Ecuadorian Government Apologizes to Sarayaku Indigenous People

Ceremony in Sarayaku's rainforest territory represents the first time in Latin America a sitting government has apologized to indigenous peoples for human rights violations

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Quito, Ecuador – History was made today in the Kichwa community of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where representatives of four Ecuadorian government ministries along with the Attorney General's office publicly apologized to the indigenous nation for human rights violations that occurred in their rainforest territory in 2003. It is believed to be the first time in Latin America that a sitting government has traveled to an indigenous community to offer an apology for rights violations.

The apology is part of the government's compliance with a 2012 decision from the Inter-American Human Rights Court that found Ecuador guilty of numerous human rights violations related to oil extraction activities on Sarayaku lands.

Félix Santi, Tayak Apu (President) of Sarayaku stated that, "For Sarayaku, this act is the ratification that we were always justified in opposing the entry of the oil industry into our territory." He continued, "Our people hope that the Ecuadorian State's apology is sincere and that there's a real guarantee that the abuses we suffered in our territory won't be repeated."

The conflict began in 1996, when the Ecuadorian government licensed off a 400,000-acre oil concession on Sarayaku land without the community's consent. The operator of the consortium, CGC (Campania General de Combustibles), attempted to pursue drilling activities by force, resulting in the militarization of Sarayaku lands. Several community leaders were detained and tortured.

According to the government statement read today in front of the Sarayaku community deep in Ecuador's Amazon by Minister of Justice Ledy Zuniga, the state recognized

The international responsibility of the Ecuadorian State for human rights violations suffered by the Kichwa Indigenous People of Sarayaku. These include: violation of communal indigenous property, violation of cultural identity, violation of the right to consultation, having put at serious risk their lives and personal integrity, and for violation of the right to judicial guarantee and judicial protections.

We ratify our firm commitment to the force of human rights in our country and, in a special manner, to the rights afforded to indigenous peoples and communities according to international law and the treaties ratified by our country.

To conclude, for all the violations of human rights suffered by the Kichwa Indigenous People of Sarayaku, the Ecuadorian State offered our most heart-felt apologies for these threats brought to pass by previous governments.

Patricia Gualinga, International Representative of Sarayaku said, "The public apology offers hope to other indigenous peoples who are currently facing situations similar to what we dealt with years ago. It is also a precedent through which governments will see that they can't violate the rights of indigenous peoples under the rationale of economic interests. The public apology carried out in Sarayaku's territory helps dignify all indigenous peoples that have suffered abuses."

The representatives from the Ministers of Justice, Environment, Defense, and Non-Renewable Energy, and the Attorney General's office were greeted by ceremonial fanfare in the community of 1,200, which was lined with decorative rainforest flowers. Traditional dancing, music, and food set the stage for the historic moment.

According to the 2012 Court decision, Sarayaku was also awarded $1.4 million in compensation, which the government allocated last year. However, another component of the sentence remains unresolved. When CGC was ultimately forced to abandon its drilling plans, it left behind some 1.4 tons of undetonated explosives buried beneath the rainforest floor, which are used as part of the seismic testing phase of oil exploration.

Another critical binding protection from the judgment, and noticeably absent from the apology, is the right to no repetition – a guarantee that the community will not suffer the same or similar abuses again. However, government efforts to open up new, pristine roadless rainforest in neighboring indigenous communities around Sarayaku will put the apology and the sentence to the test.

According to Viviana Krsticevic, Executive Director of the Center for Justice and International Law, who represented Sarayaku before the Inter-American Court, "Today's step taken by the Ecuadorian government is a milestone for Sarayaku. Now Ecuador needs to adopt a law guaranteeing indigenous peoples' right to consultation in accordance with current international standards."

Government efforts to conduct free, prior and informed consultation of neighboring indigenous groups have been widely criticized as failing to meet even criteria guaranteed by its own constitution, let alone the higher bar of international standards. For example, a new oil concession given to the Chinese state-run firm Andes Petroleum overlaps a 6,000-hectare corner of Sarayaku legally titled land.

"Today's apology has sweeping implications for indigenous rights in Ecuador and beyond. It's a message to both governments and industry that resource extraction cannot trample the rights of local communities, and that if such abuses occur, violators will be held accountable," said Kevin Koenig, Ecuador Program Director for Amazon Watch. "Ecuador has an obligation to protect the rights of its indigenous peoples not only in Sarayaku, but country-wide."

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