Sápara People of Ecuador Fight Big Oil For Broken Promises

"The UNESCO designation is supposed to conserve the culture and traditions of the Sápara"

The Sápara people of Ecuador are fighting to keep more oil drilling out of their territory especially after a recent meeting with the Ecuadorean government. Photo credit: wecaninternational.org

The Sápara people of Ecuador are fighting to keep more oil drilling out of their territory, especially after a recent meeting with the Ecuadorean government that left the issue unresolved, and silence from an international organization that had given them protective status.

On July 24, Sápara leaders and Ecuadorean government officials met to discuss the issue of more oil projects in their territory without prior consultation. The Sápara leaders reminded the officials that the community had received special status from a United Nations agency.

According to Carlos Mazabanda, the Ecuador Field Coordinator for Amazon Watch, the Sápara leaders wanted to get the government to halt the planned oil projects, which would affect close to 60 percent of their territory. One of the companies is the state-run Petroecuador, the other is Andes Petroleum which is a subsidiary of Chinese state-run companies.

"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," Mazabanda wrote.

At the end of the meeting the government officials did not promise anything more than consideration of the Sápara effort. However, one Sápara leader, Manari Ushigua, brought up the issue of their protected status.

He was referring to the United Nations Education, Culture and Science Organization (UNESCO) that proclaimed the Sápara culture of Ecuador to be "a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" in 2001.

In theory, this designation would help to protect the approximately 500 remaining Sápara and their ancestral language, now only spoken by a few individuals.

Ushigua pointed out this issue to the officials.

"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."

Mazabanda also pointed out that the meeting between the Sápara and the government, was convened by the officials on the day before UNESCO Director Irina Bokoba was to meet with representatives of the Ecuadorean government.

After the meeting the Sápara delegation were unable to meet with Director Bokoba and are still awaiting a response from UNESCO.

In the first week of August, Bokoba's office turned down a press request for comment.

In the meantime, the Sápara people have sent an official request to the Chinese government, requesting that they divest from oil drilling plans for their territory. While they are still waiting for responses from the two governments as well as UNESCO, "they will continue petitioning the governments of Ecuador and China and bringing the fact of their possible extinction to the international arena," Mazabanda stated.

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