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Illustration by Wio Gualinga shows the Sarayaku concept of a ‘Living Forest’

The Sarayaku people live in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, on the banks of the Bobonaza River. From the forest, they have historically fought for the protection of their territory. As part of their actions in defense of life, they succeeded in having the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemn the Ecuadorian State for the exploration of oil without consultation in their territory and for the violation of their rights. With this precedent, the Sarayaku people became an example for other indigenous peoples who oppose extractive industries and the violent intrusion of extractors into their territories and their life plans.

However, the fight did not end with the court decision. Since 2012, they have expanded their strategies to ensure their decisions are respected by states and private actors who ignore indigenous authorities and view their territory as a commodity.

One of these proposals is the Kawsak Sacha (Living Forest), a transversal axis in the struggle to defend the lives and existence of human and non-human beings in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The concept is part of the ancestral knowledge of the Sarayaku people and many other Amazonian peoples who have mobilized to maintain the interconnection that exists between humans and non-humans. Using multiple political, spiritual, cultural and legal tools, the Sarayaku people want the Ecuadorian state to recognize their territory as a living being/living forest and guarantee the sovereignty of the indigenous people based on the balance that exists between humans and non-humans.

In this conversation, José Gualinga Montalvo – also known as Angun – a current advisor to the Tayjasaruta (Sarayaku Governing Council) and its former Tayak Apu (president), explains one of the most powerful proposals to put nature back into the center, a strategic move to confront the climate emergency which is now accelerating.

José Gualinga Montalvo says the concept emerged after hearing a surprising and incredible noise coming from the forest. Photo: Diego Forero – 070

SUMAÚMA: What is the concept behind the Kawsak Sacha proposal?

José Gualinga Montalvo: We have grown up with our grandparents, our parents, the community and in this process of life, our parents have always instilled in us that the forest is a living being, it is alive and they always considered it as such.

The forest and life depend on this connection; the existence of all of us depends on it. And so my ancestors had respect and procedures and rituals to be able to enter the jungle, to walk in this forest; that’s how we grew up.

How was the Kawsak Sacha proposal created?

The proposal for the Kawsak Sacha declaration was created in 1986. When I was very young, I was walking with a group of people, including my dad, the wise Sabino Gualinga. We walked through the forest for eight days. And in that process, my dad was explaining to us the importance of the lagoons, the wetlands, the trees, the mountains.

There he explained to us where they lived, where the beings were, the Amazanga, Sacharuna, Yashingu, who are protective beings. During that walk and exchange, the concept of the Sisa Ñampi, also known as the Living Path of Flowers or Border of Life, was born.

What is Sisa Ñampi?

Sisa Ñampi, the Living Path of Flowers or Border of Life, is an idea that was born with the objective of showing part of what our grandparents and great-great-grandparents had taught us and society in general, in Ecuador, and internationally, through the action of planting flower trees to surround our territory. The Border of Life is a symbol of flowers, an invisible border between life and death, a symbol of life.

After many years, we had another deep expedition. We were carrying out our ancestral practices, such as hunting. I was with several of my brothers and other friends in the sacred areas of the black lagoons, in a retreat zone. In this journey, each one of us is located in a different point in order to hunt some guans for our families.

At that moment, it was my turn to go back, back to where we came from. For us, going back is negative energy and it is a bit worrying and frightening. However, I was the leader of the group at the time, so I was the person who had to risk going back. The rest walked forward, at the important points where the guans were singing. That was in the early morning, about 4:00 a.m.

Then at dawn, around 5:30 a.m., the first breezes started to appear. I had caught four guans, everything was very quiet and calm, only the songs of eagles, crickets, frogs and night monkeys could be heard. Suddenly, at that moment, I heard a very loud noise. A noise that surprised me because it was not a normal, simple sound, but that of a drum. It sounded like a giant drum, with a heavy vibration. It sounded very close, about 100 feet (30 meters) away. The noise began to rumble all around. Then there was no longer just one, there were more than 100 coming from different places, then about 1,000. And the sound began to surround us on all sides.

At that moment I was afraid, I was worried because the daytime had not yet arrived, it was dark because the treetops were still blocking the light. I wanted the sun to rise. So I tied the four guans up with a vine. However, because I was nervous, I tied them wrong and when I started to walk, the four birds broke free. After a few minutes I managed to tie the birds correctly and continued walking towards the other people, but, panicking, I lost the small trail. And I was getting more and more desperate! Some time later, I found our trail again.

In the group there we had a wiseman with us. I found him first and asked if he’d heard that sound. His response was that we had to get out of there quickly. I went out and met my brothers, and the rest of the group.

When I returned to the center of the territory, I began to wonder about this noise. How to go deeper into the concept of the Kawsak Sacha [Living Forest]. I understood the existence of Kawsak Sacha and the whole mystery began to revolve around this amazing and incredible sound. That was when I started researching and writing about Kawsak Sacha.

And what are the concepts you wrote?

Talking with the elders, with my father, in the ayahuasca ceremonies and walking in the jungle, I asked about the life of Kawsak Sacha; I was curious to discover what that mysterious and phenomenal sound was. After a while, I put everything together and that is when the proposal of Kawsak Sacha, Living Forest, the jungle of the protective beings, came about. That was my first writing on the subject. I spent more than ten years studying it.

