Deal With It

The Secoya & Other Complex Communities in a World Turned Around

[Reproduced from the December 1998 issue of After the Fact, the newsletter of the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies (ISIS). (c) 2002 ISIS, all rights reserved.]

Secoya Survival Project Director Jim Oldham returned to Ecuador in October, accompanied by Dean Cycon, environmental lawyer and founder of Deanís Beans Organic Coffee. After their return ISIS Senior Fellow Mike Fortun interviewed them about their experiences with the Secoya. As in the previous issue of ATF, part of the interview is excerpted here. The intent is to give readers more than just a "project update," by delving into the specific issues, open questions, and unexpected obstacles that are always part of the complex situations ISIS projects are designed to address.

Mike Fortun: Why donít we start by discussing what the plan was going down to Ecuador this time, and then talk about what actually happened.

Jim Oldham: First, I want to be sure to talk today about the similarities between the situation faced by the Secoya and those faced by other indigenous groups. Thatís something Dean has a lot of experience with. It often seems thereís an apparent illogic to what goes on, and itís hard even for sympathetic people to understand how the Secoya get themselves into the situations that they get themselves into. But itís not completely unreasonable when you start understanding the structure of whatís going on in these kinds of situations.

This trip had two main objectives: one was to continue our technical assistance work. In particular we were focusing on the aquaculture work, because we have a new consultant, Marco Silva, whoís going to be working for at least the next six months on a very regular basis in some of the communities. We had visited him in July, after several different organizations had recommended him to us. So we wanted to introduce him to the different Secoya villages and give him a chance to work in each one.

The other piece of the trip was very focused on the negotiations with Occidental. In July and August, OISE [the Secoya organization] had taken the position that they needed three months to evaluate Occidentalís proposals for oil exploration. The Secoya needed to evaluate the environmental impact statement, get technical advice and assistance to begin that work, and work with a department of the Foreign Ministry that was helping them lay out a long-term development plan.

So the Secoya clearly needed legal advice. Dean had met Elias and Isolina when they were here in 1995, so Dean had a background understanding of the project, and had extensive experience working with indigenous groups elsewhere. Elias actually reminded us that he had wanted Dean brought back in, now that negotiations with the oil company were such a high priority for them. So Dean volunteered to come down.

We also were beginning ó through our coordinator in Quito, Lorena Gamboa ó conversations with an Ecuadorian lawyer. And we were planning a conference in Quito with two other organizations in Ecuador Ė the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), that came out of Harvard and had done the background study on the Texaco case, and the Casa de Cultura Ė to talk about the new legal situation in Ecuador, how that affects the Secoya negotiations, and the relations between indigenous groups and the oil companies in general.

Dean Cycon: The conference was co-sponsored by Deanís BeansÖ

JO: Right. And thereís one other foundation that promised support, but we wonít name them since they havenít given the money yet.

MF: No money, no plug.

JO: So the plan was to travel with Dean, put on this conference that was bringing together different NGOs, and then go to Secoya territory and work there. But then we arrived, and discovered that there were a few missing pieces of information. A few events had taken place that we didnít know about.

In August, Occidental responded to OISEís three month moratorium on negotiations with a letter saying that was completely unreasonable, that the Secoya had taken a really long time on this already, and that it was in everyoneís interest to learn right away if there was oil in Secoya territory.

When OISE replied to that letter, by reiterating that they were taking the three months to go over Oxyís proposals, Occidental then contacted one of the villages, Centro Siecoya, and opened negotiations with them based on two legal documents. One was the land title. Although the Secoya always think of their land as a single unit, legally thereís a series of titles, rather than one title for the full block of land. And each title is in the name of a group of families who were living in that area at that time. So the title doesnít pertain either to OISE or to the Secoya nation in any sense, or even to the village of Siecoya, but to the families who happened to have been living in that area at the time the title was granted in the early 1980s.

The second legal piece is that each of the Secoya villages is legally incorporated. OISE as an organization has never finished that process of getting incorporated. So the villages have legal papers that give them certain rights ó rights to negotiate contracts, for example. Whereas OISE does not have this status.

DC: The villages were legally incorporated by the Ecuadorian government. That dynamic in the 1970s and 1980s was very typical around the world, for governments who on the one hand, in a liberal sense, were trying to create a structure that they could deal with and recognize, and in a more nefarious sense, trying to mainstream traditional cultures, which is the seed of their undoing. Thatís a pattern thatís been around for a long time, but in Latin America it was very big in the 1970s and 1980s.

