The Sarayaku tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon have fought a war against an oil company for several years. Their most important weapon? Modern media.
"This is a war on information. And it is the oil company itself that has taught us to fight it," said Heriberto Gualinga, who is a kind of ‘communications boss’ for the Sarayaku-indians in the Ecuadorian jungle.
He turns on a noisy fuel-driven power generator, pulls the cord through the muddy rainforest soil past a couple of scared chickens five feet up to his hut on poles to a laptop computer, a screen and two speakers. They look very misplaced in the middle of the jungle. Here sits Heriberto, 28, shirtless, under the roof of palm leafs as he molds his bullets against the oil company CGC in the form of video documentaries.
Defender of the jungle
The noise from the generator attracts a handful of kids from the village – they know something exciting is going on at Heriberto’s when it is on, and the hut is soon full.
Heriberto shows us his first film I am Defender of the Jungle from 2002, when Sarayaku decided to defend their territory physically after the oil company started to send in workers.
The law obliges an oil company to gain permission from the locals before entering a territory and Sarayakus 2000 inhabitants had said no. Thus, Sarayaku captured the oil workers and after a few days let them go unharmed. This maneuver made the military enter the area to protect the oil company.
The film focuses on Sarayakus women. They are the ones that talk, and they are the ones who capture the oil workers. A scene shows a group of women in Sarayaku, with spears and painted faces. Three women stand in front of an army colonel with machine guns. Before they hand over the machine guns, which they took from the army in a battle, each of the three women give the colonel a rebuke on their native kichwa language: "The nature is a holy places", they say, "we never wish to see you nor the oil company here again."
"The oil company had told the media that it was a small group of men from Sarayaku that were behind the resistance against them," said Heriberto. "But my movie shows that all of Sarayaku was united and that we were pacifist. And it showed that it was actually the women that lead the fight, because the men were threatened with imprisonment and violence."
Attacks and responses
The media war started back in 2001 when the Argentine oil company CGC bought one hour daily airtime on the local radio station in the regional capital Puyo said journalist Carlos Velastegui who covers the Puyo area for the national newspaper El Comercio.
The radio is the most important media in the poor Amazon area. Every family owns a radio. Via radio programs, CGC explained that oil exploration would bring jobs and development to the indigenous communities living in the area of the block 23 that CGC had bought the rights to explore. The programs also attacked leaders of Sarayaku personally, explains Carlos.
Sarayaku, in turn, responded with their own radio spots that explained their version. Simultaneously they created a website, both in Spanish and English, and started to send out press releases.
"As soon as CGC came with an allegation, there was a phone call, a fax, or a press release from Sarayaku," said Carlos. "They understand how to use the press."
As signs of conflict started to show, Heriberto started to film what went on in their territory. He used a cheap video camera donated by an aid organization and handed over the recordings to local and national media so they could counter the allegations made by CGC and the army. The recordings also showed how soldiers heavy-handedly ransacked women who sailed on the rivers in Sarayakus territory.
Later, Heriberto traveled around Ecuador and the world, showing his movie at universities and aid-organizations to win support for the Sarayaku case.
"To show a video to people has a much stronger influence than just to stand in front of them and tell about how unfair everything is," sais Heriberto.
And it helped. Through the website, the documentary movie, press contacts, and NGOs, the ‘Sarayaku case’ is now one of the most talked about conflicts between indigenous communities and oil companies in the world.
"Now the oil company and the military know that communication is our strength. They know that everything that happens here reach the press, either via local, national, or international media, or via our website. Everything CGC have had – press contacts, website, videos, technology – we also have had to obtain, to fight the media war. So now we are even," added Heriberto.
Teach the youth
A tense tranquility has fallen over the huts and the trees and the river in Sarayaku three years after the worst conflict. The fight against CGC is now mostly fought in courtrooms, and the military have left the area.
But the information war is not over. Sarayaku had a radio spot airing daily in Puyo when we visited, after CGC claimed Sarayaku had stolen explosives for seismic tests that the company had left behind in the area.
"CGC casts a dark shadow over the dreams of the Sarayaku people," a dramatic voice says in the spot.
Heriberto is just about done with his next movie – this time an offensive media strategy aimed at other indigenous communities and the youth of Sarayaku. The film, called The Wisdom of the Jungle Man, tells the story of Sarayakus 25-year-long fight to obtain the right to their territory. It is about a young boy who visits the elders in the community and learns how nature is a source for medicine and life.
"If the oil company comes, it is not only nature that will suffer. Our ancient wisdom will disappear," an old man tells the young boy.
The idea about this new movie is to make the youth conscious so they can find the strength to keep fighting for our territory. The youth have to know our history and be strong in their ideas and arguments when things start to get serious again," explains Heriberto. "Now it is the young peoples time to take over and let the older ones rest."
The movie is to be shown in Sarayakus schools, and a screening tour is being planned. Several communities in the area have made deals with CGC to let them explore for oil. This new movie urges the indigenous peoples to stand united and reminds them that their ancient (millenario) culture is in danger.
The Sarayakus also want to use modern media to defend their culture. They are building a library with videos, audio recordings and photos about their history, their knowledge of the jungle, and about the many myths that until recently was transferred only orally.
"The people that possess our most important knowledge are dying out. When we have the technology, we have to take advantage of it," said Heriberto. "Many young people are away at school in the city five days a week, so they don’t have the same possibilities to take over the important knowledge that is needed to live in the jungle. Soon they will be able to see a video with their ancestors that will tell them about the secrets of the jungle in their own words."
Comment from CGC:
The oil company CGC wrote in a letter to the author that their work with oil exploration in the area – for which they had obtained the Ecuadorian state’s permission – has been made impossible by the kidnappings by the Sarayaku. According to CGC the area has lost 600 direct jobs and another 1200 indirect jobs.
"We expect that the state will find a solution so that we can start working again under optimal circumstances," wrote Ricardo Nicolas, CEO of CGC Ecuador in September 2006.
Rune Geertsen work for the Danish NGO IBIS in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. The article was first printed in the Danish magazine Samvirke in May 2007.