Eye on the Amazon

Oil Exploration Is No Way To Protect Indigenous Culture and Territories

The Sápara culture was declared a Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. In 2017, it is still in grave danger of being destroyed by fossil fuel exploration.

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Even being recognized by the UN as a Patrimony of Humanity has not been sufficient to protect the culture and territory of the Sápara people, who face continued threats from oil drilling in their rainforest homes in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

In 2011, acknowledging the risks faced by the Sápara, the UN Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed their culture a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This designation seeks to protect the approximately 500 remaining Sápara and their ancestral language, which is now only spoken by a few individuals.

However, the possibility of new oil drilling still looms over the Sápara because the Ecuadorian government has not taken steps to fully protect them or their territory. In the hopes of engaging UNESCO to take a stronger stand for their survival, the Sápara wrote to its director, Irina Bokoba, about their plight last year.

The Sápara received no reply until last week, when the government abruptly invited them to a meeting to discuss the UNESCO designation. The invitation just so happened to take place a day before the official visit of Director Bokoba to Ecuador, and a week after Sápara representative Gloria Ushigua delivered a letter to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, CA, calling for the Chinese government to divest from oil drilling plans on their territory.

Despite the suspicious timing of the invitation, the Sápara accepted, seeing it as an opportunity to speak with high-level government officials from the Ministries of Culture and the Exterior about the risks they face. Sápara representative Manari Ushigua got right to the point, reminding the officials about the two oil blocks concessioned in January 2016 to Andes Petroleum, a wholly-owned subsidiary of two Chinese state-run companies, and a third block assigned to the Ecuadorian state-run company, Petroecuador. Together, these oil blocks overlap with nearly 60% of Sápara territory, and the government granted them despite the vocal objection of the Sápara community and its assembly.

"It's extremely concerning that the Ecuadorian government is not complying with the UNESCO designation with its intention to extract oil in our territory," said Manari. "The UNESCO designation is supposed to conserve the culture and traditions of the Sápara, as well as the natural resources in our territory: the forest, the water, the oil. All of this is part of the patrimony, and all are parts of our way of living in the forest."

One of the Ecuadorian government officials present in the meeting did recognize the gravity of the situation, acknowledging that "we're talking about the possible disappearance of a culture," a situation that "should be treated and analyzed by the highest levels of the Ecuadorian government."

Another government official, however, tried to muddy the waters by claiming that the Sápara are divided between those who oppose or support oil extraction in their territory. But on repeated occasions, the Sápara assembly – the full membership of the community – has voted to reject drilling, and elected leaders like Manari have clearly communicated the Sápara Assembly's rejection of drilling and demands for full consultation with them.

As they were leaving the meeting, the Sápara representatives realized that the government had a meeting the very next day with the UNESCO director. Though they tried to secure an invitation to the meeting, the official evaded their request. Undeterred, the Sápara returned the next day in the hopes of locating and being able to spontaneously meet with UNESCO representatives, but to no avail.

The Sápara still await an official response from UNESCO. Nonetheless, they will continue petitioning the governments of Ecuador and China and bringing the fact of their possible extinction to international and other fora.

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