Hivos International

The Sarayaku case

Srayaku men

By Siebe Aanbeek

Peace has returned to Sarayaku. It’s the day after and normal life has resumed. Children are splashing about in the river, someone is repairing a thatched roof and bowls of ‘chicha’ are being prepared. On the surface, it doesn’t look as if history has been written here.

What could possibly happen in a village like Sarayaku – a mere dot on the map of the expansive Amazon rainforest? Only a few hundred people live here. It takes a canoe rigged with a powerful outboard motor a full day to reach the nearest town. There are no roads and the villagers are easy to overlook.

This is precisely what happened at an Ecuadorian Ministerial department back in 1996. A decision was made about one of the squares into which the land had been divided after oil was discovered. CGC, an Argentinian company, was given the rights to prospect for oil in block 23. The government officials and oil prospectors were probably not even aware that Sarayaku was in the middle of this block. In any case, they were not particularly concerned – everything had to make way for oil. However, things were about to change.


Sarayaku’s residents knew what the quest for oil had led to in other parts of the Amazon rainforest. They knew the stories about how the forest had been slashed, about polluted rivers in which fish no longer lived, and about flooding as a result of soil erosion. They also knew that the afflicted villages were often given a school, a clinic and a village hall. The government even fitted these buildings with air conditioning and provided a perpetual supply of fuel for generators. But this failed to impress the village elders of Sarayaku. What do you need a clinic for if you trust the shaman? Why meet in a hall when you can do so outside? And a school? Sarayaku already had one.

It was in 2002 that the oil company first ventured into the forest of Sarayaku. Backed by the Ecuadorian army, CGC conducted seismic surveys in the area. Large quantities of explosives were detonated at fishing sites, hunting grounds and holy places. Sarayaku sprang into action. Residents erected ‘peace camps’in areas where CGC operated and refused to give in to threats from soldiers. It was a successful approach.


Sarayaku made the headlines. Not only because of the peaceful resistance of its residents, but also because they took the matter to the highest court in the region. With the support of human rights organisation and Hivos partner Pachamama, village chief José Gualinga made his way to the Inter-American Human Rights court in Costa Rica. The court opened the Sarayaku case and ordered the immediate cessation of seismic exploration activities.

In the years that followed Sarayaku and Pachamama joined forces to fight the battle. Evidence was provided to the court and José Gualinga talked to parliaments across the world about the injustice that had been done to his people. His rising star was a thorn in the side of South American presidents and ministers. The odds seemed to be in favour of this indigenous inhabitant of a little village on the Bobonaza river ... what if he won the case? It would create a precedent for thousands of other villages in the oil-rich Amazon rainforest.

History is written

It’s 25 July 2012 and the village of Sarayaku has come together in the new computer room. It is packed, yet you can hear a pin drop. It’s the day of the court ruling. Their faces painted for the occasion, the villagers have their eyes glued to a computer screen. Thanks to the new satellite connection, which the younger villagers are already familiar with, the court proceedings can be watched live. Just seconds after the court decides in José Gualinga’s favour on all counts, the entire village knows the battle has been won. Sarayaku has regained control of its land and the state of Ecuador is ordered to pay 1.3 million dollars in damages and to clear the remaining explosives.

Outbursts of joy are followed by the realisation that Sarayaku, once more, has its future in its own hands. The villagers share the news on Facebook and Twitter as the ‘chicha’ is passed round. Life continues at exactly the right pace.