Eye on the Amazon

Courting Justice: Sarayaku v. Republic of Ecuador

Sarayaku press conference

In a packed press room in Ecuador's National Congress building yesterday, leaders of Sarayaku – the representative community of Kichwa indigenous peoples at the gateway to Ecuador's Amazon – brought their calls for justice to the country's capital en route to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in San Jose, Costa Rica, where they will testify in the final hearing of their case against the Republic of Ecuador for human rights violations.

The case stems from a variety of rights abuses inflicted upon the community between 2002 and 2003 when armed forces and oil workers from Argentine company CGC entered Sarayaku territory – without the permission nor consultation of the community – and began seismic testing activities in search of oil.

"In the beginning we did not understand what was happening, it seemed like a nightmare; all of a sudden armed forces entered with the petroleum company," recalled Sarayaku President Jose Gualinga in a press release. "We had always believed that there was a respect for our territory and our authorities. The company incited panic, created divisions amongst families and provoked violence. The impacts are still felt and will be difficult to erase from our memory."

In response, Sarayaku waged a historic campaign to defend their lands and keep the company out. Met with adamant resistance, the Ecuadorian military and company, in cahoots, sought to break the community by any means necessary. Sarayaku members were detained and tortured by the armed forces at the CGC oil facility, the military blocked and patrolled rivers in and out of Sarayaku in an attempt to isolate and intimidate the community, and CGC left highly explosive material used in seismic testing scattered throughout Sarayaku territory.

The case has wide sweeping implications for indigenous peoples across the Americas. It is a major, precedent-setting case of accountability – will the government of Ecuador be held accountable for egregious rights abuses against its own citizens? Given that the current administration of Rafael Correa seeks to open up some six million acres of pristine rainforest and indigenous lands to new oil drilling, which includes Sarayaku, a "get out of jail free" card to the government will only guarantee future abuses.

Also at play is the right to consultation regarding "development" activities on indigenous lands. Sarayaku is advocating for the principle and application of Free, Prior, Informed, Consent (FPIC). This is essentially the right to say "No" to any proposed project that the community is not in agreement with. A binding decision from the Court on FPIC and its application this will not only set precedent in Ecuador (where there currently is no law on consultation though the Constitution guarantees the right to it), but throughout Latin America where indigenous peoples are fighting for this basic right.

According to Gualinga, "We do not want oil exploitation in our territory. Where there was seismic exploration there are no longer animals, the forest is empty. My people are fighting for their dignity, for reparations of the damages caused, and for the removal of the pentolite planted in our territory. We hope to achieve justice, that this never comes to repeat itself."

Stay tuned here where we will post updates of the Sarayaku delegation to Costa Rica and their historic effort for justice. The hearing will be streamed live on July 6th (3 pm Costa Rica time) and July 7th (9 am Costa Rica time) at www.corteidh.or.cr.

The roughly 20 men, women, children, elders and medicine people are still in need of financial support to get there. Please support them by joining the Cause on Facebook and donating now!

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