The Kawsak Sacha: Sarayaku and Nature’s Constitution


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On a global scale, indigenous people make up about 5% of the population, but indigenous territories are home to an estimated 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.

Coexisting with forests, rivers, and wildlife for thousands of years has allowed indigenous communities to develop a deep understanding of the world they inhabit. Our modern understanding of ecology only scratches the surface.

The Kichwa people of Sarayaku are thus putting forward a proposal, demanding that the national government, the international community, and as many countries in the world as possible, recognize the unique relationship that native peoples enjoy with their ancestral land. So as to respect these communities’ right to maintain their way of life within their territories.

In the Kawsak Sacha (“Living Forest” in Kichwa) Declaration, the Sarayaku outline how they see the forest: it is a sacred territory composed of living beings. The “living forest” is the source of a Sumak Kawsay (“good life”), a source of wisdom.

The Ecuadorian Amazon Basin, in the front line of the Climate Crisis, a vital resource for the Amazonian people; the lungs of the planet. PH: Yolanda Escobar.

A plight for life

According to Kawsak Sacha proposal, nature isn’t just a system, it’s a society, one founded on the mutual relationships between humans, plants, as well as animals, rivers, mountains, and marshes they inhabit. By communicating with other living beings, people can seek the guidance they need to coexist in harmony with nature.

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“Kawsak Sacha suggests a new conception of wealth,” states the document that the Sarayaku presented in Paris at the COP 21 climate change summit in 2015. “By protecting the sacred areas of the jungle, Kawsak Sacha ensures a healthy territory without pollution, a productive and abundant earth that preserves food sovereignty.” When seen from this perspective, the rights of nature and the rights of indigenous people go hand-in-hand. For the Sarayaku community, life is inextricably linked with the health of the forest.

The high straw ceilings of the Amazonian Kichwa architecture (Sarayaku). PH: Nicolás Ponce.

Sarayaku, in the heart of the forest

Accessible only by a two-day canoe journey into the jungle, Sarayaku may seem remote, removed from the realities of modern life. But the people who live there are not naive about the threats to their way of life. The Declaration comes after years of hardship and resistance. In 2000, the Ecuadorian government granted oil concessions in the province of Pastaza to Argentine oil company CBG.

Over the following years, when the company made attempts to begin oil exploration, community leaders protested that they had not been informed about the process and had never consented to drilling for oil on Sarayaku territory.

In 2006, the oil company, accompanied by the Ecuadorian military, began to cut down trees, dig wells, and bury explosives in the area. The Sarayaku presented a legal case against the Ecuadorian state in the Interamerican Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica; and in 2012, the court ruled in Sarayaku’s favor, claiming that the state had violated the human rights of the community’s members by not consulting them

In 2008, Ecuador adopted a constitution that recognized the rights of nature. At first, many environmentalists were hopeful that this legal measure would help reverse the logic of extractive industries that had prevailed for decades within the country. Through this vision, we would have to treat nature as a source of life and not just a source of exploitable resources.

But as both mining and oil drilling have continued, and even expanded, within the country’s most delicate ecosystems, it has become clear that the theoretical rights of nature need to be developed into more concrete proposals.

Many see Kawsak Sacha as a vital step in this direction.

The Sarayaku community, in the heart of the “green” province of Pastaza, along the River Bobonaza. PH: Nicolás Ponce.

“The constitution says that you have to respect living cycles,” says legal expert Ramiro Ávila. “Kawsak Sacha fleshes out that concept in the day-to-day. It gives you a specific jungle, a specific community, people who can give a face to the idea. It’s a challenge for Ecuador, to learn to listen… [The Sarayaku] are building the pluri-national state from the ground up. We have to think about spirituality, about other kinds of justice, and that’s also part of the legal process.”

Protecting the rights of nature and creating an intercultural society require us to listen and respond. But just admiring the Sarayaku community for their story of resistance isn’t enough, we also have to engage with the ideas that they bring to the table. The Kawsak Sacha Declaration is a chance for everyone, not just indigenous communities, to reconsider our relationship with the world around us.

If you wish to plan a visit to the community of Sarayaku and get to know the place where the Kawsak Sacha was born, click here.

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