NGO Targeted by Ecuadorian Government for Shutdown To Remain Open
Decisive victory for Acción Ecológica, but repression continues of indigenous communities protesting mining on their territories
- January 13, 2017
- FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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Ecuador's Environment Ministry announced Thursday its rejection of the Interior Ministry's request to shut down Acción Ecológica. This is an important victory for the environment, for indigenous rights, and for freedom of assembly in Ecuador.
"We believe that justice has been done, and we will continue to work with the same courage and strength to defend the rights of nature and the rights of the people as we have been doing for 30 years," said Alexandra Almeida, the group's president.
Closure proceedings for Acción Ecológica were initiated on December 20th after Acción Ecológica raised environmental and indigenous rights concerns over a planned copper mega-mine on the lands of the Shuar indigenous people in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon.
Despite Acción Ecológica's victory, the situation with the Shuar remains critical – the government has extended the state of emergency (estado de excepción) in Morona Santiago province, and Shuar federation leader Agustín Wachapá remains in jail on charges of "inciting a disturbance of the peace" (incitación a la discordia ciudadana).
Like Shuar leaders, Kichwa leaders of Sarayaku, in the Amazonian province of Pastaza, are also facing a legal investigation for incidents related to the defense of their territory. In the context of the heightened tensions resulting from the state of emergency in Morona Santiago, the Kichwa of Sarayaku, who had publicly declared support for the Shuar and called for dialogue, intercepted eleven soldiers traveling unannounced through their ancestral territory on December 20th in order to investigate the soldiers' presence. After talks with the governor of Pastaza and the brigade commander, the soldiers were peacefully and safely released to Ecuadorian authorities, yet President Rafael Correa now claims Sarayaku "kidnapped" the soldiers and has fired the governor for negotiating with Sarayaku for their release. Sarayaku leaders have been called to provide testimony on their version of events on Thursday, January 19th.
"The criminalization of indigenous leaders in Ecuador is of serious concern, and can serve the same ends as closure threats to silence dissent and protest," said Kevin Koenig, Ecuador Program Director with Amazon Watch.
Human rights organizations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have highlighted the "alarming phenomenon" of the "unjust use of the criminal justice system" to criminalize the work of human rights defenders in Latin America, particularly of land rights and indigenous rights defenders working on territorial issues in the face of extractive industry projects.
On December 20th, Ecuador's Environment Ministry announced its intention to shutter Acción Ecológica, the country's leading grassroots environmental organization and one of the founders of the "Keep It In The Ground" movement, which has become a global call to support the scientific mandate to keep all remaining fossil fuels in the ground. The government made clear that the move was a direct response to the group's efforts to raise awareness – such as tweeting and posting blogs – about environmental and indigenous rights concerns over a planned copper mega-mine on the lands of the Shuar indigenous people in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon. That very same evening, the national police raided the offices of the Shuar federation, FICSH, and detained its president, Agustín Wachapá, who is still being held.
In accordance with the closure procedures, Acción Ecológica was required to present evidence in its defense by Thursday, January 5th. The Environment Ministry then set a hearing for January 10th, and the next day announced its decision to reject the Interior Ministry's request.
The Shuar situation about which Acción Ecológica had been sounding the alarm involved the escalation of the conflict between the Shuar community of Nankints, the government, and a Chinese mining conglomerate Explorcobres S.A. (EXSA). The government had granted EXSA rights to mine for copper in the area of San Carlos Panantza, which overlaps with Shuar ancestral territory, without seeking the consent of – let alone properly consulting with – the Shuar, despite the fact that international and Ecuadorian law require such consultation. As the mining project moved forward, the Shuar tried to engage various government entities in dialogue.
Those attempts at dialogue were brutally interrupted in August when military and police forces forcibly evicted Shuar families from land the company needed for the mine. After a lack of adequate response from the government, in late November the Shuar attempted to return to those lands and were met with heavy police and military presence, including air assaults.
When the vice president of FICSH tried to mediate, he was arrested. Instead of heading calls from regional and national indigenous federations for mediated dialogue, the government continued its heavy-handed approach, and the conflict escalated.
In late December, violent clashes erupted between protesters and security forces, resulting in several injuries and the death of one policeman. The government then declared a 30-day "state of emergency" – essentially the suspension of rights and due process – and sent in the military, complete with armored tanks. President Rafael Correa wasted no time in taking to the airwaves and Twitter to defame the Shuar, calling them "semi-delinquents" and implying that they're using extortion for material gain.
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