Interview: Humberto Piaguaje

By Chris Hufstader

Please tell us about the Secoya people.

My grandmother told us that we were many, many Secoyas, between the Rio Napo and Putamayo, near the frontier with Colombia. We must have been over 8,000 there?

At the time of the Spanish conquest many people died from measles and mumps. And even when my grandma was a little girl, she had to escape into the jungle to avoid such terrible diseases. She said that nobody came to help them; people were dying in their houses, like chickens.

Then came the rubber boom. The rubber producers held the Secoyas as slaves. Many Secoyas drank poison to liberate themselves from the indignity of forced labor. Others fled deeper into the jungle.

After all this dislocation the Secoyas regrouped in about 1970. We were only 120 people. And those remaining 120 people, along with their children and grandchildren, were the ones who had to endure the impact of the oil companies. And of those 120, I was one.

This is to contextualize what is happening today. These 120 continue to suffer. Two [just] died of cancer, and eight years ago more people died of cancer. So we wonder, for those 120 native people and their descendants, if our days are numbered too; if some sickness will take us instead of a natural death. This is to say that life is uncertain now.

What has been the impact of oil development on the culture and life of your people?

The oil companies have had a significant cultural impact, especially on our territory. How we used to live—naturally, that is—is no longer natural. We are experiencing the impact of many other cultures, especially from [modern-day migration]. Before we didn't need money because we had everything we needed. There were animals and fish; there was fruit, and medicines. Everything was found in the forest. But now we must go out to buy everything.

We also need to buy notebooks and school supplies. We are now surrounded by school walls in order to learn. The education beforehand for the Secoyas began at four in the morning. The elderly people in the community worked with the young people, teaching them weaving. They also told stories, legends, which taught respect for older people.

Though we agree that education should take place in the classroom, we are not in agreement that the only thing that should be taught is what the government decides should be taught. We see that we are not educating ourselves and our children in the way that our ancestors taught us. In that sense we are losing our culture. Now the youth doesn't know about our legends and our stories and our customs. And this is why now, through our own bilingual education, we are trying to reintegrate our own values, our own cultures, and our own traditions into our education.

Another great impact is on the environment. For example, we no longer have animals because one step behind the oil companies came the colonists. And every time the colonists found an animal they had to shoot it, they had to kill it. [The animals] withdrew farther and farther away. And now we no longer have territories in which we have everything we need around us; in which we can go from one side to the other. Everything has its owner. Now there are other communities—Shuar communities and Kichwa communities—which were ours before. This is a reduction of our territory. Right now we're enclosed and circumscribed by different pacts. There is one pact with the oil company; the African palm company [harvesting hearts of palm]; the colonists; even other indigenous people who have migrated here from their ancestral homes in other provinces.

What has really damaged us is the pollution in the rivers. This is really the worst part, along with the contamination in the air and the earth itself on which we cultivate our plants and our food. These are the terrible effects that have been visited upon us.

Although we talk about remediation, I think it will be difficult to repair what has been damaged. I think perhaps we will never be able to, because even though we might repair the natural environment, modern society is here among us—on our doorstep—and we will never be able to repair that.

We have seen many new sicknesses that we didn't see in our people before. We the Secoyas knew how to cure ourselves when those sicknesses were natural sicknesses. But now, with these unknown diseases, not even the best healer among us knows how to cure them. I think if we don't now have people who really know how to cure those previously unknown diseases, if we don't resolve this case against Texaco, then the very few Secoyas that remain—about 400 of us—will lose our culture and we may be finished off by sickness or disease. Or for other reasons we will disappear bit by bit. This is what I can tell you about the impact of the oil industry on the Secoya people.

Can you see a resolution of the Texaco case that could help your people survive?

Yes there is a hope for us, in the way that we have been organizing around Texaco because the Sionas, Secoyas, and Cofanes, we are the ones who have lived here in Sucumbios. We are the original owners of these territories and we have seen all of the damage that has been done here. So we organized through some friendly organizations—they came and told us about human rights—before we knew nothing about human rights. And through friends and allies the Sionas, Secoyas, Cofanes, and Kichwas started to organize in order to bring justice to this case.

We, as one part of the affected people, believe that since we have already waited 10 years [while the case languished in the United States courts]; we could wait and continue another 10 years if necessary. This is our priority. People are saying: "If we don't get this resolved, what are we doing? If we can't drink the water from our traditional sources—then what?"

So we are newly united since the case has been presented in a court here, and now we are just waiting for the judge's decisions. We are assisted by Oxfam America and other people. We feel we are engaging in common work to ensure a future for the people who are in danger of disappearing.

We can't waste time being sorry about what has happened. We have to be able to defend and exercise the same rights as Spanish-speaking mestizo people do in our own territory.