and talk constantly, there was a silence so profound that it had its own sound.