Misha Vallejo
Ecuador -
August 10, 2020

The Wisdom of the People who Defeated the Oil Companies

In 1996, the State of Ecuador ceded indigenous territories of the Sarayaku people to an oil company. Due to demands and resistance, the community delayed the entry of the companies for several years. In 2002 the companies entered the territory with the custody of the national army. They opened roads, cut down trees, used explosives and deforested land. It lasted a year, but it still lasts: it is estimated that 1,400 kilos of the explosive pentolite still remain in the Sarayaku territory.

After several years of struggles, in 2012 the community won a trial against the Ecuadorian state in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The IACHR condemned the State for granting an oil concession without consulting the communities and sentenced that the State was obliged to acknowledge, in a public act, its responsibility, pay compensation, and remove the explosives that the oil company had left in the jungle, something that until today has not happened.

It was the first time that an indigenous community had won a trial of this type and the photographer Misha Vallejo wanted to tell that story. He was able to travel in 2015, three years after the IACHR verdict.

From Quito, the trip to the Kichwa Amazonian territory of Sarayaku can last up to three days. That is why every time Misha goes there he stays at least ten days. His first time was after the Sarayaku community won the trial of the Ecuadorian State.

From these trips, Secret Sarayaku was born, a transmedia project that consists of an interactive web documentary at, a photobook, a future exhibition and a podcast soon to be published. Each of these elements can be accessed either together or separately.

“The Kichwa community of Sarayaku,” he explains at the beginning of the project, “has always had a physical and spiritual connection with the jungle and its guardian beings to maintain balance in their world. The community believes in the Kawsak Sacha or Living Forest, which ensures that the tropical rainforest is a living entity, conscious and subject to rights, where all its elements: plants, animals, humans, rivers, wind and more, are alive, they have a spirit and they are interconnected.”

“If one of them is in danger, the rest will be affected as in a chain reaction. For this reason the community takes from the jungle only what is necessary to survive and nothing else. For them, the protection of their home is paramount, not only for their own survival, but for that of humanityas a whole. In the times we live in, implementing this philosophy could make a huge difference for our planet. By documenting their daily life, this transmedia documentary reinterprets their worldview.”

“I arrived with many prejudices,” he now admits. He had images tinted green in his head, like a return to a certain idealized state of nature. What he found was very different. “It was very shocking that one of the first times I was there I saw young people in the central square listening to reggaeton or cumbia on their cell phones,” he recalls. “It was the collision of two worlds because I had an idealized idea of a pure community, but it is not like that at all.”

For the Sarayaku, technology is a tool, another way of protecting the jungle. Social networks helped them to spread their fight: it makes them visible and that protects them from disappearance. “They have internet since the early 2000s, with a satellite connection,” says Misha. “They use it to spread this ancient message of protection to their land. They use a super contemporary, western and globalizing method to send this message of conservation and rescue their self-determination, because they themselves say ‘we don’t need their paternalistic gazes, they tell us what we have and what we don’t have to do. We are going to discuss it on our own'”.

The youth of the community have cell phones that connect via WiFi to the satellite. They use Facebook and Instagram and chat in Quichua. It is a way of spreading the language and keeping it alive. “They use this western technology to communicate with each other and still give value to their own identity,” he says. “I do not listen to the same music that my parents or my grandparents listen to, so why would those young people have to listen to the same thing as their parents or grandparents?”

The first interview he did for Secret Sarayaku was with Marcelo Santi, the uncle of the young man who was hosting him. In the video, Marcelo raises his thumbs, kisses his hands and extends them upwards. He speaks with a sign language that seems impossible not to understand: Marcelo is deaf, and he developed his own language. With his hands, he explains what the jungle means to him. Misha decided to start with him “because this is like any community where there is a diversity of people, with special abilities and, furthermore, he was the only one who didn’t need translation, the video in English and Spanish is the same.”

The one in 2015 was the first of nine trips. He always stayed in family homes. “There is no hotel there, there are no restaurants, I think there is only one store. That is why the logistics is that you bring food for yourself and the family who hosts you, to share. And they share with you everything they have from the jungle,” he says. “You never eat alone, always with family, or neighbors, or whoever invites you. Everything is community.”  

It was difficult for him to gain their trust, there was much suspicion generated by old betrayals committed by others who, like him, one day approached the Sarayaku. “In the community they had a couple of not very pleasant experiences,” he says. “They told me that they were spies, people who posed as anthropology students and researchers but who turned out to be oil company workers investigating who the leaders were, who could be paid or bought something.”

At that moment he understood why the process to authorize his entry had been so bureaucratic, four months of paperwork, sending letters to the president of the community, then to the Department of Communication. And why once they gave him permission, the questions continued. “They wanted to know what he wanted to do and what he was going to give back. From their experience they know that the white man has gone to their community, from anthropologists to biologists, to obtain knowledge about ancestral plants to be able to make medicines … and they never keep that knowledge. So now if someone wants to enter the community, they ask for something in return; not money but knowledge.”

On the first visit, then, he made a photographic record of medicinal plants for a catalog that the community was making. Then he gave workshops on photography and videos with a cell phone. Now he wants to come back to donate books and talk to them about the project.

The decision to make of Secret Sarayaku something more than a book had to do with overcoming the linear narrative. “In the Quichua oral tradition of the Amazon, the stories are circular, and I would even dare to say that they are cobwebs because there are details, that some people change and around that they are woven with other stories that they transmit and they even change some of the meanings,” he explains.

“That’s why on the web there are six chapters that deal with the cycle of life, birth, childhood, even death… but the chapters are linked to each other, so you can take detours and suddenly you don’t realize it and you’re in another chapter. It makes you dizzy and misplaced and I like that because it is like a virtual jungle. I get lost in the jungle, I can’t walk alone because if I take a little detour I have no idea where I am. Here too, the user is the one who controls where to go, if he wants to, he can take a detour and suddenly, he can get lost and that is part of the experience: knowing something that you had no idea or did not expect.”