The Ceibo Alliance: Protecting Indigenous Land In the Amazon Rainforest from Big Oil
The Ceibo Alliance is an Indigenous-led Ecuadorian nonprofit organization comprised of members of the Kofan, Siona, Secoya and Waorani peoples, who, in partnership with Amazon Frontlines, is creating a model of Indigenous resistance and international solidarity rooted in the defense of Indigenous territory, cultural survival, and the building of viable solutions-based alternatives to rainforest destruction.
Ceibo is the first alliance of its kind in the region. Formed by members of the very communities it serves, the Ceibo Alliance is in an ideal position to address their needs through projects designed, developed and managed by the Indigenous communities themselves.
Bioneers was honored to host leaders of the Ceibo Alliance at its 2018 Conference, where they discussed their work and the biggest hurdles they’re currently facing. As of October, Waorani territory was being threatened by Big Oil. To join the Ceibo Alliance in protecting their land, you can sign a petition and donate to their cause here.
The following is an edited transcript from the Ceibo Alliance leaders’ keynote at Bioneers:
My name is Emergildo Criollo. I am a Kofan man from the Ecuadorian Amazon. I am a father of 4 children. I have 20 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren. And I want to tell you a story. When I was six years old in the mid 1960s I saw a helicopter for the first time. All of us children hid, spooked, in the forest because we thought it was a new kind of bird. Our elders interpreted dreams about what all of this meant – the helicopters, the chainsaws, the white man.
Then one day my father took me to see them – the strangers. We stayed in the forest at the edge of the huge clearing, watching. I had never seen so many trees on the ground. Then the white men saw us, and they waved us towards them. We didn’t understand English or Spanish, and they couldn’t understand our language, A’ingue. We stood under the sun as the white man wearing a yellow hard hat gave us gifts: a small bottle of diesel fuel and a plastic bag with something squishy inside.
My father didn’t say a word, and we headed home. When we came to our trail in the forest I opened the bag and I smelled it. I had never smelled anything so horrific before. My father threw it on the ground as if it were a demon. The white men were the chiefs of the oil company arriving in our ancestral lands looking for oil. The white chunk in the plastic bag: a piece of cheese. My father’s silence: a sign that our people didn’t know what was coming.
My name is Alicia Salazar. I am a Siona woman, and a mother of 10 children. I wish I could speak to you in my own language today – so you can hear how it sounds – but I can’t. I have lost my mother tongue, like many others. I think that there are native people here in the room today. I believe you know what I am talking about. To feel knowledge slipping away.
I have dedicated my life to trying to recover my culture, our knowledge, our history. My people, the Siona, are ayahuasca drinkers. Through ceremony my people have come to have great knowledge of the forest and her spirits. And through ceremony I have come closer to my own peoples’ history.
We were enslaved a century ago by the rubber tappers – forced to bleed the trees for latex.
We were corralled into churches by the missionaries and told that ayahuasca was the devil.
We were displaced and we lost much of our land to the oil companies and the colonists.
All of this I have felt in my blood and bones through drinking ayahuasca.
I know that many of you want to hear about how we can protect the rainforest. How we can keep the oil in the ground and stop climate change. Even though we have lost much of our lands, we are still the guardians of hundreds of thousands of acres of primary forest and lagoons where jaguars and wooly monkeys and pink river dolphins still thrive.
Our way of life – our way of seeing and thinking – has protected the rainforest into the 21st century. We mustn’t trade in thousands of years of knowledge and ways of living off of the land in order to become cattle ranchers and city people.
The Amazon depends on it.
My name is Hernan Payaguaje. I am Siekopai man, and a father of three. I want to tell you about my grandfather. His name is Delfin and although he is 80 years old he is still young enough to climb up into the forest canopy to pick fruits for the great-grandkids! He is a medicine man. He drinks Ayahuasca. He knows how to use plants to heal people.
When we were invited to speak at Bioneers, I went to him for advice. It was early in the morning, first light, and he rasped at the yoco vine with his old knife. Yoco is a wild woody liana that we drink in the morning to share our dreams. It contains caffeine and theobromine, the stuff of coffee and chocolate.
He said to me: “We must remain close to the forest and keep our knowledge of the plants and animals. Or else we will become like the anke (the outsider) who cuts down the forest for money. We must protect our territory, or else the rain will dry up and the sun will burn the soil. There will be no good food or water for your grandchildren.”
I am part of a new generation of Indigenous youth. I grew up downriver from the oil fields that fuel the cars of civilization. I saw my people get sick in the body and spirit. I went to university to learn about the ways of the world that threaten us and to learn skills and knowledge that can help our people protect our lands.
I understand my grandpa’s message. Now I’m here to share his message with all of you and tell you how we are turning his wisdom into action.
I have flown here like a scarlet macaw from a forest, far away
This is not a strange land to me because we are all connected.
Because the forest connects us – you and me.
I am Nemonte Nenquimo. My name means Many Stars. My people are the Waorani and our forest is our home. I am a Waorani woman and a mother. I have a three-year-old daughter who is learning how to sing our songs. Songs that our ancestors sang for thousands of years. Songs about living. About growing food and hunting. Medicine songs. War songs. Joking songs.
After my daughter sings, she always asks me: “Now I am Waorani, right Mama?”
