Excerpts compiled and edited from my diary, September 14 – October 3, 2001.
I am sitting in the Quito airport, waiting for the fog to lift in Lago Agrio so we can board the plane. The first trip we made had to circle in the air and return to Quito because there wasn’t enough visibility to land. I am on my way to visit the Federación de Mujeres de Sucumbíos, (Women’s Federation of Sucumbíos), a grassroots umbrella organization for about 50 small member organizations throughout the province, almost all mestiza (rather than indigenous or Black). Lago Agrio is the capital of the province of Sucumbíos, in the North of the Amazon region, bordering Colombia. My objectives there are to learn about the work of the women in the Federation, and to see the local effects of oil industry and of the armed conflict in Colombia.
This afternoon I arrived. The Federation has a beautiful building, complete with meeting rooms, a patio with a large woman symbol designed into the stones and accommodations with capacity for about 100 people. For Ecuador, particularly in the Amazon region, it is quite impressive. They built the center to temporarily shelter battered or abandoned women, but rent out the extra space for conferences, generating the Federation’s sole income. It is located on a road about 10 minutes from the center of the city.
Settling in to Sucumbíos
The Federation put me up in a bedroom there, so I spent my down time and ate most of my meals with the women who are sheltered there. We cooked together and spent a lot of time talking, so that by the time I left I felt very attached to them. One woman is a refugee from Colombia who cannot be housed with the other refugees for various reasons, and she is staying in the shelter with her son of about 6 years. She can’t return to her farm in Colombia until the government repatriates her, and her best option for work here in the thriving prostitution industry of Lago Agrio. Every night after eating dinner with us, she goes to work at a nearby bar. Another woman here came with her 10 year old son, leaving a terribly abusive husband behind in a nearby rural community. She is mostly mute, so we had difficulty communicating, but by the end we had developed a wonderful friendship. At the end of my stay, a 13 year old girl arrived whose abusive parents threw her out of the house. Since the Federation has only had the building for a couple of years, and suffers from lack of funding and technical support, they receive a minimal but continuous flow of women.
When I arrived here, everyone was talking about the political conflict in town. The oil companies building the highly controversial new oil pipeline wanted to build an oil refinery (or some sort of station, I’m not sure exactly what it is) in town. Since Lago already has a high number of oil storage tanks at the opposite end of town, the local mayor refused to allow the new construction, saying that it would trap the residents between two “time bombs.” Unfortunately, the oil companies bribed several councilmen with a rumoredly high amount of money to oppose the mayor and let them go ahead with the construction. The councilmen essentially tried kicking the mayor out of power for a few days, but due to several marches and protests (I participated in one!) the mayor regained his rightful position.
The “compañeras” (women from the organization) have all been looking out for my safety, but daily occurences and stories remind me that it isn’t arbitrary that the US State Deparment has strong travel advisories against visiting this province. At night, buses are frequently assaulted by random delinquents. During my stay here, a taxi driver was killed and robbed of his car on the outskirts of the city, and a bus full of passengers was assaulted in broad daylight on a road I had traveled on two days earlier. The neighborhood where the Federation is located is not immune to violence either. The guard/caretaker of the grounds told me that he had to fire a few gunshots in the air to scare away some men who were fighting in the road right outside of the Federation a few nights ago. No one doubts that the violence has increased due to the conflict in Colombia. Allegedly, most of the criminals are Colombian, and people have such a built up fear against them, that at a party or a bar, Ecuadorian partiers will leave if they notice too many Colombians there. Most Colombian (men) in Lago don’t go anywhere unarmed, so although they are not necessarily criminals, the mere presence of arms creates a higher danger if any small fight should break out.
Warfare of the guerrillas, paramilitaries and the military and Colombia has slowly been creeping across the border for the past two years or so. Coca farmers have had their crops fumigated by the U.S. funded Plan Colombia, and their lives threatened by the guerrillas and paramilitaries. Bush Junior is fighting drug trafficking and “protecting democracy” in Latin America while bombing the middle east – comfortably following his father’s footsteps. While the guerrilla warfare and system of drug trafficking needs to be addressed, I can’t trust the Plan, when I know the U. S. only plays for its own interests. Like most social organizations, I believe that Plan Colombia is an intervention of U.S. interest in controlling the Andean region, focusing more on militarization and the end of narcotrafficking than it does on development and peace efforts.
Some thoughts on human survival and environmental preservation
When I ride the bus between center city and the Federation, past the neighborhoods of dirt roads and small wooden homes with tin rooves, I keep repeating to myself, “so this is Ecuador . . . so this is how people live.” It’s such a complex, or maybe simple, way that humans survive. Here I am in a region of the world which contains an incredibly high biological diversity. Yet, in most of what I’ve seen, the only way humans survive here is by destroying that. The effects are all too obvious and ugly. People tell me that it used to rain her much more, and that the stream I pass on the way through town used to be much higher. Whereas 10 years ago neighbors could bathe, wash clothing and drink out of the high clean waters, factors such as garbage dumping into it have transformed the water source into a low, mucky stream. I can feel the heat emanating from pavement and from concrete block homes. Whereas there is a small, dense forest preserved behind the Federation, the Federation itself has few trees and plants on its grounds. Walking along gravel roads surrounded by fields of knee high grass, the sun beats down hard, but going farther in, “adentro,” the trees and streams cool down homes considerably. The heat in the extensive pastures of tall grass remind me of fancy housing developments in New Jersey. Canvassing for an environmental political campaign on summer, I spent afternoons sweating my way across a sort of man made desert from one large, airconditioned house to another.
