(Mongabay, Kimberley Brown, 5.Mar.2019) — An indigenous community in Ecuador has filed a lawsuit against the government for failing to consult with it before putting its territory up for sale to the oil industry.
The Waorani community announced the lawsuit Feb. 27 with a historic march through the city of Puyo, capital of the Amazon province of Pastaza. More than 250 Waorani leaders, elders and other indigenous supporters walked through the city for over two hours to the provincial Judicial Counsel, where they submitted documents in support of their case.
“We are demanding that the Ecuadoran state respect our territory and self-determination. This fight didn’t grow overnight, it’s been the fight of the Waorani for years,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, a Waorani protester and representative of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality Ecuador Pastaza (CONCONAWEP).
The indigenous community has long been opposed to an oil auction planned for the southeast Amazon. The government has divided the region into 13 blocks; one of them, Block 22, overlaps almost entirely with Waorani territory. Any oil exploitation here could have dire impacts on the 16 communities that live in the region.
Last year, the government of President Lenín Moreno significantly reduced the oil auction down to two blocks, removing Block 22, but has since said the region is not exempt from future drilling plans. Any sale of their territory violates the Waorani’s human rights, and jeopardizes their cultural and physical survival, they say.
Under both national and international law, the government must seek the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of communities that could be affected by extraction projects on or near their territory.
The Waorani lawsuit, co-filed with the Ecuadoran Human Rights Ombudsman, specifically refers to the consultation process held in 2012 between the Waorani communities and the Ministry of Hydrocarbons. According to members of the community, this process was nothing more than a series of presentations by the government about how the oil money would benefit the community, and nothing about the negative repercussions.
The ministry, which has since been renamed the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources, did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment by the time of publication.
María Espinosa, the human rights lawyer representing the Waorani community, says the goal of the lawsuit is not just to sue the government for failing to carry out the consultation process, but also to ensure that it suspends any process of soliciting oil investment for Block 22.
It could also set a precedent to change the FPIC laws in the country to actually adhere to international standards, and respect the autonomy and organization of communities.
“The right to life and territory, and the physical and cultural well-being of the Waorani and other Amazon nationalities is at risk, and it’s the state’s obligation to protect them,” Espinosa said at a brief press conference in front of the judicial office.
Some of the evidence the community presented at the filing includes testimony from elders explaining how the government consultation process was deceitful and not in accordance with legal standards. It also includes years of territorial mapping, showing the Waorani ancestral connection to the rainforest.
Last year, the Waorani launched an international petition and ancestral map to save their territory, and have since received more than 74,500 signatures.
The Waorani also have local support. At the march in Puyo, other communities from across the Amazon joined them, including the Siona, Sápara and Siekopai. Also present were members of the Cofán community from Ecuador’s northern Amazon, who won a historic lawsuit against the government last year for allowing mining operations on their territory without undergoing the consultation process. A court ordered the government to cancel 52 mining concessions near Cofán territory that covered 324 square kilometers (125 square miles) of pristine rainforest.
Nenquimo says she’s confident the Waorani will win this legal battle, since the Amazon communities are in this together, and are stronger today since they are fighting together.
Jairo Irumenga, a Waorani protester and member of the indigenous group Ceibo Alliance, says communities in the province of Pastaza don’t want a repeat of what happened in the north of the country. The oil industry, operating there since the 1970s, has caused massive contamination and divided communities, he says.
One of the more notable examples are the black pools of oil contamination near the northern Amazon city of Lago Agrio, where U.S. oil company Texaco dumped its waste for decades before the local community decided to sue in 1993. Chevron acquired Texaco’s assets in 2001, and therefore the lawsuit and responsibility for the damages, and the legal battle continues today. Thousands of people remain affected by the remaining contamination.
“Before, people weren’t awake, but now we are awake,” Irumenga told Mongabay during the march. “The people who are here say they want to keep living, fishing and bathing in clean water, not fishing contaminated fish and bathing in contaminated water.”
Climate scientists are increasingly looking for ways to save tropical forests, as an essential way to address climate change. Destruction of tropical forests accounts for some 8 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, ranking just below the United States, and significantly more than the European Union, according to a report by Global Forest Watch.
If the Waorani lawsuit is successful, it could save nearly 1,800 square kilometers (700 square miles) of primary rainforest from oil drilling, and create a precedent for other communities in the region, according to a press release by Amazon Frontlines, one of the nongovernmental organizations aiding the Waorani with their ancestral mapping project.
Should the Waorani lose their lawsuit, Block 22 could go up for auction at the government’s discretion. That decision could lead to contamination of the rainforest due to oil leaks, spills, and waste dumping. The creation of roads to access the remote area could also pave the way for other industries, such as agriculture, and lead to massive deforestation.