Six Questions with Assistant Professor Karleen West

In the Ecuadorian Amazon, members of the Sarayaku Kichwa live in harmony with “Pachamama,” or Mother Earth. When workers from the national oil company of Ecuador flew a prospecting helicopter onto their land in 2007, the Sarayaku protested against drilling and fought to protect their way of life, winning their case in an international court in 2012.

Conversely, in 2016, the Shuar Arutam people were forced from their villages when it was discovered that the area was rich in copper. Karleen West, an assistant professor of political science and international relations, has spent 11 years collaborating with these and other Ecuadorian indigenous groups to find out how natural resource extraction affects their worldview, lives and environment. Equally important, she is studying why some groups are more successful at protecting their land than others.

Q: Can you describe the worldview of indigenous groups like the Sarayaku Kichwa?

A: “Sumak kawsay” is a core principle in the cosmovision, or worldview, of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples. It means “living in harmony with nature,” and it recognizes that Mother Earth is the foundation of human existence. Indigenous people believe that if harm comes to nature, it also comes to humans, so they try to protect the earth.

Q: How did you get involved with these indigenous groups, and how did you  foster such deep-seated relationships with them?

A: In the 1990s, indigenous groups united and demanded representation in unprecedented ways in Latin America, primarily by protesting and using blockades. I was inspired by their bold resistance and I wanted to learn more. For my doctoral dissertation, I investigated how Ecuador’s first indigenous political parties gained electoral success in spite of the many obstacles they were up against. I developed connections in several kichwa communities in Ecuador and felt a deep responsibility to continue studying their struggles once former President Rafael Correa began to pursue a relentless policy of oil and mineral extraction on their lands.

To do this, I worked with Professor Todd Eisenstadt of American University. We were awarded a four-year grant in 2013 from the National Science Foundation, and we began working with groups with which I had already developed relationships, as well as many new groups whose lands were being threatened by mining and oil companies. More than anything, the indigenous communities want their voices to be heard. Todd and I gained their trust by listening to them and by sharing the groups’ stories about what was happening to them.

Q: This past summer you visited three of these indigenous communities. Can you share a bit about each of their stories?

A: The first group was the Shuar Arutam people, whose village of Nankints in southern Ecuador became a militarized zone in August 2016, when the government forced families out of their homes to enforce the sale of the land to a Chinese mining company.

The second was the Sarayaku Kichwa community in the central Amazon, who successfully won a case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to stop oil drilling on their land.

The third was the Cofán community of Dureno in the northern Amazon, who live in an area devastated by Texaco/Chevron. But the Cofán recently partnered with the government to use oil funds to build new homes for the village.

Q: Has the Sarayaku Kichwa people’s fight changed the face of what is possible for indigenous groups?

A: In Ecuador’s northeastern Amazon, where Texaco/Chevron left over over 600 open oil pits that contaminate the rivers with petroleum, cancer rates are eight times higher than the national average. The Sarayaku are a remarkable example of a community that has successfully prevented extraction and its associated contamination on their land, and have thus prioritized the collective health of their community and the environment for the foreseeable future.

Their experience illustrates two important things. First, international allies are essential. The Sarayaku worked with organizations from all around the world to reinforce the idea that life is not possible without a healthy Mother Earth. Second, the Sarayaku are innovative and believe in their own worth outside of the monetary value assigned to their land by the Ecuadorian government.

They have become cosmopolitan and serve as role models for other groups. They use their traditional knowledge to create opportunities for themselves and work with modern technology to transmit their beliefs about Mother Earth around the world. They have satellite internet and a computer lab in their community, which can only be reached by an hour-long plane ride, or in days if traveling by canoe. They know about other indigenous groups around the world, their shared beliefs, and their struggles, and have reached out to the Standing Rock Sioux and others to provide support and inspiration.

Q: You brought Patricia Gualinga, a former Sarayaku leader, to Geneseo last spring to talk to students. Why is that important?

A: One student remarked that he felt like he was talking to a real-life superhero. A book can impart knowledge, but it would take a very powerful book to evoke that kind of response in a student. Patricia was able to do it in minutes by talking about the story of her family and community.

Q: In your expert opinion, how do the experiences of people who live in isolated and remote areas relate to the larger issue of the exploitation of natural resources?

A: On the one hand, people living in lesser-developed and rural areas want a way to improve their lives, and governments offer that with funds from mining and oil drilling. On the other hand, indigenous communities, in particular, recognize the irreparable harm that extraction does to the environment, and how dependent all of humanity is on Mother Earth. Not only does extraction have immediate effects on the environment through the contamination of water and the destruction of ecosystems, but it also has long-term effects on global concerns such as climate change. Extraction represents the tension between the short-term and self-interested view of economic priorities, versus the long-term and collective view of environmental priorities.

No matter what form extraction takes in which community — from fracking in Pennsylvania to oil drilling in the Niger Delta — this tension exists.The Sarayaku Kichwa provide an example of how to overcome that tension in favor of protecting Mother Earth and her people, and I am honored to be able to share their story.

Children in EcuadorStudents at a table with notebooks studying.Todd Ei- senstadt and Karleen West interviewing Lenin Gualinga, former president of Sarayaku