MF: Well, thatís part of the reason why liberalism is so effective, because it incorporates that nefarious element within its liberalism.

DC: Right, yet everybody thinks they get something from it.

JO: So this created an opportunity for Occidental. They signed an agreement with the people of Centro Siecoya to drill one well in Secoya territory. The people of Siecoya saw it as an opportunity for their smaller village, with less power in OISE, to take the lead in negotiations that were going to affect them more than anyone else. It was also a chance for them to rectify some past inequitable distribution of benefits from previous negotiations. They were not going on their own. They were very clear about the fact that they intended to share what they received from Occidental. If anything, they were taking power, but they werenít just taking money. They were going to make some decisions about how that money was distributed, but they intended to distribute it among all of them.

MF: Had you had any previous signs that the people of Siecoya were, umÖ

DC: Feeling a little left out?

MF: Yeah. Or did this come as a total surprise?

JO: No, it didnít come as a total surprise. First of all, between July and October, we had heard rumors that this negotiation was taking place. But more than that, itís a historical situation that the leadership has come out of San Pablo Ė really, out of a couple of families. And thereís not that many families altogether. So when you see the same three, four, or five people playing the dominant role for a number of years, these things do happen.

And the particular resentment that was central is two years old, and is fairly well known. I guess the one thing that caught the people of San Pablo in the leadership of OISE by surprise, was how strongly this seemed to be felt. They saw it as a fairly minor issue, and it turned out to be fairly major.

MF: How did you learn about all of this? Through initial conversations?

JO: Yeah. When I arrived in Quito, Ramon Piaguaje ó whoís a painter who comes to Quito now and then to sell his paintings, and is quite successful Ė happened to be at the hotel where we were staying. I ran into him when we both were at the store. So that was the first news I had, the first night I arrived. Dean arrived the next day, and the conference was starting the day after that. And as soon as the OISE representatives arrived for the conference, they told us about it.

MF: But nobody from Siecoya came to the conference?

JO: Yeah, actually, one of the signatories to that contract with Occidental was to be one of the speakers at the conference: Celestino Piaguaje, who lives in Lago Agrio [a nearby oil town] but also lives in Siecoya.

In the meeting between Occidental and Siecoya, there were representatives from the leadership of OISE Ė the vice president, the treasurer, and a couple of other people from San Pablo. And they argued against the contract, in a fairly acrimonious debate, as I understand it. They were more or less shouted down, and the people in Siecoya voted to sign the contract. And then Occidental wanted very badly to have the OISE people sign. There are versions of the con-tract where thereís a blank space, looking for the OISE signature. [Shows the document] Right there: Representate OISE. Blank.

In an earlier version, they had written "Leader, Secoya" or "Testigo de honor" Ė honorable witness Ė where Celestino signed. So he had no official standing, he was just another member of the community. But he was a weighty member of the community, whoís well known publicly Ė he has a job in education in Lago Agrio, heís written books and articles. So heís a weighty member of the community. So they had the vice-president and the treasurer of OISE, who refused to sign the document. They said they couldnít do it without consulting with the people in the other villages. So the line was left blank, but Occidental still can use it to make a case.

After Siecoya signed the agreement, there were several meetings within OISE with the people from Siecoya. Eventually, the people from Siecoya agreed that they had made a mistake in signing the agreement.

MF: And Occidental said too late, the ink is on the paper?

JO: Yeah. The Siecoya came with this letter, saying that they realized that their unity as a Secoya people had been violated, and because of the pressures from Occidental they had broken with OISE in a way that wasnít correct. And they said they were annulling their signatures on the agreement of the 24th of September.

MF: So what changed Celestinoís mind?

JO: Celestino had an extremely complex and mixed thinking about the resolution. One of his concerns was the personal impact that he felt he was going to suffer from oil development. On the other hand, he had earlier been against the negotiation altogether, and had been one of the people most vocal about the cultural impacts that were going to result from oil exploration. So I think he was very divided within himself. And although I never heard anyone say this, I personally think that some of the people who were most against the agreement, but who were also heavily impacted because of where their land was Ė my suspicion is that there was something of a feeling that, now that the majority has voted to let the company in Ė which hadnít really happened, but there was a sense the majority was going to do that Ė then at least Iím going to get my share, and weíre going to do this in a way thatís fair to those of us who are most heavily impacted. So I think thatís the kind of thing that was going on with him.

