Part political advocacy, part documentary photo series, Daskalakis’ portrait of an indigenous Kichwa community is currently on show in Hong Kong as part of the inaugural Decade of Change exhibition
There is no road into the Sarayaku. Only by river or air can one reach this particular stretch of the Eastern Ecuadorian Amazon; a territory of approximately 135 thousand hectares in the heart of the Bobonaza River basin. Made up of 95% primary forest, it is a land many believe to house the most diverse ecosystem on the planet.
Cretan photographer and environmental activist Evangelos Daskalakis has, to date, made two journeys to the region: six hours to reach Puyo, the biggest city of the Amazonia, he recounts, then another five hours by canoe. But despite its inaccessibility to visitors, the Sarayaku is home to seven communities of the Kichwa Native People, a population of around 1400 living in complete “respect and balance” with the land.
For the Kichwa, the Sarayaku ecosystem is an equilibrium of three essential units: Sacha (forest), Yaku (rivers) and Allpa (land). Each supports an infinity of fauna and flora; all living entities that must be protected and preserved. The Kichwa’s Declaration of 2018 states allegiance to every living thing in the forest, “from the most infinitesimal to the greatest and supreme”, and their pledge to protect all of its natural bounty: the “waterfalls, lagoons, marshes, mountains, rivers, trees.”
In recent years, the community has endured a fraught tussle with both the Ecuadorian government and Argentinean oil company, CGC. After succeeding in having oil extraction on the Sarayaku land abolished, they are still fighting to instate ‘Kawsak Sacha’ as a legally protected zone, in which any form of damaging human intervention is prohibited. “Many opportunities have arisen for the exchange of land for money, but their purpose is to protect the forest,” Daskalakis says. “They feel they are the only ones who can protect it.”
It is the philosophy of ‘Kawsak Sacha’ – or ‘living forest’ – that forms the crux of Daskalakis’ winning Decade of Change series, currently on show at Hong Kong’s Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change (touring next to New York Climate Week). Researched in collaboration with Daskalakis’ friend, the anthropologist Leonidas Oikonomakis, Kawsak Sacha is part political advocacy, part documentary photo series. Yet it holds a lyricism that seems to defy either of these categorisations: layered with complexity, and elusive of hasty judgement.
In one image, we encounter striations of cloud, sulking across the impenetrable shadow of the forest canopy below. In another, a young girl, baby brother in arms, sings lullabies. And a third: a portrait of Eloisa, a centenarian member of the community, sitting up in bed. In 1992, along with 500 others from the community, Eloisa journeyed a gruelling 400km on foot from Puyo to the Ecuadorian capital of Quito to claim title deeds to the primitive lands.
There is much we can learn from the Kichwa community, Daskalakis suggests. He speaks fondly of the “friendly, helpful” individuals he met, and the lessons he took away about kinship and togetherness. In particular, he notes ‘minga’ — a tradition of communal work, or voluntary collective labor, undertaken for purposes of social utility and community-building. “If you want to live in the jungle, you can’t live alone,” says the photographer. “You learn to live in a collective, in a cooperative… I’m sensing more and more this way of life.”
Born and raised in a remote Greek village of 150 people, Daskalakis’ perspective on communal living had already filtered through from his childhood. He marvels at the experience of his grandparents, who only received electricity in 1967. “Now Crete is a place where we have everything: freezers, televisions, mobile phones. People never want to stop.” In documenting the Kichwa, Daskalakis hopes to demonstrate, by contrast, how much more there is to life than ideals of “infinite” economic growth; of breakneck profit and unchecked materialism.
Because the ethos of ‘Kawsak Sacha’ is more than simply living in harmony with nature. It is a “conscious choice” to live in appreciation for nature’s gift, valuing above all else communality, creativity, and happiness. In Daskalakis’ words: “They are satisfied with the things that they have.”
In accordance with the ‘Kawsak Sacha’ philosophy itself, Daskalakis’ project is attentive to all it surveys in the forest. From the micro to the macro, intimate to the political, the project is, in the end, an attempt to reveal the universality of Sarayaku’s story: the “common mosaic of humanity’s mission” to protect the planet. “We can’t all live in the wilderness,” Daskalakis concedes, “but even in the cities, we can make a lot of choices.”
Louise Long is a London-based photographer and writer with a focus on culture and travel. Her work has been published in Wallpaper*, CEREAL, British Vogue and Conde Nast Traveller amongst others. She is also the founder of Linseed Journal, an independent publication exploring culture and local identity.