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Ecuador’s Sarayaku: first the floods, now the plague

Indigenous communities, already devasted by flooding, mobilise against Covid-19



Main image: Sarayaku under water during the flooding of the Bobonaza River. The community of Sarayaku lost 30 houses, 7 bridges and plantations of yucca, banana and maize. Photograph courtesy of Eriberto Gualinga of Sarayaku

The Kichwa village of Sarayaku, home to 380 indigenous families, was devastated by floods in the middle of March that washed away 30 houses and destroyed crops. Then, in April, it was struck by coronavirus.

Sarayaku is a Kichwa community perched on the banks of the River Bobonaza, at the headwaters of the Amazon, where they have been resisting oil prospecting since the 1990s, finally winning a case against the Ecuadorian government for violating the community’s rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in 2012.

Radio program; Chikwan Rimay Chikwan Rimay is a radio program to spread the word to the people of Sarayaku. We come to you with the message of strengthening our culture, our fight for a healthy territory, free from pollution and destruction to the environment. We are here to exercise and defend self determination, the self-government of the people of Sarayaku and its worldview involving humans, natural resources, flora, fauna and the ichthy wildlife of rivers and lagoons. Our commitment is to spread the wisdom of the people of Sarayaku especially and that of the Amazonian peoples in general. -Image and text: Sarayaku Facebook page

On 17 March, after rain had been falling all night, the river began to rise. The communities always watch the flow of the river, and were communicating with each other on Motorola walkie-talkies about the unusually heavy rain as dawn broke.

Sarayaku after the March 2020 flood.

The river first engulfed the hamlet of Sarayakillu, washing away houses and crops. As soon as the news reached the main village, neighbours rushed to help them on foot and by canoe.

When the young men who had gone to help the families of Sarayakillu returned to Sarayaku, they found that the main bridge across the river had been destroyed by the water, which had pulled it from its cement base, and was beyond repair, according to Sarayaku director of communications, José Miguel Santi.

Santi described how they could hear the people shouting as their houses were washed away. ‘We did not want to lose anyone, so we rushed to help them.’ Luckily everyone was saved.

In total, the village lost 33 houses, chicken runs, fish tanks, school buildings, archives, guest rooms, the conference, music and dance hall. All the plantations of crops along the river, of bananas, yucca and maize, the paths that run between the settlements, and seven footbridges, were lost.

ARAYAKU IN ECUATORIAN CONSTITUTIONAL CUT Amidst a critical situation due to flooding and numerous infections of COVID 19, Sarayaku will again be before a court to claim its territorial rights. Washington, D. C., Quito, Sarayaku. June 24, 2020.- On June 19, 2020, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court notified the admission of the application for non-compliance filed by the Original People Kichwa of Sarayaku against Lenin Moreno , President of the Republic, César Litardo… from Sarayaku facebook page 2 July 2020

‘We have not experienced anything like this for 100 years—it is a catastrophe’, said José Gualinga, distinguished elder and former president of Sarayaku.

That night, no one slept for fear of another flood. Santi described how some families were standing around their collapsed houses or gazing at their destroyed crops, in danger of sinking into the mud as they walked. Now they had to start to rebuild from scratch, each family helping the others.

Coronavirus arrives in Sarayaku

Fifteen days after the flood, some of the villagers began to experience COVID-19 symptoms, taking traditional medicine in the hope that it was just a cold; but as the symptoms persisted, the leaders asked for coronavirus tests for the community. On 11 June, the provincial Health Ministry department sent a team to conduct 90 tests and three PCRs. There were 25 positive cases. Sarayaku president Tupac Viteri said that the virus had been spreading through their community for two months, but they had not realised what was happening. Families who had gone to Puyo to collect their conditional cash transfers (bono de desarollo humano) had brought the virus back with them when they returned home.

Measures taken to address the pandemic (from Sarayaku Kichwa Facebook post 15 June 2020)

  • Provision of masks for collective work
  • A list of guidelines for the school and families
  • Disinfection of communal areas
  • Provision of alcohol for disinfection
  • Distancing measures
  • Recommendation of traditional medicine

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The community expressed disappointment at the failure of the government to make any provision to assist the people of Sarayaku when in danger of being infected with Covid-19. 

After a new Governing Council of the Ancestral Sarayaku Kichwa People was established on 31 May 2020 in the middle of the pandemic, Sarayaku President Tupac Amaru Viteri Gualinga issued a statement criticising the government´s response to the outbreak of COVID-19 and in which he reiterated the community´s demand that the Sarayaku territory be protected indefinitely from logging, oil extraction and mining.

On 12 June 2020, the new Sarayaku Governing Council held a virtual press conference to make their demands to the government, as it was announced on their Facebook page.

The same day, the Sarayaku posted on their Facebook page the list of demands that President Tupac Amaru Viteri Gualinga had issued to the Ecuadorian government, according to the sacred mandate of his community:

  1. We appeal to the Ecuadorian government to fulfil its obligations under the ruling in the Sarayaku case [successful ruling in favour of the Sarayaku in 2012 against the Ecuadorian government in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights].
  2.  We shall take action to obtain legal recognition for the Kawsak Sacha-Living Forest proposal at a National and International Level.

[The Kawsak Sacha proposal is to establish a protected area in the Amazon, to be considered “Sacred Territory and Biological and Cultural Patrimony of the Kichwa People of Ecuador” where the people’s harmonious relationship with nature will be preserved. This implies that the area be declared free from all oil, mineral and lumber extraction in accordance the Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008 which enshrines the Rights of Nature in Ecuador.]

  • We demand that Education and Health be prioritised as a right under the Ecuadorian constitution.
  • We demand that the parish, canton and provincial governments, and other public organisations accede to the Sarayaku people’s requests for the provision of basic needs.
  • We reject the extractivist policies of the national government [of Ecuador]. We will remain on high alert to protect the rights and integrity of our people in our territory..

Amazon Emergency Fund

Viteri described how, after the floods, a team of young Sarayakans were able to obtain supplies of food, medicine and construction materials for Sarayaku and the other affected communities of Pacayacu, Molinos, Teresa Mama and Montalvo.

‘Three days after the floods, the Secretary of Risk Management brought mattresses. The families are rebuilding their lives, constructing temporary houses to sleep in, but we have received no further visits from the authorities,’ the president said. Viteri declared that the Sarayaku had been completely abandoned by the authorities.

The Pachamama Foundation issued a statement on 7 May 2020 in which they commented that a collaborative effort on the part of aid agencies and academic networks, working together at a national and international level, had made possible monitoring of the pandemic that had shown that COVID-19 was present in all the Ecuadorian Amazon provinces, particularly Pastaza, where 385 cases were confirmed.

The Pachamama Foundation was a member of the consortium of NGOs that includes the US-based Rainforest Foundation and the ‘Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin’ (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica, or COICA), the umbrella group of indigenous peoples’ representative organizations in the nine countries spanning the Amazon basin, which set up the Amazon Emergency Fund on 7 May. The consortium also assisted the Sarayaku.

Image: webpage of Amazon Emergency Fund

The Amazon Emergency Fund was created to support rapid response grants for urgent and immediate prevention and care, food and medical supplies, emergency communications and evacuation, protection and security for forest guardians, and sustainable food systems and community resilience.