Celestino was eventually won over in a meeting where Elias played an important role. I think some of the OISE leadership felt that they might as well accept the contract, that fighting it was a lost cause. And Elias really rallied opinion in San Pablo, arguing that, this was not just one contract with the oil company, this was a threat to the Secoya as a nation.

And Gilberto [Piaguaje, President of Centro Siecoya) signed both the agreement with Occidental and this letter rejecting it, and by the time we got to Siecoya, the whole issues still had to be debate and analyzed. He was still not clearly on board with OISE.

MF: So you get off the plane, Dean, and Jim starts telling you about all this. Were you surprised?

DC: I wasnít surprised that the oil company would do whatever it had to do to achieve its goals. Thatís the way it has to operate. It has its marching orders from the U.S. and from its shareholders. So that wasnít shocking. And the details, I didnít really understand fully for a couple of days, because I didnít really have the background. At the conference, it all started to unfold, as Celestino talked about his position and why he had signed in the first place. So it started to really sink in about the second day of the conference.

I saw the conference as having two goals: the first was to look at the legal documents that might have some relevance to further negotiations. The second and more important was to help formalize some sort of strategy for where the Secoya go from here, with the input of a lot of other people. There were representatives of the Shuar, another indigenous group; CONFENIAE, the Confederation of the Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon, also sent representatives; other international lawyers were there, and people from the government. So there was a range of people there offering their insights and observations on what was going on. I was focusing on the question: whatís the dynamic that would carry this thing forward? And what kind of strategy would it be useful to evolve from here on? Thatís where I put my four cents in Ė there were two topics, and I put two cents in each.

The first was about the negotiations with Occidental per se, and the second was something that I started to see and felt strongly about: the need to restructure OISE to be more representative, and to be perceived as more representative by the communities that are involved in it. The first indication of this need was when Celestino was saying, "well, what do we do when we have this situation where an individual is injured more than the community? How does that individual get compensated" Ė and heís talking about himself Ė "when the road goes through my land? I receive an injury thatís greater than the one received by somebody up in Centro Eno, or in San Pablo."

So I asked: isnít there a traditional means of resolving disputes like that? That would be the first place to look. But there didnít seem to be an immediate answer to that. So then I asked if there was anything in OISE in terms of dispute resolution, that would mirror their culturally-accepted patterns of how to resolve disputes. That didnít seem to exist either, because OISE really isnít at that level yet. So I suggested Ė in an off-hand manner, but I was taking it very seriously Ė that perhaps OISE needed a code of conduct for its constituent communities, as well as one with Occidental. So that became the main focus for me for a lot of my work over the following days.

MF: Have other groups that youíve worked with had those kinds of codes?

DC: Absolutely. The reason Elias wanted to bring me down in the first place Ė Iíve met him twice over the last six or seven years Ė was that he knew of the work Iíve done with a number of indigenous nations, about restructuring their governing patterns. These are generally given to them, more or less, by missionaries or outside governments, and they donít fit the culture. So they can very suddenly shred the cultural and social dynamics of the group. Iíve worked with three indigenous nations to restructure those, pretty successfully.

MF: So these kinds of codes originally emerge in response to some outside force Ė government, corporation, whatever Ė that creates new kinds of conflicts that then need new kinds of social organizations to resolve.

DC: Itís actually a two-stage process. First, if a given group takes on a new governing structure that disenfranchises a certain group Ė elders, for example. This is something that weíve seen in Native American situations all the time. The constitutional format that the tribes adopt has no room for the elders, even though traditionally theyíve had a very important role to play. Thereís no formal role for them anymore, so they can be ignored by both the government of the tribe, and the governments that deal with them. And there are many other dynamics like that. So the first thing is that the governing structure that the people adopt starts to impact itself internally.

Then thereís this added element of all these outside inputs that have never been there before. One analogy we were making when we were down there is, in the past, the forest pro-vided the "management plan." You really didnít need to go beyond the forest; it provided everything you needed. But with the forest so impacted by outside forces, so that fishing and hunting are no longer guaranteed things, and with pollution and colonization and development Ė the forest no longer provides a complete plan. So whatís the next evolution, to supplement that? And thatís where they are right now.

JO: The idea that the government structure that they have is something thatís imposed from outside is important. If you look at OISE, itís a structure thatís not only new, but also very limited. Thereís a president, a vice-president, a treasurer, and a secretary, and whenever you have a subcommittee for some subsidiary issue, you create the same set of structures. Then thereís a variety of coordinators: the authority is imposed there on a single individual, and thereís no coordination between different activities. Itís just taking a paper structure and imposing it on a group of people, rather than having something develop out of them. You can see that itís only twenty years old, and was borrowed from a mix of Ecuadorian legal structure and what the missionaries taught them.