Later, at the first Congress of the Original Kichwa people of Sarayaku following the fight against the oil company, after we had already gone to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, I proposed to the Assembly of the People to take up the Kawsak Sacha proposal. This is one of the avant-garde proposals regarding the resistance of the Sarayaku people, in which we seek to have our territory declared a living being. And we are making progress.

After many trips, for example, to Brussels and Paris, we published the first statement in 2012. The statement proposes that our territory is alive. And in 2018, for the first time, we made the statement public.

In the declaration we explain that the forest is alive, it is a living, intelligent and conscious being. We presented that statement in the city of Quito and it was one of our first major events. This is a proposal for the vindication of territorial rights; it also proposes a transformation and an inner change for human beings.

What are these changes you are referring to?

What we propose to humanity, to citizens, is to understand that we are nature, nature itself is alive and is part of us, and we are part of it. Everything we call nature, the lagoons, the trees, the marshes, the dens and burrows, everything is interconnected. And we are interconnected, our ancestors, our parents, our grandparents, we are all interconnected. This is the Kawsak Sacha, it is the jungle, the forest that is alive.

Could you say a little more about the idea of interconnection?

Yes, in our language, in our communication, firstly through dream visions, we communicate with the protective beings, with the Kawsak Sacha. In that form of communication, it is language between humans, between women, men, children, it is a communication that also connects with the jungle. Communication in dreams is with plants, with trees. This can be with the tree itself, it can be with the jaguar itself and it can be the forest itself, with the sacred lagoons. This is the first form of communication.

The second form of communication is through the ayahuasca rituals, the reality of the living beings, of the indigenous peoples. There we learn that the Sarayaku people are one inhabitant but that there are also others, we see that peoples similar to us live in the lagoons. We make friends with them, we communicate with the Kuracas, with the chiefs.

In that process we find interconnectivity and so we have made friends and we live through that energy and that strength. That is more or less our idea.

Is our connection made through communication? Not only. It is not simply about saying that the forest is a living being but also that it is similar to us, it is equal and it is greater. And so with all beings, like the anaconda, for example, it is a being just like us. And, well, when do you want that communication to happen? When you come across the anaconda.

Do humans represent this being or might it be the other way around? Yes. You can also dream of having the vision of communication with the anaconda and you can also meet a second being, at any time, for example, when a new person arrives in the community.

So we understand, for example, if a person is spiritually powerful and has a positive energy. Sometimes they bring communication with the anaconda; the message of the connection of that anaconda is also the energy of a person and the jungle. And it is the same with the jaguar.

This is the way we coexist and connect, to understand how we are; in other words, coexisting with the world, with the territory.

What are the changes you are seeking by promoting the Kawsak Sacha proposal?

With the proposal, we seek the recognition and legitimization of indigenous governance in the territories of life/kawsak sacha. We seek the creation of a special category that recognizes our governance in indigenous territories to protect our autonomy and self-government.

We also seek the recognition of the territory as a living, conscious and intelligent being. We are looking for a special title, something which represents to us that this territory is sacred, where there is life, where there are lagoons, waterfalls, mountains, marshes and huge trees, and where we coexist with protective beings.

This recognition of the living forest is truly the space that guarantees the intrinsic relationship we have with this non-visible world which, in our philosophy and worldview, is living territory.

In addition, this recognition allows us to have and manage national and international funds in a direct way to implement our life plans according to our worldview. This space is where we shape our own solutions and also develop the Good Living / Sumak Kawsay, finding solutions for health, education and economic problems and for basic needs that are not being met. In other words, we seek to generate a model of community, a model of society with a high cultural level, so that our history and existence will continue.

We also seek that, within the forest, within the jungle, there is a different form of settlement, an urban development that is different from the big cities and protected beneath the canopy of trees; where roads, bridges, social life, communication and technology are present and well developed. And our main goal is the conservation of the territory, the conservation of the living forest.

This is what we are putting forward in our proposal to legitimize the recognition of the Sarayaku territory as Kawsak Sacha. And it is also what we propose to other peoples who do not yet understand that the Kawsak Sacha proposal is a universal vindication of the territorial rights of indigenous peoples and a transformative proposal to coexist with nature.

One of the elements you have mentioned is also self-governance and the connection with the Kawsak Sacha, could you tell us about this?

We’ve been working to generate a new model of governance, a new way of managing the territory, in which we are conscious that the territory is everything, is living. The territorial being defines governance and ways of implementing life plans and conserving the territory.

Self-governance lies in strengthening our wisdom, knowledge, practices, ancestral techniques, and so on.

In order for this proposal to be legitimized before the state, some type of law must be passed. Will it be a ministerial decree or an ordinance? We have to recognize this territory as a living territory, Kawsak Sacha. We do not want the forest to be classified within protected areas or protective forest areas, or within the legal structures that already exist, such as natural parks. No, we do not want to fit into the categories that are already in use.

