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Photography - Issue #7

Living Forest

Words and photography by Misha Vallejo Prut

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. The supreme beings cannot be seen by the naked eye (or camera lens, for that matter), but instead are accessed by the Indigenous yachackuna (wise men) through a spiritual connection.

The Kichwa believe in the Kawsak Sacha (living forest), which states that the jungle is a living, conscious and rights-bearing entity in which all of its elements - including the plants, animals, humans, rivers, wind and stars - 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.

The Amazon Biome is 6.7m sq km and home to 2.7m Indigenous people, split into 350 ethnic groups with 3,000 ancestral territories. Accounting for just 4% of the global population, Indigenous peoples protect more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity. The Kichwa people believe that we are all part of the big and complex organism we call Earth. Everything that affects the Kichwa affects all of us. Everything is connected. So protecting their home is fundamental not only to their own survival, but to that of humanity, and they take from the jungle only what they need to survive and nothing more. In the times we live in, implementing this philosophy to our everyday life could mean the difference between extinction or survival.

In order to spread this philosophy around the world, the Kichwa use social media and have become cyber activists, thanks to the satellite internet connection they have installed. They want to become known internationally, not out of vanity but rather because in this way it will be much harder for the government or other vested interests to destroy their habitat and their way of life.

I first learned about the Kichwa people in college, studying their legal battle with the Ecuadorian state at the Inter American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. The community was accusing the government of sponsoring oil exploration on their land without their consent. Following a 10-year legal battle, the community won the lawsuit in 2012. This was seen as a landmark victory for Latin American Indigenous peoples.

I was attracted to the community’s organisation and worldview, and what these could teach the west. In 2015, I was granted permission to enter the community’s land and have since been visiting them and documenting their day-to-day life. I was initially interested in the community from the perspective of an environmental activist, but over time this interest developed into a visual analysis of their worldview and living philosophy. Through the language of photography, my intention was to study the intercultural union between the ancestral Indigenous world and contemporary western culture.

The following images were taken between 2015 and 2019 as part of the Secret Sarayaku multimedia project, a subjective photographic reinterpretation of the ancestral Kichwa knowledge of the Kawsak Sacha, which has resulted in a book, exhibition and website featuring video, photography, podcasts, illustrations and writing.

During the project, I saw the amount of technology in their everyday lives increasing. For instance, during my first visit only a handful of people - mainly community leaders - had a mobile phone, but on my last visit almost all of the young people had one. I attended a birthday party in which traditional chicha was served by women while reggaeton music was playing from a speaker connected to a phone. But I don’t see their increased use of technology as either a good or bad thing, it is just a consequence of their communications and survival strategy. If used wisely, it can bring meaningful results.

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. This media gives the community a strong voice and opens the debate on how we can keep our planet alive. It is clear that without the Amazon rainforest the world cannot exist. Nevertheless, this connection with the outside world is a double-edged sword and has resulted in an ever-greater presence of western culture within their everyday life.

You can find more information about the project at: www.secretsarayaku.net

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