We spent the next two days talking to several of the local leaders and absorbing the beauty of the jungle. On New Year's Day we relaxed and observed some of the festivities, which were a mix of traditional dancing, speech-making and yet more chicha.
In our discussions we heard about the village's resistance to oil exploration on their land. Around 2003, the Argentine company CGC won the right from the Quito government to begin seismic testing in the area. All fine except that the Sarayacans were adamantly opposed to the project -- they were not interested in repeating what happened to the northern oil fields. Resistance to the oil companies took the form of actively escorting company employees off their land (among other things) as can be seen in the documentary, Soy Defensor de la Selva:
[The film was made by Heriberto Gualinga, a local Sarayacan filmmaker. He was nice enough to meet with us, screen his film and answer questions while we were there. The above clip is about 1/3 of the whole film -- the other two parts can be found here and here.]
The confrontation grew more serious when the Ecuadorean army was called in to back up the oil company (later in the film, you can see the Sarayacan women also confronting and disarming the soldiers). There were allegations that the army kidnapped and tortured 4 young men from the village. But in the end Sarayacu was successful. The NY Times had a decent rundown of the conflict and others like it in this article.
It was clear from talking with people that conflict with the oil companies had radicalized Sarayacu. Except "radical" isn't quite the right word. More like: focused their desire to control they way the interacted with the outside world.
There are some indigenous groups in Ecuador -- most famously some communities of the Huaorani -- who live deep in the rain forest and have voluntarily isolated themselves from outside culture. Sarayacu is most emphatically not one of those. Sarayacu has internet access, an agricultural college, solar and gasoline power, flush toilets, and a website. They have opened up their village to eco-tourists (like us), both to cultivate allies and to replace income that might have come from oil contracts.
We also spoke briefly with Marlon Santi, who is the current president of CONAIE - the largest indigenous organization in Ecuador. He pointed out that this local political savvy mirrors the growing political clout of indigenous communities in the wider Ecuadorean politics. Periodic popular uprisings organized by CONAIE have won indigenous people greater control over their lands and have even helped topple a few governments. The indigenous movement has also been on the cutting edge of environmental activism in Ecuador.
There is a lot more to say about our time in Sarayacu, but primarily I was deeply impressed by their gracious hospitality and by the thoughtfulness with which they negotiated their interactions with the outside world. They had clearly thought hard about how they wanted to "develop" their corner of the world, weighed the pros and cons -- and I definitely got the sense that they are in the driver's seat.