What will be interesting for the Secoya, as opposed to a group that has a long tradition of an eldersí council or something like that, is that in this group thatís fairly independent and dispersed Ė where each family is making many of its own decisions Ė and except for some religious gatherings or healings or things like that, people didnít work together that much. Thereís not as much of a historical base of any kind of governing structure, because you just didnít need a whole lot of governing.

DC: So this need for some sort of restructuring that could bring harmony to the three communities, so they could present a united front to Occidental or any other outside entity trying to impact the community, was becoming very important to me personally. Then there were a lot of lawyer- like details to work out about documents, and getting people to formally agree on certain aspects of how they wanted to move in this matter. We ended up spending a lot of time late at night, with Jim translating and typing documents furiously, so certain people could sign this or that. So it was very, very busy.

But also it was important for me to get down to Centro Siecoya, and really try to understand what was going on. There were a lot of mixed messages coming out of the community, or the representatives of the community.

MF: What was your process for trying to understand what was going on?

DC: Talking and listening, talking and listening to as many people as wanted to talk. I think especially in indigenous communities, thatís just the only way to understand the situation. Because the representatives donít necessarily speak for people. No more so than here, perhaps, but here thereís more vested authority that you can rely on. But we would talk to people and they would say one thing, and seem to agree with what we were saying, and then vote the other way immediately thereafter. And then youíd talk to them again, and theyíd change their mind again.

JO: We spent a day and a half in San Pablo, talking to a lot of people there, including the leadership of OISE. There was a meeting there in San Pablo where the outstanding issue was some zinc roofing that hadnít made it to Siecoya. People were saying, "itís not a big deal, we can give them whatever they want, we can resolve it, we shouldnít let this get in the way." And it seemed like things were fairly easy to resolve, because there was a lot of understanding there about the problems with Siecoya, as much as we understood that.

DC: And there was going to be a meeting the very next day, where many people from Centro Siecoya would come up to San Pablo for a big meeting about this very issue.

JO: So then we had a very informative evening in Siecoya, at home with Gilberto, whom we had traveled with down river. But while we were talking with him and Miriam, his wife, and learning a lot more about the complexities of the problems, we got a sense of how the hurt was deeper than anyone in San Pablo made it out to be. And the motorista, the guy who runs the canoe, went out to inform everyone about the meeting in San Pablo the next day, and came back and told us that absolutely no one was planning to go to the meeting tomorrow.

Gilberto had been ready to go, even though he was feeling bad about it, but he was president of his community and he was ready to go up. And it was a very democratic decision Ė unanimous: we are not going to the meeting.

DC: And that they werenít interested in annulling the contract.

MF: After they had signed this letter saying they did want to annul the contract?

DC: See, itís not they. Itís only two people that signed this letter. Thatís the problem.

JO: Thatís a very important point. Two days later it finally did become they after we got folks in Siecoya together for a meeting (our aquaculture work draws crowds) and spent some time with them reading the contract. When they understood the contract they had been told was "only for 12 months" (which is legally true) had a clause talking about transferring title of their land to Petroecuador [the state oil company] they felt they had been lied to by Occidental. Still, they key to resolving the problem with the rest of OISE had as much to do with resolving the sense that OISE leaders had also betrayed them by failing to represent their interests. Much of our work that day involved working with Siecoya to develop a proposal for addressing the internal problems of OISE as a prerequisite for uniting to challenge the contract with OXY.

The Other Side of the Occidental Coin

MF: I want to come back to this problem of fractured community, but first tell me whatís going on with Occidental up here?

DC: One of the charges I was given by the OISE leadership was to contact Occidental in the United States, and to bring to their attention the situation in Ecuador and the behavior of their subsidiary. So I did. Iíve spoken with people in charge of international oil production for Occidental, with the agenda of getting them to annul the agreement with Centro Siecoya and ease up on the pressure to get an agreement, at least until the Secoya can restructure into a more unified negotiating body.

JO: And spend some time evaluating what whatever theyíre negotiating for will mean.

DC: And to consider much more carefully the environmental impacts that would come out of any possible exploration, and cultural impacts. These have really been ignored. The environmental impact statement that was prepared on behalf of Occidental by its consultants didnít get to the Secoya until very late into the negotiations. Frankly, I donít think people took a really hard look at it, because nobody does: these are voluminous, scientifically written documents that are very difficult to read. But Lorena and Paulina [of CESR, one of the conference co-sponsors] plowed through it at their end, and we plowed through it at our end, and we presented it to the communities in a coherent fashion both at the Quito conference and in Centro Siecoya.

