Cyberactivism
Secret Sarayaku

Feather and hand
Sarayaku men take only what they need in order to survive and take advantage of everything they hunt. | © Misha Vallejo

Ecuador, Amazon Rainforest: A small Indigenous community, confronted with the interests of Big Oil, fights to preserve its land using the tools of its ancestors and the internet. This is their story. A visual essay. 

By Misha Vallejo

The Kichwa people of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest have always held a physical and spiritual connection with the jungle and its supreme beings in order to maintain equilibrium within their world. They believe in the Kawsak Sacha or the “Living Forest”. The Kawsak Sacha is based on the idea that the jungle is a living, conscious and rights-bearing entity in which all elements, including the plants, animals, humans, rivers, wind, stars, etc., are alive, have a spirit and are interconnected. If one aspect of this is damaged, it will trigger a chain reaction affecting all other parts of the jungle. Thus, the Kichwa take from the jungle only what they need to survive and nothing more.
  They believe that protecting their home is fundamental not only to their own survival, but also to that of humanity. By documenting their everyday life, this transmedia project offers a reinterpretation of their worldview.
 
At first glance, this story may appear too insignificant to affect life on the planet at large, but not according to the worldview of the Kichwa. The Kichwa people believe we are all part of this big and complex organism that we call Earth. Everything that affects the Kichwa affects all of us. Everything is connected. In the times we live in, implementing this philosophy to our everyday life could mean the difference between extinction or survival.
 

The Sarayaku territory is not just a physical and geographic space, but also a space within which we can elevate our emotions as we connect with the world of the supreme beings. The relationships we maintain with these beings enable us to uphold our economic systems, our technology, knowledge and science. They guide and accompany our social, cultural and spiritual life. It is with their help that we construct our organizational and political systems, and design our future, autonomously determining our destinies and ensuring the continuance of our community. – Extract of the Kawsak Sacha (Living Forest) Declaration written by the Kichwa Ancestral Community of Sarayaku.
In emphasis of this connection, the Sarayaku have used social media to become cyber-activists: they spread their environmental message and connect with supporters across the globe via a satellite internet connection. The community is convinced that by sharing their life in the jungle, they will inspire people around the globe to implement different strategies in the fight against climate change. They want to get known internationally, not out of vanity but rather because in this way it will be much harder for the government or big oil companies to get rid of them. “People ask me: what can we do to save the jungle? I don’t know, you guys [from the West] invented engines and gasoline. Now you have to invent an engine that runs on water. Why are you asking me this? I didn’t invent that... However, technology used in the right way may be able to save the rainforest”, explains Eriberto Gualinga, a filmmaker from Sarayaku in an interview.
 
  • A young man inspects the skin of a javelin, which is being dried to be used as a tambourine. © Misha Vallejo
    2017. A young man inspects the skin of a javelin, which is being dried to be used as a tambourine. Before important celebrations, such as the Uyantza Raymi, the men spend several weeks deep in the jungle, hunting and fishing for the entire community. The community wastes nothing, using every part of the animal for either food, clothing or instruments.
  • A pilche with chicha floats on the sacred Rotuno River. © Misha Vallejo
    2017. A pilche with chicha floats on the sacred Rotuno River. Chicha is a traditional drink made from yucca. When preparing chicha, the root is cooked for several hours and then pressed into a type of puré, after which it is chewed and spat out, and finally poured into clay jars covered in leaves for fermentation. Chicha is prepared exclusively by women.
  • Portrait of Alejandro Gualinga wearing a hat made from a tapir at the start of the Uyantza Raymi festivities. © Misha Vallejo
    2017. Portrait of Alejandro Gualinga wearing a hat made from a tapir at the start of the Uyantza Raymi festivities. Before the celebration begins, the men spend several weeks hunting and fishing deep in the jungle. On this particular occasion, they were allowed to hunt a maximum of four tapirs, but they only captured two.
  • Magdalena Santi spreads wituk through her hair. © Misha Vallejo
    2016. Magdalena Santi spreads wituk through her hair. Wituk is a dark pigment made from an Amazonian fruit, also known as Wituk, and can stay in an individual’s hair for up to two weeks. This pigment is a very important part of Sarayaku traditions.
  • Trees in the jungle are centers of biodiversity that ensure the continuation of life. © Misha Vallejo
    2019. Trees in the jungle are centers of biodiversity that ensure the continuation of life. Some trees have been alive for millennia and these are essential in maintaining the spiritual balance; each member of the community is able to communicate with and connect to them.
  • Javier Cisneros takes part in a fight in the community’s main square during the Pachamama celebration. © Misha Vallejo
    2015. Javier Cisneros takes part in a fight in the community’s main square during the Pachamama celebration.
  • Ein junger Mann hält einen Tukan-Flügel in der Hand. Tukans finden nicht nur als Nahrung, sondern auch als Schmuckstücke Verwendung. © Misha Vallejo
    2017. A young man holds the wing of a toucan. Toucans are used not only as food but also as ornamental pieces: their heads and beaks are used as hats. Sarayaku men take only what they need in order to survive and take advantage of everything they hunt. The meat is used as food, pelts and feathers as clothes and skins are converted into drums.