Rosario, who lives “adentro,” rather than in town or a long a major road, has several acres of beautiful dense forest with many species of insects, birds and monkeys. She and her husband work cutting it down in order to plant rice and plantains for consumption, and coffee. The coffee beans I saw are either rotting off the trees or sitting in large sacks in her kitchen. Since the coffee recently “lost price,” the many producers of the region would spend more on transportation into town with the coffee than they would earn by selling it there.
At Juana’s farm, her husband and son knock down trees and sell the wood as their main source of income. When I visited, we ate plantains, pineapple, naranjilla fruit, freshly slaughtered chicken and guinea pig, all from their land. On the brief tour of the farm, the number one plant I noticed was grass. That great grass that grows back as soon as everything else is knocked down. And the mestizos or “colonos” aren’t particularly proud of it, either. Rosario told me in an urgent, fretting voice that she doesn’t want to continue clearing the land, but she doesn’t know what else to do! She doesn’t know how else to feed the six grandchildren living with her. You plant food, chop up wood for the kitchen fire, sell the rest, raise animals, and try to get by. Human survival seems to rely on it.
It’s amazing that here I am in such a biologically diverse part of the world, and everywhere I look, I see oil pipelines and drilling wells, bare lots with dried-up tree stumps. The roosters cockle-doodle-dooing back and forth between homes drowns out the chirping of birds and monkeys in the morning. The only monkeys I’ve seen are leashed and clinging to the shoulders of people walking through the market. In the bathroom the other night, I saw a huge fuzzy spider that was probably a sort of tarantula, and in my friend’s house last week, we saw the most peculiar looking insect with a long paddle-shaped appendage sticking out in front of it’s abdomen. Crickets and grasshoppers abound in a beautiful variety of colors. But the rainforest sure isn’t being saved. In fact, Sucumbíos is one of the most isolated, marginalized provinces in terms of infrastructre, social services, economy and communication.
· According to a 1996 study, Sucumbíos is the province
with the highest percentage of people living in conditions of poverty,
· The province ranks second among provinces with high percentages of destitution, at 55.3%.
· Lago Agrio ranks fifth among the nation’s counties showing high percentages of poverty, at 93.9%.
The work of the Federation
Similar to grassroots women’s organizations that formed in response to natural disaster in Honduras and Turkey, several small women’s organizations united to confront the crisis that a devastating earthquake brought to the region in 1987. Thus was born the Federación de Mujeres de Sucumbíos. The women I have met here are very brave and strong-minded in their work. They’re not afraid of going hungry, getting stuck in the mud (literally) or becoming victims of road assaults. They have also risked their lives in countless political marches and strikes. In the visits they make to the member organizations, they go with enough money from the Federation to cover bus fare and perhaps a snack. They travel far into other communities to conduct discussions on social issues such as human rights, adolescence or family planning, and to teach skills like knitting or hair cutting to the member women’s organizations. Being criticized and labeled as home-wreckers, anti-Christian and communists, they don’t take the attacks to heart. In fact there’s no denying that many marriages dissolve as a result of women’s organizations, and that communist views may not be so far from the philosophies of the members.
In some people’s terms, they would fit under the label, “poor, uneducated housewives.” Most of the members are only minimally literate. Nevertheless, they have learned to value and make the best of their knowledge gained by living as women on the margins of society, and have educated themselves through their organizations. Unfortunately, their lack of formal education and the minimal resources available to them do slow down their work. Accompanying them in their work, it dawned on me how much knowledge and experience I have to share with people, and how lucky I am to have the formal and non-formal education that I do. They have difficutly in planning a simple outline for a discussion on adolescence or reading through a pamphlet that explains Ecuadorian law against domestic violence. Simply being raised in a family of avid readers and receiving a basic education in sexual health, nutrition and child raising gives me a certain of level expertise, not to mention my college education and work experience. However, I do not mean to undermine the knowledge of the compañeras. They have lived so much, and achieved so much change in their lives, that they are the only true experts who can directly connect with the women of the member organizations and bring them new knowledge. This dynamic organization truly demonstrates the effectiveness of peer learning and bottom-up organizing.
The compañeras here have taught me so much. Their generosity
and openness has amazed me every step of the way. We have taught
each other a lot just by exchanging personal stories of our education,
family relationships and sexuality, and they have invited me to their homes
to “share their poverty” with me. I am so blessed.