And people were ultimately pretty astounded by the impacts, which were clearly identified, even though they were minimized. But very clear. So I think that was one of the major contributions we made going there this time, to bring that environmental impact information to people so they could make their own decision on it. But one of the things we were talking about doing is, if the negotiations continue, is to evolve a negotiating strategy that could really protect the environment, and really includes decision-making from the Secoya. Because to date, not a single one of the contracts thatís been going back and forth is a real, rock solid contract thatís fair to the Secoya, monetarily or environmentally.

JO: The contracts consistently ignore the environmental issues completely. They donít even mention the environmental impact statement, let alone anything beyond that.

MF: But why on earth should Occidental agree to include the Secoya in that process?

DC: The world has changed substantially since even twenty years ago, when companies like Texaco could go down to the Amazon and do whatever they wanted, totally unregulated. There are eyes and ears everywhere now, thanks to the Internet, email, a heightened interest in education on the part of these countriesí environmental groups and indigenous populations. And so you just canít get away with what you used to be able to get away with. Recognizing that, a lot of organizations like Occidental are trying to be better "partners," to the extent that they feel they can. And they bring on anthropologists and environmentalists, and they make a stab at addressing these issues. But the bottom line is always the bottom line.

Well, when you look at the bottom line, and some elements of it are lawsuits, civil insurrection, destroyed wells, an uncooperative population, and lower oil prices, you have additional leverage in the negotiation. So itís no longer: this is what we want, this is what weíre going to get, and here are some trinkets. In getting them to acknowledge that OISE and its advisors have a role to play, and that they canít go forward without including them, I donít think itís going to be possible to slip any of these three-or four-page oil agreements past people anymore. So that door has been closed. Occidental now knows that, and from our conversations with them, theyíre very aware that the next step, if theyíre not more responsive, is possibly a campaign or lawsuits here against Occidental. And they donít need it, and their shareholders donít want it.

JO: Theyíve just spent the last year with a very visible campaign on the Uíwa case, in Colombia Ė full page ads in The New York Times, big demonstrations outside their shareholdersí meetings. So theyíre very sensitive right now to this.

DC: And we spoke about that in our conversations with them. We made it very clear that this could become another Uíwa case, and they donít need it. My approach to Occidental, by the way, was not confrontational. Iíve been a corporate lawyer, and I understand the structure of that culture as well as the structure of indigenous cultures. I donít agree with them at all, but by trying to respect what their needs are, I think I gained an audience with them that I wouldnít have received otherwise.

Contrast and Compare

DC: I was struck by how the inner dynamics of the Secoya community were very, very different Ė but in many ways similar Ė to indigenous societies Iíve dealt with in other countries. I spent a year working with the Maori in New Zealand. Iíve got a total of twenty years working with groups such as the Lakota, the Assiniboin, the Gros Ventre, and several groups in Canada. One thing that stood out to me was that the Secoya seemed to operate in smaller family pods, or extended family pods, and that holds a good degree of their attention and loyalty, as opposed to the Secoya nation as a whole.

Although itís not exclusive, the dynamic that creates for trying to work as a nation is very different from what Iíve seen in, for example, the Maori or the Plains Indian cultures. MF: Because the federation isnít as central or powerful, and it becomes more aÖ

DC: More fractured. There seems to be a traditional lack of a communal or consensual decision-making process with the Secoya. Iím not an anthropologist, so itís just an observation, but there doesnít seem to have been a reason for that kind of coordinated approach to things in the past. Thatís very different from the experiences that Iíve had with other people. Thereís a lot of inter-tribal fractioning among North American indigenous people, or Maori tribes Ė there are 44 Maori tribes in New Zealand, and a lot of them donít talk to each other. But Iíve never experienced such independence within an identified cultural or tribal unit. And I think itís a strength and a weakness.

The Secoya people are incredibly strong, but theyíre not organized to take advantage of their strength. So thatís going to be very interesting, as Iím hoping to continue working with them on a project Ė funded by Deanís Beans! ó about creating something that takes advantage of their strengths, and tries to navigate the weakness of having no strong communal tendency. I donít know what thatís going to look like, but weíll see.