Nevertheless, the connection with the “outside world” via social media is a double-edged sword and has resulted in an ever-greater presence of Western culture within the community’s everyday life.
 
The worldview of the Sarayaku is not linear. It resembles a circle with hundreds of nodes and international connections. The outcomes of the project are the Secreto Sarayaku photobook and the interactive documentary, both of which are available online. 

The book implements a circular narrative which on the one hand, focuses on the relationship between the community and the Sacha Runakuna or Supreme Protectors of the rainforest. These are mythological beings that cannot be seen by the bare eye (or bare camera lens, for that matter), but instead are accessed by the Indigenous yachackuna or wise men through a spiritual connection. On the other hand, this book provides a visual analysis of the peculiar symbiosis between the community and the internet technology.

Keep Our Planet Alive

The web documentary's narrative is split into six sections, each one centered around the life cycle. The chapters explore the concepts of birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age and death through interviews, thought-provoking videos, photographs, audio, texts and other materials, some of which were produced by members of the community themselves. This platform combines Indigenous ancestral knowledge together with Western contemporary knowledge in an effort to emulate the interwoven elements of the forest. Furthermore, in each section the viewer will be faced with choosing between multiple paths, thus discovering new connections between the elements. The website is intended to be explored like a virtual jungle. In addition to the main sections of this website, the platform includes a blog managed entirely by the Youngsters Association of Sarayaku (SAMARUTA). The blog is also connected to the @everydaysarayaku Instagram account, which continually shares photographs of everyday life from within the community.

Each of these outcomes may work in conjunction with each other as well as separately. This project is an invitation to explore this jungle of information where Western contemporary knowledge merges with the knowledge of the ancestral Indigenous community. Lastly, this project intends to give the community a strong voice and open the debate on how we can keep our planet alive. It is clear that without the Amazon Rainforest the world cannot exist.
 
  • Eriberto Gualinga accommodates his feather crown before the Uyantza Raymi festivities. © Misha Vallejo
    2017. Eriberto Gualinga accommodates his feather crown before the Uyantza Raymi festivities. Before this celebration that takes place once every three years, men go deep in the jungle in order to hunt. They take from the jungle only what is necessary for their subsistence and take advantage of everything they hunt: they will eat the meat, use the skin for drums and use the fur and feathers as clothing.
  • Celso Aranda drinks chicha on the third day of the Uyantza Raymi celebration. © Misha Vallejo
    2017. Celso Aranda drinks chicha on the third day of the Uyantza Raymi celebration. Chicha is a traditional drink made from yucca. When preparing chicha, the root is cooked for several hours and then pressed into a type of puré, after which it is chewed and spat out, and finally poured into clay jars covered in leaves for fermentation. Chicha is prepared exclusively by women.
  • Welsblut im Río Bobonaza. © Misha Vallejo
    2017. Welsblut im Río Bobonaza. Vor wichtigen Feierlichkeiten organisieren die Männer einen gemeinsamen Angelausflug, bei dem sie Barbasco verwenden, eine milchige Substanz, die aus der Wurzel der Barbasco-Pflanze gewonnen wird. Im Fluss reduziert Barbasco vorübergehend die Menge an Sauerstoff im Wasser, verwirrt die Fische und lässt sie an die Oberfläche kommen. Die Fischer fangen sie dann mit Harpunen. Die nicht gefangenen Fische im Fluss erholen sich bald von der Wirkung der Substanz.
  • A man plays a piguano (type of flute) on the first day of the Uyantza Raymi festival, while wearing a hat made from the skin and head of a coatis, his hands painted with wituk. © Misha Vallejo
    2017. A man plays a piguano (type of flute) on the first day of the Uyantza Raymi festival, while wearing a hat made from the skin and head of a coatis, his hands painted with wituk. The Hunting Festival is the community’s most important celebration. Four teams compete against each other in a hunt, in which competitors are prohibited from killing endangered species. This celebration was previously held annually, but the community decided to celebrate it only every three years, so that the animals would have more time to reproduce and it would not affect the balance of life in the jungle.
  • 2019. Portrait of Imelda Gualinga on her way to Wayusa Net, a hut with satellite internet connection. This is one of the few places in the community that has enough electrical power to charge batteries, cell phones and computers.  © Misha Vallejo
    Portrait of Imelda Gualinga on her way to Wayusa Net, a hut with satellite internet connection.
  • A hat made from a toucan beak, sitting in a plastic bag along the shore of the Bobonaza River. © Misha Vallejo
    2017. A hat made from a toucan beak, sitting in a plastic bag along the shore of the Bobonaza River. Before important celebrations, men often go deep into the jungle to hunt, returning with food for the entire community. When they return to town, they dress in elaborate costumes made from the animals they have killed.
  • A hut is lit by solar powered lamps in Sarayaku’s central plaza. © Misha Vallejo
    2017. A hut is lit by solar powered lamps in Sarayaku’s central plaza.