We explicitly want the territories to be declared living forest territories, a sacred territory, a living and conscious being. And in this context we propose that our territory is a living being and we must exercise our governance according to our worldview.

Our government project includes autonomy and self-government. We are putting forward this proposal to strengthen the Kawsak Sacha, the Sumak Kawsay, the Good Living that is linked to the conservation and preservation of biodiversity, history, the culture of all beings that inhabit the forest and life.

What is the relationship of the Kawsak Sacha proposal with other Amazonian peoples?

As Sarayaku people we have promoted actions to share our experiences in the defense of our territory, as well as the proposals we have been putting together. Above all, with the mission to ensure that all territories of indigenous nationalities in the Amazon are recognized under the category of Kawsak Sacha. Many brothers and sisters have already come to Sarayaku to learn about these experiences.

We are also currently working on a proposal to present to the new government, requesting that our governance be respected as legitimate. We will continue with our efforts so that, throughout the Amazonian territory of Ecuador, all our brothers and sisters have the same strength and energy that we have been building.

To be able to exist as an indigenous people, to be able to respond to the adversities of globalization, to the financial policies of extractivist megaprojects that threaten our territories. For us, Kawsak Sacha is a proposal for peaceful resistance and it is also a political, legal and scientific strategy.

What kind of relationships have you established with non-indigenous sciences?

Lately, in the context of this climate, social and political crisis we are going through globally, some very interesting things have been happening. Today, let’s say, science is getting closer. We have also grown closer with scientists so that they can learn from ancestral knowledge, that we can listen and share. To tell them about our wisdom and knowledge.

Our aim is to achieve a link between scientific knowledge and the knowledge and wisdom of the native peoples. We have been making progress in this; we are very interested in how we can share our wisdom on the philosophy that the forest, the Pachamama, is a living being and how this can be understood within the framework of non-indigenous science.

We want not only to reach academia, but also for our knowledge to be seen as a contribution to the fight against the climate crisis we are experiencing. We want to achieve a significant convergence between science and ancestral knowledge.

You have already won a case in the Inter-American system and are now litigating a case before the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, precisely on these issues. In this process, what is the role of law?

In the case that we brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, one of the significant and compelling arguments was the Kawsak Sacha proposal. The relationship, connection and coexistence that the Sarayaku people have with the territory, with the living jungle. This was one of the most important arguments when it came to the Court considering our case and recognizing the rights violations we had suffered due to the interference of the state and the CGC oil company in our territory without consultation. And it condemned Ecuador as a violator of collective rights.

However, part of the international judgment has not been complied with. Therefore, we have filed a non-compliance lawsuit before the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, and we have already had a first hearing.

We are waiting for the government to comply with the sentence of the Inter-American Court, especially the removal and neutralization of the 1400 kg of explosives that are still in our territory and that were placed there for the purposes of exploration without consultation. We also seek compliance with the measures of non-repetition ruled by the Court.

There are still many oil blocks affecting parts of the Sarayaku territory. When there are concessions or bidding actions to tender these oil blocks, territories are affected and non-repetition measures are violated.

And consent, free prior informed consultation to consent: that must also be protected. We want the Court to recognize that our territory is a living forest, it is sacred, it is a living being and is being affected by the violations that have been made against it. For example, with the planting of explosives.

How might other people get involved with the Kawsak Sacha case?

Our proposal as Sarayaku has always been aimed at joint action. We have designed a strategy, a platform to share with other peoples, not only in Ecuador, not only in Latin America, but throughout the continent, in all continents, where indigenous and non-indigenous peoples live.

We want to, and want others to bring this proposal that our territories are subject to rights, that they are intelligent and conscious from the spiritual, philosophical and scientific point of view. And to protect this balance, we call for models of governance, autonomy and self-determination in which indigenous peoples and their authorities have a fundamental role.

It is important to unite under the platform of the idea of the Kawsak Sacha philosophy so that we can all take action, call for the various governments in office and authorities, ministries and multilateral organizations to recognize that our territories are a living being.

I believe that this platform, this unity, will give us strength in the struggle that all indigenous peoples are facing. This is my call to unity, to consolidate the thousand-year-old vision that does not belong solely to the Sarayaku people but to all peoples. In other languages, in other indigenous languages I know that there is this philosophy of a living, conscious and intelligent being that is the Kawsak Sacha.

We as Sarayaku have decided that this is the beginning of all things, that all the programs and projects and the entire vision must be framed within the global platform of the Kawsak Sacha philosophy. In this process, extractivism is excluded, and we are seeking other alternatives inspired by the life of the Kawsak Sacha, the Living Forest.

Extra materials:

More-than-Humans is a partnership project between SUMAÚMA and More Than Human Rights (MOTH), an initiative of the Earth Rights Advocacy Clinic at New York University (NYU) School of Law.

Text:  Carlos Andrés Baquero-Díaz
Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Translation into portuguese: Paulo Migliacci
English translation: Charlotte Coombe
Photo Editor: Lela Beltrão
Layout and finishing: Érica Saboya
Editors: Viviane Zandonadi (editorial workflow, copy editing, layout), and Talita Bedinelli (editor-in-chief)
Director: Eliane Brum

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