Our songs, just like our forest, we inherited from our ancestors.
As a mother, I feel the responsibility inside of me to pass down our songs and our forest to our children and grandchildren. But I am afraid for my people now. Our ancestors defended our way of life for generations with spears. But the threats we face now cannot be confronted with spears alone.
Two moons from now, the Government plans to auction our territory to the oil companies. If we do not stop them, the company will get a foothold in our lands. They will bring money, sickness and contamination. They will try to divide our families and change our way of thinking.
So, I am here now as a Waorani woman and as a mother to tell you that our fight is not just a fight about oil. This is a fight about different ways of living. One that protects life and one that destroys life.
We all have stories. Our stories unite us. When I was a young father I didn’t know about pollution. We didn’t even have a word for it. The company, Texaco, began spilling oil in our rivers and they dumped all their wastewater into our creeks.
Our people live off the rivers and creeks. We fish in them and make our soups and beverages with freshwater. My first two children died because of oil contamination. They died in my arms, vomiting toxins.
Our healers couldn’t heal a sickness that never existed before.
Since then, I have dedicated my entire life to fighting the companies and making sure that our families can have access to clean water. I have heard about the water protectors here. I want you to know that our fight for clean water has united us too!
In 2011, we began a project to install rainwater filtration systems in our villages. We worked with engineers to design a system that would provide clean water for each family. We trained our youth to become technicians and to teach about the risks of oil pollution. For the first time, the Kofan people joined with the Siekopai, Siona and Waorani. We traveled together into each other’s villages to install the water systems. We didn’t wait any longer for the companies or the governments. We acted. Together we built solutions to the oil contamination.
Today more than 1000 families in over 70 villages have access to clean water. That is nearly every single Kofan, Siona, Siekopai and Waorani family in all of Ecuador! Our fight for clean water brought us together and made us strong and healthy again.
The oil companies polluted the water and divided the people. For years it was like that. They tricked us and paid off leaders. If there was an oil spill, they would bring us cans of tuna – and tell us not to fish in the rivers. What my friend Emergildo said is true. The water project brought our people together. It was like a spark went off in us.
We formed an alliance between our peoples to protect our forests and our cultures. We began drinking ayahuasca together. Healers from different nations led ceremonies that helped us see the path forward. We built an Indigenous organizing center on the outskirts of the oil town where the people from our nations can gather to support each other’s struggles
Many of our youth who were working for the oil companies have become active leaders in the fight to protect our forests. Our youth have formed land patrols that monitor for oil spills and land invasions and are using documentary skills and social media to start campaigns that organize the communities and connect with the broader world.
Our women have formed community cooperatives and are creating economic alternatives for their families. Only several years ago, before we formed The Ceibo Alliance, none of this was possible. We were disconnected from each other, and we were losing the battle. Until we discovered that together we are stronger.
When we started the Ceibo Alliance the Kofan, Siona and Siekopai invited my people to visit their territories. We traveled from far away by canoe and jungle trail and we learned about all the problems that come with oil. More than anything, we learned that the company doesn’t see the forest. They don’t see us. They see what they want to see. They see oil wells where we see gardens. They see money where we see life.
How can we defend our way of life and our forests? That was our question.
We decided to make a map of our territory that shows all of the creeks and trails. Our medicinal gardens, our hunting grounds, our sacred sites. Mapping our lands brought our people together. Our youth and elders trekked our territory, like the old days. Not with spears, but with GPS, video cameras and camera traps.
Now, the government wants to sell our land to the oil companies! But we are united! Our land is not for sale! In the coming weeks, we will take the government to court demanding that they respect our right to decide what happens in our territory!
By working together in the Ceibo Alliance, our people are stronger than ever before. We are supporting each other’s battles. Our Kofan friends have already won a big fight against gold miners, and us Waorani were there supporting them. The Siona have won a battle in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demanding the Colombian government respect their rights. The Siekopai are titling ancestral lands in Peru that were stolen from them during the rubber boom.
I know that the Waorani will win our fight to protect our forests. Because we are not alone. We are fighting together.
And now, as a woman, as a mother, as a water protector and a forest defender, I want you to join us in our fight to defend our way of life, our forests and our planet!
Our vision is to empower our people to protect our forests for centuries. That means that we need to create a future where not only do we defend our land, but we thrive in our territories.
When the companies polluted our water, we built rainwater systems. Now the companies try to offer roads and electricity so they can drill for oil, but we are a step ahead of them. We are building a future where our communities can continue to live in and protect our territories.
Instead of roads and polluting industry, we are building access to solar energy in our villages, and creating sustainable community enterprises. In just the last two years we have already built 121 solar systems in 16 villages, and we are hoping to partner soon with the Achuar people who are already piloting the first Amazonian solar canoes!
We know that there will always be people and companies that want to exploit our lands. That is true for all Indigenous nations across the Amazon. As Indigenous Peoples, we are the owners of more than 1.4 million square miles of primary rainforest. That is more than ten Californias. We have the historical and legal right to decide over the future of our territories. We must exercise that right. For centuries, our elders protected our rainforest homelands. Now it is our turn.
Although my grandpa has never heard the phrase “climate change” he knows what’s at stake. The future of our people, our forest, and our planet.
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