by Zoë Tryon
In July 2011, I accompanied the extremely courageous people of the Kichua village of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. It was the end of a nine year quest for justice after CGC, an Argentinian oil company entered their ancestral territory uninvited. The company planted both superficially and subterraneanally, more than 1400 kg of pentolite explosives for seismic testing throughout about 65% Sarayaku traditional territory, they also cut down ‘lispungo’ a sacred tree, destroyed caves, waterfalls, and underground rivers used as drinking water sources for the Sarayaku People, – all in the quest for oil.
It was here in a seemingly soulless barren court room that I listened to testimony from Sabino Gualinga an elder of Sarakyu nearing his 90th birthday and learned how oil, spirits, land, people all affect and are affected by each other. Sabino had travelled all the way from the Amazon Rainforest to explain to the six judges, why oil development must not be allowed on his ancestral land. Sabino is a ‘Yachak’ in the Kichua language often translated as ‘Shaman,’ but really means, ‘one who knows’ – the nucleus of the tribe.
When we were wandering around a Costa Rican supermarket I asked Sabino what he ‘knows’, he paused by rows and rows of canned food.
‘I know the forest, I know how to listen to her and how to learn from her’
The yachak is the link between the people and the spiritual world of the forest, Sabino knows not only this world but the worlds of the spirit beings and sacred places, and more than just a translator of them, he is truly at one with them. Sabino and all the people of Sarayaku referred to the forest as a sentient being – the “living jungle” (Kawsak Sacha)
The Yachak is also a healer, his power comes from the spirits, plants, trees who teach him. But the earth must be thriving for the yachak to draw wisdom and energy to heal.
When one of the judges asked ‘what makes the land sacred?’
Sabino replied ‘I am referring to a jungle that is alive, beings that are like us, spirit people of the jungle, water and mountains they are masters of these ecosystems if they leave I don’t know how we will survive, all calamities will happen, earthquakes will come, and diseases will come, and that can’t happen.”
Spirits are the ‘owners’ of the forest, the trees, the medicinal plants, and the animals. When the earth is disturbed the unseen spirits are affected and they in turn affect the physical world. Sabino explained that when the pentonite bombs for seismic testing exploded, some of the spirits in the earth died and others fled, leaving a lifeless, sterile forest, devoid of animals. Sabino spoke of a fellow Yachak, Cesar Vargas who was deeply connected by ‘threads of energy’ to a sacred tree, his tree of power named ‘Lispungo’, which was felled by oil workers. Sabino told the court that Cesar “became very sad, and his wife died, then he died and a son died and after that another son died, and now only two daughters are left”.
I was horrified and heartbroken to hear of the loss of life, and it was then that I began to really understand how profoundly intertwined the web of life is in the kichua worldview and belief system. It is not just some theory, it is devastatingly real. In the understanding of the indigenous people and the idea of ‘the living forest’ or Kawsak Sacha, the forest and the people are one. The spirits or selves from the tiniest plants to the supreme being that makes up the whole forest all give the people wisdom, medicine, sustenance and shelter, and the people of Sarayaku stand and face all odds to protect their forest home.
I don’t come from a culture where this idea of kawsak sacha is taught from childhood, but I want an experience of it. So each day I choose to spend as many moments as I can in nature, watching, listening, building my relationship with the natural world. So I invite you to do the same today, in a park, in the mountains, the ocean or any living tree or plant if you live in the city. Build a relationship with nature, hang out with a tree on your way to work. Stop at the florist and nuzzle a flower.
I can’t yet hear the spirits of the plants, but I will keep listening and hoping that one day I shall.
And what happened in the court….
“Everyone in the court was profoundly moved by the testimony of all the representatives of Sarayaku, and the judges ruled in favour of the people and ordered the removal of the subsurface explosives so that the ‘spirituality of the place could be restored’, so that the spirits could return and once more the land and the people could thrive”
Quotes taken at the Inter American Court of Human Rights, Case of the Indigenous Kichwa de Sarayaku v. Ecuador, 2012