Franco Viteri is a Kichwa leader from Sarayaku, a community in the Ecuadorian Amazon made famous by their struggle against oil extraction in their territory. In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Ecuador must apologize and recompense the Sarayaku community for an oil project that damaged its ancestral lands and put lives at risk. In the 1990s, the Ecuadorian government gave permission to the Argentine oil company CGS to explore for oil in Sarayaku territory. During its operations, CGS used more than 1,433 kilograms of explosives, many of which are still strewn across Sarayaku territory. The IACHR ruling – which also said that the people of Sarayaku had not been properly consulted about the project – was seen as a major step forward in the Amazon region Indigenous peoples’ struggle for rights.
In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation to enshrine the rights of nature in its constitution. The constitution also guarantees the right to sumak kawsay – a Kichwa concept developed in Sarayaku that the government translates as “good living.” However, Viteri and the Kichwa of Sarayaku argue that the term is being misunderstood. It is not just about the right to live well, but also the necessity of adapting human life to the cycles of nature. This stands in direct contrast to the vision of the current government, which seeks to create social services and public works through the money made from resource extraction. Viteri often confronts this tension in his work as the leader of CONFENIAE, the Confederation of the Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Could you briefly explain the Sarayaku community’s struggle against oil companies?
Sarayaku succeeded in kicking out the Argentine [oil] company CGS in 2002. We then fought for more than 10 years before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where we brought the [Ecuadorian] government to trial for violating our rights because they gave permission for the oil operations in Sarayaku territory. They violated our rights: cultural rights, economic rights, the right to free determination of Indigenous peoples. The struggle of Sarayaku set a judicial and environmental precedent that this can be done.
Nature is our mother. She gives us life. We can’t impose our vain, selfish, and material whims on her. Instead, we need other ways to express happiness and quality of life. I’m happy when I breathe clean air. I’m rich because I breathe clean air. I have a big forest, land, animals, and fish. When the oil companies come and put up their oil rig that poisons our rivers and therefore poisons the fish, we can’t eat those fish and it destroys our food sovereignty. They build big hospitals, but it doesn’t make sense to have a hospital if here I am eating from a sick river, sick animals. For us the forest, the Amazon, is our hospital. It’s our market where we go and get the things we need to live. We want the world to understand this. We want companies to understand, and banks that finance those companies to understand. We defend nature just as nature defends us.
What idea or belief do you think we need to change in order to save ourselves from climate change?
Life is not just about material wealth; it’s about spirituality, about respecting Mother Nature. The life of lakes, mountains, rivers, ice, deserts, the forest – all of this is necessary to have planetary equilibrium. But oil and nuclear energy are threats if we continue at this pace. Globally, we consume a lot of energy from oil and this gives a lot of money to big companies, to banks. I’m talking about “extractivism” like mining, petroleum [extraction]. Coca-Cola is even taking ownership of sources of water. People are not free to get water from the rain. We human beings are becoming the property of businesses, the property of the market economy, which is a form of enslavement. This cannot be. This way of living is destructive for the planet and for all of us.
In Ecuador, many people are focused on the Western idea of development. It seems to me that sumak kawsay and the idea of living well could be an alternative to these ideas.
Yes, we shouldn’t just view sumak kawsay as something for ourselves. We should view sumak kawsay as something for every form of life. Everything has the right to sumak kawsay: plants, animals, lakes, mountains, oceans, rivers. In Ecuador this term is being used from a materialistic point of view. Capitalism is very materialistic. Socialism is very materialistic as well, and both positions destroy nature. Because of that, as Indigenous people we don’t really believe in the socialism of the twenty-first century, nor do we believe in the citizen’s revolution [of President Rafael Correa].
The Rights of Nature are written in the constitution, but in practice they’re still implementing mining and giving Indigenous territory to corporations. We can see the doublespeak of the current regime. They’re using the discourse of sumak kawsay to say “we’re caring for nature; we’re with the Indigenous peoples” – but it’s not reality. They showed that with Yasuní [National Park], when President Correa said that if they didn’t give him money to leave the oil in the ground, they would extract it. There was no desire to save Yasuní. He wasn’t defending it from his heart. He was defending it because he wanted to get money – and that’s not right.
What are your hopes for the future of your community and the Ecuadorian Amazon? What are your fears?
A lot of hopes, more hopes than fear. Because this is growing. That’s a hope – that other people too, even in the world’s big cities, are feeling that.
The threat is that the word is not getting out. So it’s important to spread the word. The media, instead of promoting the urban way of life and electronic gadgets, should promote the life of plants, the ocean, the importance of the forest, the mountain peaks, the ice, the glaciers, the big rivers, the importance of having pure oxygen and the importance of cultures.
And also the wars. We need the world to stop producing arms, to stop using nuclear energy. What happened in Fukushima, what happened in Chernobyl many years ago, these things can’t continue happening.
It isn’t well known [in Ecuador] that [in the United States] there are communities and young people like those who protested in the Occupy movement and communities that are against oil companies, against mining, against fracking. It’s important that the big TV stations and media companies focus more on this. For that to happen, we need to persuade and teach the media so that they say the truth, so they aren’t paid off by big companies and just say that everything is fine.
What is the goal of the current anti-Correa protests in Ecuador?
They want to throw out President Correa. But we’re afraid that if they throw him out, another will come with the same extractivist policies. For us it would be more prudent if the government finished their term and their popularity ran out so that the president doesn’t get re-elected.
As the president of CONFENIAE what issues are you focusing on?
The first is that we’re not in favor of this regime. We are constantly on guard and we are going to continue exercising our right to resist. First, because they’re not respecting the constitution and also because they’re not consulting us. That means that we’re going to see more abuses in different forms in the years to come. We are afraid that sooner or later they’re going to send logging companies, mining companies, or oil companies into the territory of the Indigenous nations.
Since Correa announced plans to abandon the Yasuní ITT Initiative, are you working with the Waorani or other organizations to prevent drilling or is there nothing to do at this point since they’ve already started work on the project?
The only solution is that this government leaves or falls. But this situation is also extremely complicated because if that happened there would be chaos. There are people who would want to take advantage of the situation in order to take the government. No one has guaranteed us anything, not those on the Left or those on the Right. That’s the reality here. The only thing left is resistance so we can continue living in peace and security in our land.
Did anything change in 2008 when the new Constitution guaranteed the rights of Nature?
No. In reality there wasn’t any change. What there was, was a change in rhetoric. The extractivist policies never changed.
Megan Alpert is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, and The Guernica Daily.
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