The Fight for Sarayaku: Defending Our Sacred Land

Last Updated: June 20, 2024By

The Fight for Sarayaku: Defending Our Sacred Land


Living along the beautiful Bobonaza River in the lush Ecuadorian Amazon, the Indigenous Sarayaku community has always cherished a deep connection with nature. To them, the rainforest isn’t just a place—it’s a sacred, living entity. Patricia Gualinga, one of the community leaders, often speaks of the forest as a conscious being, deserving of respect and protection.


A Threat to Their Home

In the late ’90s, an Argentinian company came into the picture with plans to search for oil. They wanted to use high explosives to probe the earth, disrupting the delicate balance of the forest. The Sarayaku people weren’t having it. They fought back, even taking their case to an international court. It was a tough battle, but in 2012, they won. Yet, even after more than ten years, the explosives are still there, scattered across their territory.


A Broken Promise

The story begins in 1996, when the Argentinian company CGC, signed a deal with Ecuador’s state oil company, Petroecuador, to explore the Sarayaku land for oil. They offered all sorts of incentives—medical care, jobs, money—but the Sarayaku community, valuing their heritage and the forest’s sanctity, stood firm and said no.


Other nearby communities, like Jatún Molino and Pacayaku, accepted these offers, but not Sarayaku. In 1999, the community took a bold step by destroying the company’s camps and confronting the oil workers, halting their progress.


A Dangerous Legacy

Despite their resistance, by 2002, CGC managed to infiltrate the area with the support of the Ecuadorian military. They laid down 1.43 tonnes of pentolite, a dangerous high explosive used in both industry and warfare. This explosive is highly sensitive to heat and shock and can send deadly fragments flying up to a mile away if triggered.


The explosives, buried in unknown locations throughout the forest, pose a constant threat. They prevent the Sarayaku people from fully accessing their land, instill fear, and threaten the ecosystem they hold dear.


Legal Victory and Continued Struggle

In a landmark ruling in 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) condemned Ecuador for not consulting the Sarayaku people before allowing oil exploration. This ruling was a huge win for Indigenous rights. However, despite the legal victory, the explosives remain, haunting the community.


The Ecuadorian government was ordered to deactivate and remove the explosives, but this hasn’t happened. The state paid $1.4 million in compensation and issued an apology, but the promised actions to ensure safety and respect for the Sarayaku’s rights were never fulfilled.

The Ongoing Battle

Mario Melo, the lawyer who has represented the Sarayaku people, criticizes Ecuador for prioritizing the oil industry over the rights and safety of its people. “If the state removes the pentolite, it acknowledges the harm the oil industry causes. This could inspire other Indigenous groups to demand the cessation of oil activities on their lands,” he explains.

For the Sarayaku, living with the fear of these explosives is a daily reality. Dionicio Gualinga, a community member, expresses his concerns: “My family and I no longer walk in certain areas. We don’t know how these explosives work, and it feels like they could go off at any moment.”

Community and Conflict

The presence of the oil company didn’t just bring environmental risks; it also caused tensions with neighboring communities. Patricia Gualinga recalls conflicts with other Indigenous groups who saw the Sarayaku’s resistance as a hindrance to development. There were instances of violence, blockades, and intimidation.

Despite these challenges, the Sarayaku community remains united in their fight. They believe their victory in the IACHR case sends a strong message to any company thinking of exploiting their land.

Respecting the Living Forest

The Sarayaku’s commitment to preserving their environment extends beyond their immediate territory. They played a significant role in Ecuador’s decision to grant legal rights to nature under its constitution, a global first. Their philosophy, Kawsak Sacha, views the forest as a living entity, with every part contributing to its overall consciousness.

A Call for Action

The fight isn’t over. In January, Ecuador’s constitutional court gave the government a six-month deadline to develop a plan to neutralize and remove the explosives. Meetings have been held, but the community remains cautious. Mario Melo warns that the state’s failure to act could lead to further legal action.

The Guardian reached out to CGC and the Ecuadorian government for comments but received no response. As the June deadline approaches, the Sarayaku community and their supporters are watching closely, ready to take further steps to ensure their land and way of life are protected.

The Sarayaku’s story is one of resilience and unwavering commitment to their beliefs. They stand as a powerful reminder of the importance of respecting and protecting the natural world.

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