Another part of this relates to the Secoyaís style of life. Theyíve lived in the forest, on the rivers, in small communities. And the forest is their "management plan," and provides the basic resources for each family to provide for itself. And each small group or town can pretty much provide for itself, without the need for Ė for example, with the Plains Indians Ė the need for coordinated hunts. Or with the Maori, coordinated fishing. So until recently, the ecological tie has held true, and I think that thatís shredding, and now something new is to be evolved. And thatís where part of the problem lies.

MF: What other differences or similarities do you see between the Secoya and other indigenous groups youíve worked with?

DC: Well, the first thing, which is a pretty common dynamic between indigenous cultures and Western governmental cultures, is that indigenous people as a general rule donít seem to appreciate the formal power thatís invested in legal systems by Western-style governments. So for example, the people in Centro Siecoya would sign one thing and, at the moment, mean it. And yet feel completely free to expect that that document which they signed would be annulled by the simple changing of their minds, without really appreciating that a signature on a legal document that has the power of the state and the authority of major multinational corporations and para-statal corporations behind it, is a thing of immense power Ė in that system. And I see that a lot.

MF: And ó I know this is a hard question and itís not a clean division Ė is that simply from lack of experience, or is there some kind of cultural difference?

DC: I think itís both. Itís hard to say, in this day and age, that anythingís clean, because thereís such a mix of cultures, and issues of education and exposure. Frankly, nothing I would say would be very different from experiences that Iíve had in some towns in Massachusetts trying to fight hazardous waste programs or nuclear waste facilities, or anything else. Itís not that different. People tend to be fairly short-term oriented, asking "whatís in it for my community immediately thatís tangible?," versus those "things" out there like environmental destruction that are farther in the future. So thereís something in that thatís common to people in general, I think.

MF: And also the notion of "community" everywhere starts to show its warts and fractures and pollutions once you push on it hard enough.

DC: But at the same time, I think there is a cultural difference. This whole institution of Western government is only a couple of hundred years old. It wasnít long ago we were feudal, which is a very different system. Or mercantile, which is a very different system. Thereís sharia, the Islamic legal system, which is very different from ours. Thereís the common law system which is different from the civil law system. Theyíre all very different. So we have this perception that the way we think and the way we legalize is a given in the world, and itís not. Itís a blip.

Iíll give you another example thatís parallel to what went on in Centro Siecoya. It was the first time I ever worked for a tribal government, as opposed to traditional groups on reservations. I was brought to Fort Belknap, Montana, at the behest of the tribal government, to help the tribe really understand the impact of having the largest cyanide-leaching gold mine in the world on their border. So I took all the available information from EPA, the environmental impact statement that had been prepared by the company, and their general information, and I went out and I spent four hours going through all the environmental and cultural impacts that are usually associated with mining like this. And people were nodding their heads, and completely supportive of what I was saying. And even though the tribe couldnít stop the mine, because it was theoretically on federal land, not Indian land, they had some voice in it. So they were preparing a resolution to say whether they approved or opposed it. And after four hours of nodding heads, they voted to accept the mine and not to reimburse me for my airfare! I was so mortified that turnabout had taken place. That was in 1984. That was the first time I was confronted with a 180 degree shift, in such a short period of time. And the tribal leaders had brought me out specifically to back them up in denouncing the mining operation. So these kinds of situations are not unusual.

JO: I think these kinds of experiences really helped you to respond immediately to what was going on with the Secoya. Because a lot of people get frustrated, thinking that the Secoya say one thing one day and another thing another day. But often itís not the Secoya saying one thing one day and another thing another day, itís a Secoya said one thing and another Secoya said another thing. So for example, I sent out a fundraising letter by email just before we went down, and I got a very strong, critical response from a woman who has worked down in Ecuador and knows something about the situation. She asked how I could write that the Secoya were "trying to decide" what to do about the oil company? Not just the leaders, but the majority had voted in favor of letting the oil company come in, she said.

Yeah: and they voted against letting the oil company come in. Theyíve done both several times. The problem is a bit like the proposal that Quebec secede from Canada, but at least in Canada they have a Supreme Court that says, you canít just vote to separate the country and be done with it; you still have to go through the courts and decide whether it can hold up. But in the case of the Secoya, they can vote six times against the oil company, and the one time they vote in favor [snaps his fingers], the companyís in. Thereís no second chance on that.

So this capacity to recognize that a community is just that: a community with a lot of different individuals, a lot of different opinions, and a wide range of needs Ė with different ones uppermost at a given time. Thatís what you need to be able to work out there. You need to be able to listen to people in San Pablo, and then go down river and hear the exact opposite and suddenly have your world turned around. And deal with it.