The Living Forest – An Invisible Thread Between Environments And Culture

  • Sabino Gualinga, leader and spiritual guide of the Original Kichwa people of Sarayaku, in Ecuador, explains that waters and forests form a complex cosmological architecture that includes all beings deeply entangled and interdependent. 
  • For the Kichwa, forests and rivers embody and preserve culture, tradition and history. Therefore, the protection of these areas is not only deemed necessary but a primary requirement.

The discussion in this blog stems from excerpts of the popular public court hearing of the Sarayaku people in Ecuador. It tells us the contention on how different actors view the environment and illustrates how it is intertwined with the culture and beliefs of the local people.  

The court Proceeding






President of the Court: Mr. Expert, do you swear, or solemnly declare, that you exercise your function of expert in all honor and conscience?

Expert: Yes, I swear.

President: You may have a seat.

Expert: As an anthropologist, I would like to start by speaking about the interconnection that exists on various levels between the territory, the culture, and the cosmology of Sarayaku. That is to say, human activity, life, and cosmological ontology are intimately tied together. There is an interdependence. The education of children; the practice of shamanism; production in the forest; and the forest beings, the Sacharunas, are extremely intertwined with life, with human activities, and with the social organization. The Yachaks, the shamans, constitute an indispensable and vital element in this connection with the living forest. What they do, in some way, is participate on multiple levels in relating the living forest to the humans. There are many beings in the living forest. From the metaphysical materialist position, this probably doesn’t make much sense, but it is consistent in the epistemology of indigenous people. The forest and its beings have a particular power, a particular dominion over plants, places, and animals. We speak of the cosmos as an interrelated multiplicity – el kawsak sacha, the living forest. There are subterranean cities, beings who dwell inside the water, and these beings are in contact with the shamans. These contacts develop through the personal life cycle of humans and collective communities.

Shamans are capable of interspecificity, i.e., they can transform themselves into other beings that exist in a defined, separate fashion. Claude Lévi-Strauss said that the difference in our evolutionary theories is that, for us, in the beginning, humans and animals were all animals; in the Amerindian philosophy and cosmology, animals and humans were all human – i.e., human in the sense that they had intentionality, the ability of deliberate intervention, which we keep apart in our own epistemology. When some of these beings disappear or maintain a negative relationship with specific persons or a specific society, all the animals disappear also.

President: Many thanks for your introduction, Dr. Villagra. I give the floor to the representative of the alleged victims, Dr. Viviana Kristicenvic.

Representative: Thank you very much, Your Honor. This will allow us to explore the realm of anthropology, which isn’t part of our expertise, and we would be delighted to hear Dr. Villagra reflect from the perspective of his experience and knowledge on the significance of the territory for the people of Sarayaku. What is the meaning of the living forest, of the territory, for the people of Sarayaku?

Expert: When we speak of multiple cosmoi, we speak of a reverberation of worlds that resemble each other, that have Yachaks [healers], villages, people. For instance, the world of the Sacharuna, the subterranean world, the aquatic world, are similar to ours. Thus, these places not only signify materially what for us is an ensemble of plants or a characteristic geography, but they additionally have an implication that we call spiritual. They are populated. The forest is a populated territory, it is a dynamic territory – far from a homogenous terrain – where a great deal of diversity occurs. All this diversity doesn’t go unnoticed or hidden from the eyes of the people who live there. In this sense, the territory, knowledge, possibilities, and productive potential, as well as human reproduction, are intimately related.

What does this tell us about the environment-culture nexus?

Peaceful protest of the people of Sarayaku against oil exploitation

The territory of the Kwicha people of Sarayaku covers an area of 140,000 hectares with approximately 1,500 inhabitants, organized in five large communities. There are no roads to access this area. The closest town is Canelos, about 35 km north of the Bobonaza River. In the decades after 1950, oil corporations from all over the world, in collaboration with missionaries and the military, tried to map and gain access these lands, to dominate indigenous population and exploit its territories. For the companies, these territories have no life, but for the people who live there, they are alive.  The argument for the local people is that the environments live and think, interpreting the world exactly like humans. Life is semiotic, a concept that is at the base of any ecosystem.

For instance, in his testimony before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Sabino Gualinga, political leader and spiritual guide of the original Original Kichwa people of Sarayaku, with the help of the expert Mr. Rodrigo Villagra Carreón, tries to convey the meaning of what his people call kawsak sach, “the living forest” to the judges. In the Bobonaza River Basin, at the western edges of Amazonia, forests are not what they usually mean to us. Sabino Gualinga explains that his waters and forests, where his ancestors of Sarakyu Kichwa settled, are like llaktas, “villages”, forming a complex cosmological architecture that includes all beings, which are deeply entangled and interdependent. Kawsak sacha is the refuge of jaguars, pumas, wild animals, and it is a source of water, food and medicine for local communities. For them, forests and rivers embody and preserve culture, tradition and history. Therefore, the protection of these areas is not only deemed necessary but a primary requirement.

It is clear that our existences are strictly and intimately connected to the territories we live in. Beyond art and literature, cultures are shaped by our surrounding environments. Many ancient civilizations, for example, evolved around water: in the old Egypt, the Nile River was worshipped as a divinity. Without it, the Egyptian civilization would not have emerged. In Mexico, Xochimilcan’s network of canals and artificial islands, testify that the Aztec civilization developed by building its habitat around its surrounding aquatic environment. In Cambodia, the Tonle Sap Lake, is like a mother providing nourishment to its population and its floating villages.

The Trajineras of Xochimilco: colorful gondola-like boat rides.

As a source of life, water is sacred in many religions: BalineseHinduism, for instance, is called the holy water religion. Water is poured as a blessings (offer) on every person, food and building. For many people in India and around the world, the Ganges is considered the most sacred river among all. It is said that bathing in the Ganges, or dying in the holy city of Varanasi, provides a place in heaven for all eternities. There are many lifestyles and beliefs on Earth and throughout the worlds’ cultural diversity, the natural environment binds us and all beings together. It makes sense, then, to think that protecting our environments is a means to also preserving our cultures and traditions. The imperative therefore lies on each one of us to contribute to minimising anthropological destruction of nature.  We need to educate ourselves better, to be more aware and conscious about the environments we live in and the need to respect it culturally. That is what Sabino Gualinga has been doing and why he has been fighting for kawsak sach his entire life in Ecuador.

The Ghats of Varanasi, a series of steps leading down to the river of the Ganges, as viewed from the other side of shore. Along the Ghats, two major cremation sites visible in the background cremate up to several hundred bodies every day from all over India to return families’ loved ones home to mother Ganga.

Lorenzo is 30 years old and lives in Bologna, Italy. He studied International Relations in Milan, and lived in London and Texas for a while. He travels a lot with his job. He is currently studying Philosophy at the University of Bologna. In his spare time, he practices yoga and rides his bike.

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