We have always lived in the rainforest. Our memory begins here. Our languages were born here. Now, there are few of us who remember how our lives were before the arrival of the oil companies, the African palm plantations, the roads, the cities, and the colonist invaders. Now, there are few of us left who speak our own languages. Those of us who speak A’ingae, Paaikoka, and Waotededo realize that our children are forgetting many of the words our ancestors knew. When people stop speaking their original language it’s very sad— the people begin to forget where they come from. When you don’t know where you come from you don’t know where you are going.
The forest is what sustains our cultures, our lives. One could say that each time big industry destroys parts of our forest, or poisons our rivers, and each time that outsiders take our land, that they are destroying our lives, they are severing our roots, they are taking away our possibility of living as we have always wanted to live: like true people of the forest— healthy and happy.
We are writing you in the name of the Ceibo Alliance, our organization, made up of members of the four ancestral nationalities of this rainforest. We are the A’i (many call us Cofán), the Siekopaai (many call us Secoya), the Siobai (many call us the Siona), and Waorani. We have written this letter together to share our dream with you, because it is a big dream and we think it’s important to share it with the good people of the world that wish to support us, even from afar.
We carry our history— our people’s lives, struggles, and suffering— in our blood. Our history goes back a long way. Many people think that it all began with the arrival of the Spanish (in the government schoolbooks they’re called “the conquerors”). But that’s not true. No one “discovered” us. We were here in the forest long before the outsiders arrived to rob us, and enslave us; our homes were here, and that’s why we struggled against the invaders for centuries, and we continue to struggle against ongoing invasion. We are still here in our forest despite everything: that is, despite all the pain and suffering and everything we have lost. We remain with the will to enjoy life and fight against the things that we don’t agree with.
For us, to fight is to live, because if we don’t fight, if we remain idle, the lives of our forest and our people will be taken. Outsiders only view our territories for the natural resources that will earn money. It’s that simple.
We believe that we can’t wage this fight alone. One who walks alone will not go very far. This is why we have formed this alliance we call Ceibo, to be in solidarity with our companions of different indigenous nationalities working together to improve our lives.
And we are not just working together with indigenous nationalities. We are also accompanied by a group of friends we call the support team: people who come from afar and know that the world is on a dangerous path. They came to learn about other ways to walk, to live, and together we are building something new, something dignified, something strong, collective. It is our dream— to build a movement to defend our forest and our lives. This is the Ceibo Alliance.
We gave our organization the name Ceibo. The ceibo is the biggest tree in the rainforest that provides shade to all the other trees. The harpy eagle and the bees make their nests there. And the bees pollinate the flowers of the forest.
The jaguar sleeps between the roots of the ceibo. The ceibo produces cotton that we use to make fires and to prepare darts for hunting. The hummingbird uses this cotton to make its nest. When one gets lost in the woods at night, one must sleep within the large roots of the ceibo to protect oneself from the jaguar. The ceibo is sacred to all of us; within it live the spirits of the forest. The ceibo is the tree of life.
We didn’t just simply start this alliance out of the blue. The truth is that we— the A’i, Siekopaai, Siobai, Waorani, and our friends in the support team— have come to know each other by working together building rainwater catchment systems. The Rainforest Fund understands the difficult situation of access of clean water here, as you’ve been supporting us since the beginning of the project! We thank you, and want you to know that we have been working hard so that our communities have clean water. All of us who are writing this letter drink water from these systems every day. We want you to know that our health has improved as a result, and we feel good knowing that the water we drink doesn’t contain heavy metals, pesticides, or bacteria. But clean water hasn’t been the only benefit of this project for us. We have been working together over the last four years and have come to see that we share much of the same reality, the same needs, we face the same threats, and we share the same dreams.
Realizing that we have much in common was an important lesson for us. It has allowed us to come together to work towards common goals and to face common threats. We realized that industry, governments and many first-world consumers shared much in common, what unites many of them is money, and comfort, and ignorance (or as we call it, a sickness of the spirit); and that their societies are built on the destruction of the planet; and so we realized that the forces that are threatening our livelihoods have formed an alliance to exploit our resources, and so we decided that we should form an alliance for more worthy causes than exploitation and destruction, causes such as well-being, health, dignity, autonomy, the protection of our lands and cultures.
In our alliance we understand that without water there is no life. For this reason, we will continue to install rainwater systems for the families affected by oil contamination. We also understand that there are other needs we must address. Our territories and cultures need to be strengthened and protected. We are working to gain the tools, skills, and support to help us in this enormous task. For example, the government and the oil companies tell us our water is fine, but we know that our water isn’t fine. We are going to work on building our skills and knowledge to test our water and the fish in the rivers in order to know what’s really happening and to use that information to defend our rights and our lands.
We also know, for example, that there are many laws designed to protect us, but that they are hardly ever respected. For this reason, we have created a program to train people in our communities in law so that we understand our rights and how to better defend them. In a recent meeting, a community leader said that the law is like a machete: if you leave it lying around it won’t be sharp enough to put to work. We need to know how to use the law for it to serve us.
Governments, big industry, and colonists continue to invade our territories. According to their maps, our lands are empty, without owners, and so they can just enter and take our resources and exploit our lands. We are going to make our own territorial maps that tell our stories, maps that show our sacred places, hunting trails, medicinal plants, lagoons and waterfalls, and where the spirits reside. These living maps will help us discuss among our communities how to defend our lands and will allow us to show to the outside world that these are our territories, our homes,
In our time visiting among the communities, we have also seen how much of the traditional way of thinking is being weakened by individualism, machismo, greed, and envy. These ways of being are bringing illness to our people and our families. Often the women are those who most suffer from these negative changes. We are building a process with our women to improve the health in our communities: to recover our knowledge of medicinal plants for healing and improve the quality of our food (which is also a form of medicine): we can’t keep eating only fat, and sugar, and salt.
For us, health is also mental and spiritual. We see that often the lack of income makes life harder and causes us to let the companies into our territories because they give us a little bit of money to buy food and medicine. We also want to work with the women to develop sustainable alternative economies in our communities— through traditional crafts, food products, and medicines— but always through a collective process so as not to fall into the traps of envy or individualism.
We want to form a women’s group in which women feel safe and supported to share their experiences, their struggles and suffering, their hopes, and together heal the wounds within our families and communities.
We believe that our knowledge of the forest is important, and without it we will never live well in our territories. The truth is that the young people are no longer learning much of what the grandparents know: how to prepare medicines from plants, how to make a good clay bowl, how to make a hammock from chambira palm fiber or a hunting blowgun that aims true. We will work with the elders to understand how they see the changes that are happening and what we can do so that our ancestral knowledge doesn’t disappear. We see that the youth are attracted by modern technologies. We think it is a good idea to teach them to use cameras to make films that document everything that we view as important in our communities. We believe that, in telling our own stories we will reflect on our reality— the good and the bad— and we will share this point of view, and our
struggle, with the good people of the world. We will not remain silent. We will seek partnership in our struggle.
This is our big dream. These are our words, our story. This is who we are and where we are going. We thank you for your support in everything we are doing. We have worked very hard to plan for the coming year with our friends in the support team. We hope to walk a long and joyful path with you.
The Ceibo Alliance
Photo: Mitch Anderson, www.giveclearwater.org