In digital defence of the Sarayaku community

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Echoes of election fraud cries ring around Ecuador as the dust from the recent election settles. The future still looks unclear, and how indigenous communities will be affected is yet to be seen.

In the Kichwa de Sarayaku community, technology and the natural world are joining forces to create a powerful coalition. Digital tools have become a weapon in the fight to protect the living forest which is home to this indigenous community, one of the oldest and most traditional settlements in Ecuador’s Amazon.

When Argentinian organisation Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC) was given a contract for oil exploration, the Sarayaku people were not consulted, despite 65% of the site sitting in their territory. Explosives were used to clear the forest for a new road. Yet more explosives were buried beneath the ground.

The community made the decision not to enter into an armed conflict, instead planning a legal case against the government.

Eriberto Gualinga, a photographer, videographer, and communications expert from the community, joined a panel at digital rights event RightsCon to share the story of the Sarayaku people: “In using paper, in using new technologies, finally our case came to the international court. After more than ten years of fight, we have finally managed to get a judgement in our favour.”

After a long battle, the Inter-American Court ruled that the Sarayaku people should have been consulted, and the government was ordered to pay damages to the community.

One digital tool played a major role in the case, using images and maps to put the impact into context for judges. The locations of petroleum blocks were superimposed onto a digital map, showing where they crossed over with land inhabited by indigenous communities. These geo-mapped locations were brought into the courtroom, showing the judges the reality of the case for the people living on the land.

At RightsCon, the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) presented this digital story map. Together with the Amazon Conservation Team, they developed the tool to help the Sarayaku community defend their land.

CEJIL’s Alexandra McAnarney said that it was created to show the risk posed to the Sarayaku people’s culture and way of life: “Digital maps can really help generate a better understanding within specialised legal audiences, and just general audiences, that aren’t always familiar with those realities.”

She said: “Maps can possess a tremendous capacity to reclaim the history of a city, a community, or a village if the inhabitants of those spaces actively participate in the development of those maps.”

The indigenous community was involved in the long process of capturing the data that would inform the map. A geographer met with elders, so that he could mark out sacred areas of land.

Although CGC was ordered to leave following the court case, they left behind a remnant that means the Sarayaku people are still unable to access most of their land: 1,400kg of pentolite buried in the ground. Although the petrol company has been ordered to remove the explosives, this has not yet happened. They could still detonate.

The 156 families that make up the Sarayaku community live in an area covering roughly 135,000 hectares. They are just one of hundreds of indigenous communities living in the Amazon.

The history of oil companies in the region is turbulent. The Western Amazon is covered with oil blocks amounting to 688,000 km2  – an area approximately the size of Germany. In Ecuador, two thirds of the land are covered with these oil blocks.

For the indigenous communities living amongst this, health issues are a very real concern. High levels of lead and cadmium have been found in the blood of some people tested, and animals have been filmed feeding in areas contaminated by oil spills – animals which are subsequently hunted by the indigenous people.

The Sarayaku community considers the jungle to be a living organism. Eriberto said: “We think that the woods have their own spirits, and so do the fish in the lake, that all nature has its own spirits. If the spirits leave the woods, or the trees, or the lagoons, then the land will dry out and that will result in sickness.”

Living off the land, the community is intrinsically linked with nature. Now, Eriberto says that he wants the world outside the Amazon to hear their stories: “The indigenous people need to be connected by technology to demonstrate their values, or simply so you know the richness of what might be lost, because of the extracting oil companies.”

While technology can be used as a way to connect the stories of the Sarayaku community with the wider world, accessibility issues make this vision difficult to achieve.

There is no phone signal in the community, and the satellite that gives them internet connection fails when more than four computers are connected. Eriberto said: “Developed countries have a lot to do. There are universities that have the best technological solutions that can reach these people.”

With the community ready to harness digital tools to help share their stories and defend their land, technological obstacles are causing frustrations. For now, Eriberto says: “My people can be assured they have a voice through me."

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