ISIS Amazon Project


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The origins of the ISIS Amazon Project dates back to 1993, when a group of community leaders from Ecuadorian Amazonia including the head of the Secoya organization OISE, Elias Piyahuaje, visited Amherst Massachusetts for a USAID-funded training. ISIS founder and first director of our Science for Survival program Karen Sutherland met these visitors and offered workshops selected by and for them. They all liked the idea, so ISIS was invited to lead a series of workshops for the group.

In those meetings we learned of the extensive damage caused by Texaco during more than 20 years of oil development in Ecuador, and of the ongoing search for oil that continues to threaten the Secoya and their rainforest neighbors. (During this same visit to the United States, some of the visitors filed suit against Texaco in New York with the help of Amherst attorney Cristobal Bonifaz.)

After that visit the great interest among western Massachusetts residents coalesced in an organization called Friends of the Amazon Secoya (FAS) formed to pursue support for these guests from abroad. They continued to collaborate with ISIS and eventually helped us secure financing (from a New England Biolabs Foundation grant) to host two Secoya representatives for an intensive, month-long residency. In Fall 1995, ISIS welcomed Elias and his wife Isolina Siquihua. They gave individual presentations throughout New England on Secoya culture and the changing reality of the rainforest. The residency also connected the Secoya with experts in aquaculture, bioremediation, fundraising, organizational development, and other themes of interest. Experts from the Five College community, local businesses, and religious organizations contributed insights for approaches to sustainable development and environmental protection.

At the end of the residency OISE asked the Institute for Science & Interdisciplinary Studies to partner with them. ISIS agreed, hiring Jim Oldham as a consultant to raise funds and to work with the Secoya in a participatory needs assessment, identifying the best ways we could help them to help themselves. That early project planning identified three initial three areas of work: aquaculture, safe drinking water, and environmental protection. Over time, the project evolved to concentrate on aquaculture and environmental defense as the two areas where ISIS's collaborative approach and focus on science could have the greatest impact.

Since 1997, our Indigenous Aquaculture Initiative (IAI) has supported an environmentally sound approach to fish-farming using native species and renewable local resources. ISIS has helped the Secoya develop the skills for fish-farming for family consumption and establish a system of fish-farmer to fish-farmer exchange where benefits of training by outside consultants are multiplied as trainees become trainers. Native fish now reproduce in many of the over 70 family fish ponds which double as a community laboratory for testing and evaluating techniques, comparing methods, and collecting data.

Our partnership with the Secoya for environmental protection reaches well beyond the borders of their territory. Among our accomplishments we count a successful proposal for a biological sewage treatment system for the oil town of Shushufindi to protect the health of town residents and downstream communities. This also led to participation in World Bank-funded regional environmental planning at the invitation of the Ministry of the Environment.

In 1998 we were asked by the Secoya to aid them in their dialogue with Occidental Exploration and Petroleum Company (OXY); since then ISIS has organized and coordinated the team of consultants who helped the Secoya win OXY's acceptance of a first-ever Code of Conduct in 1999. By 2000, this led to a precedent-setting agreement for oil exploration that established important environmental and cultural safeguards, community monitoring of the oil company, and a compensation package addressing long term needs.

The increased emphasis on oil and indigenous rights led to new knowledge dimensions of our work, but also led to more legal and political directions, pulling away from our focus on science. In early 2003 the Board of ISIS decided to endow an organization to pursue the now fully developed projects as an independent effort. Continuing as the Amazon project director, Jim Oldham began a process to create a new organization which, in fact, has continued the work to this day. In July 2003, Las Lianas: Resource Center for Science, Culture, and Environment was incorporated to take over, continue and expand the work previously done by the ISIS Amazon Projects.

Between 1997 and 2003, our accomplishments included, among others:

• Establishment of a native fish aquaculture project with the Secoya. The IAI feeds not only participating households, but a unique combination of protecting species, habitat and respect for the elders who know the habits (and names) of all the local fauna, as well.

• An Oxfam-funded three-way international aquaculture exchange between indigenous communities in Ecuador and Peru.

• Creation of a legal & technical team to help the Secoya deal with Occidental Oil Company. This yielded a model Code of Conduct, designed to set ground-rules for dialogue and to protect Secoya rights in their dealings with the giant multi-national oil company, which was translated into Pai Coca (Secoyan) and Spanish.

• Establishment, with the Secoya, of an environmental monitoring team to act as a community watch-dog, protecting Secoya territory by evaluating the impacts of oil development. Innovative methods for rapid, daily ecological assessment began to feed back into science the effort we had invested in helping the Secoya deal with oil exploration.

• Publication, in collaboration with Fundación Kawsay, of a Manual of Indigenous Rights in Ecuador.

• Publication of a series of articles about Plan Colombia and the health and environmental impacts of aerial spraying of herbicides in Colombia as part of the U.S. sponsored “war on drugs.” This effort, pursued with the close collaboration of our first ISIS Fellow Rachel Massey, was stimulated by the major crossborder effects of the "war" that impacted our friends in Ecuador.

More details about this history and these diverse activities can be found in the archives of our Newsletter After the Fact, in the ISIS publications pages.