Back in 2005, I worked as a volunteer English teacher in Sani Isla, an indigenous Kichwa community in Ecuador’s Amazon region. Located along the banks of the Río Napo, a tributary of the Amazon River, Sani Isla is comprised of a community center for meetings and parties, a small medical clinic that hosts the occasional visiting doctor, a school comprised of about 5 classrooms, and a soccer field with stands. Wooden homes on stilts dot the banks of the river; to visit each other, residents walk along the river bank and through their plots of cassava plants, or they glide by dugout canoe, using long, heavy wooden paddles. Residents of Sani Isla are physically strong, at one with their rainforest environment, and concerned for their community. They also love to play volleyball, which was something we definitely had in common.
As the days strung together in a mix of English lessons, tramping through mud to visit various families, and cooking black beans on my little stove, I gradually became aware of customs, expectations, and worries left unsaid. Located in primary rainforest and sharing land with Yasuni National Park, Sani Isla is one of the few indigenous communities in Ecuador’s Amazon that has been successful in their resistance to oil exploration. The community owns and runs its own eco lodge, Sani Lodge, located at the edge of a deep lake that is visited by macaws in the morning and patrolled by caimans at night. Money earned from the lodge, along with staunch resistance by the community, has helped Sani to stay independent and relatively untainted by oil companies.
Unfortunately this all may change very soon. Petroecuador, Ecuador’s state-run oil company, is hoping to explore the region. President Rafael Correa has traditionally campaigned on indigenous rights and environmental protection, and this would definitely change his reputation in the eyes of those concerned for their environment. For anyone who has traveled along the expanse of the rivers in this general area, it is clear that the oil companies have tried to gain the upper hand. Docks along the riverbanks house large barges with oil company names emblazoned on their sides. Coca, the gritty commercial hub in the area and the only place to go for staples such as rice – or beer – runs on money spent by oil company employees. Miles upon miles of oil pipelines snake through the forest and along roads leading out of the area. There is a palpable choque, or clash, of traditional knowledge and customs with political and economic gain.
My hope is that Sani Isla will continue to fight for their land and their rights to live in peace. The situation can feel overwhelming, and educating yourself and others is the first step. If you want to learn more about what is happening in Ecuador’s Amazon, watch Crude, a documentary film that follows the legal battle between residents of the area and Chevron. Another documentary is coming out this year: Yasuni. Check out my friend Ryan Killackey’s current work with the Waorani community. In addition, this recent article from The Guardian came out in mid-January. Sign the petition to help Sani Isla in their fight, or even better yet plan a trip to their lodge and see for yourself the great work they do to educate outsiders about the rainforest. You will never forget their birdwatch tower!
Here’s to standing up for what is right and for many more years of Sani Isla – and the communities like it around the world – who deserve to live in the way they themselves choose.