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The tree of life vs. the tree of death
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
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Technology transforms one Kichwa community.

In 2002, the Sarayaku Kichwa community was thrust into the spotlight when it kicked out Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC), a subsidiary of US-based oil company Texaco (now Chevron) from its territory, fearing environmental, social and economic damage.

Residents of Sarayaku, located in the Amazon province of Pastaza, lived off of what they hunted and fished.

They had little contact with the provincial capital, Puyo, and were very protective of their identity and social structure.

The concession granted to CGC to explore for oil in Block 23 between 1964 and 1992 changed the community’s life as they were forced to face oil company workers, the military protecting the oil fields and other communities that decided to ally themselves with the oil company.

“We found out what happened to our families in the north [of Ecuador], we found out what Texaco did and we didn’t want that,” said Mario Santi, a Sarayaku community leader.

He was speaking about the environmental and health damage that oil exploitation had caused in the Orellana and Sucumbios provinces, where many families from Sarayaku moved in the 1970s.

The community faced sieges; the path to the rivers was closed. The oil company also sued some of the community leaders.

Outside help
Sarayaku teamed up with several national and international organizations that promised to back them in their fight against the oil company.

The organizations provided funds for training in the defense of collective rights and community production projects. To soften the effects of the siege, the organizations proposed constructing a small landing strip in the community.

The community built the runway, paving it with gravel, and the community began to have daily contact with Puyo.

The runway was meant to serve international observation missions and the delivery of aid. The arrival of food changed the community significantly as a new addition arrived in the community: food stores.

Trade increased as a greater number of products and community stores created needs that did not exist before.

A growing demand made river travel obsolete and airplanes became the ideal mode of transport for quick trade between the provincial capital and the community. Money became a necessity and as a result, paid work.

Small changes lead to bigger ones
“Certain small changes can end up making conceptual changes in the social dynamic,” said anthropologist Liset Coba, a professor at the Catholic University of Quito.

She says that these changes are also inevitable and test the community’s ability to maintain their basic principles “Culture is not static,” she said.

“It changes permanently with external contributions and internal changes that can even end up going against a community’s identity. The challenge is to incorporate changes that strengthen [a community’s] basic principles.”

The changes in Sarayaku included the installation of solar panels to produce electricity and recently, a parabolic antenna for a satellite Internet system.

The electricity allowed a radio system to keep the community in touch with the world outside their community, which helped them monitor harassment by the military and give immediate responses.

Later, small televisions and DVD players made their way into the community and Hollywood films are now a popular diversion here.

DVDs are also used for training in Sarayaku. Community members film their resistance actions and show them to visitors and fellow residents. But films are becoming increasingly popular.

“It’s a double-edged sword. The DVDs help us train and the children get to see what we did to resist, but when there is no training, they watch other things,” said Santi.

Growing outside influence
A similar scenario has occurred with the antenna. The project is a part of an agreement with the University of Cuenca to implement a distance learning program and the possibility of university education for Sarayaku youths.

“We’re going to have a control over what the young people see, that they go into university classrooms and are not going to see anything else,” Santi said.

The stores, television, films and the Internet are changing the face of Sarayaku.

The young people are using bandannas with British and US flags like they have seen in the movies; and the number of popular music CDs is increasing, relegating the culture’s oral traditions and musical instruments.

“The tree of life is full of our things, our identity, our customs,” said Santi. But there is also “the tree of death, which is oil contamination, the loss of our identity, our language.”

That is precisely what is awaiting Sarayaku if its residents are unable to unit the influence of the outside world with their own values.


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