Sarayaku: An Emblematic Case of Territorial Defense | Amazon Watch
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Sarayaku: An Emblematic Case of Territorial Defense

June 23, 2011 | Mario Melo | Servindi

Humanity cannot liberate itself from violence unless it is through the means of nonviolence.Gandhi

In 1996, the state of Ecuador signed a contract with Argentina’s General Company of Combustibles (CGC) for Block #23, which overlaps some 60% of the Amazonian territory of the Kichwa indigenous people of Sarayaku. This oil concession was approved without the Ecuadorian state carrying out any process of information, consultation, or seeking consent of the Sarayaku people with regard to proposed oil production activities within their lands.

Since then, the Sarayaku have continued to express their rejection of the oil production activities entering their territory, given the enormous impacts that the exploration and exploitation would have on their sacred territory, quality and way of life, development options, and spirituality, in addition to the Amazon environment, social peace, and the integrity of their members.

However, during the last trimester of 2002 and the first trimester of 2003, CGC repeatedly entered the Sarayaku territory, without authorization and against the will of the legitimate proprietor, to begin highly destructive seismic exploration. In order to try to stop the seismic campaign the Sarayaku had to declare themselves in a state of emergency for seven months and mobilize their inhabitants, men, women, youth and even children to protect their territory in the denominated Fields of Peace and Life found in the middle of the forest, where the armed invasion of CGC and the army was progressing. This decision carrys with it grave risks for the lives, integrity, health, subsistence, education, culture, and spirituality of the members of the Sarayaku.

According to official information of the Ministry of Energy, 476 points exist within the Sarayaku territory and the Achuar territory, in which the company CGC, without the knowledge of the people who would be affected, without consulting them beforehand and against their will, invested in loads of between 3 and 5 kilograms of pentolite, a highly destructive and powerful explosive. In all there are 1,433 kilograms (almost 1.5 tons) of explosives planted 12 meters deep and an undetermined quantity abandoned in the surface of the sacred forest of the Sarayaku, in their hunting places, in the sites where children and youth cross in search of food. The information according to the Ministry of Energy is that these explosives are extremely dangerous and that the loads can detonate accidentally with ease.

At the beginning of 2003, Sarayaku came before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights soliciting its urgent intervention in the safeguarding of their violated rights during CGC’s seismic campaign. In May of this year, the Commission dictated precautionary measures in favor of the life and integrity of the community members and of their special relationship with their territory. The Ecuadorian state systematically disregarded these measures.

Faced with the lack of compliance with the precautionary measures, the Inter-American Commission requested that the Inter-American Court dictate provisional measures in favor of the Sarayaku, which were granted in July of 2004. These measures look to protect the life and integrity of the members of the Sarayaku, the investigation of the acts of violence committed against them and the effective guarantee of the right to free travel violated by the arbitrary blockade of the Bobonaza river, which was constructed by allies of the petroleum company as a measure of pressure so that the Sarayaku would desist with the initiated legal actions and enter negotiations.

Before the new  failure to comply by the Ecuadorian state, the Court, in June of 2005, ratified the measures and expanded them to incorporate an arrangement calling for urgent removal of the explosives left by CGC in the Sarayaku territory. Recently in the first half of 2007, in the first months of Rafael Correa’s government, the Ecuadorian state, against the Ministry of Energy and Mines, accepted the disposition of the Inter-American Court. And since then, the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum has begun gestures towards the removal of the explosives – a project that would begin to crystallize towards the end of the same year. In December of 2009, with the conference of the Intervention and Rescue Group of the National Police, just fourteen kilograms of explosives were removed and the process was suspended up until today.

All of this effort on the part of the government to comply with the arrangements of the Court, designed to protect the human rights and the rights of nature, dissolved… May 8th, 2009, the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum surprisingly authorized the resumption of petroleum operations in Block 23 and 24, opposed by the people of the Sarayaku and the Shuar and Achuar nationalities since the end of the nineties. This authorization also openly goes against other decisions of international agencies for human rights that protect indigenous peoples. Although the company CGC has not acted upon this re-initiation of activities, this situation shows the precarious state of the Sarayaku case as long as the Inter-American Commission has not issued clear signals about the international responsibilities of the Ecuadorian State to provide measures of protection and reparation.

Worse still, in the re-negotiation of the contract of Block 10 between Rafael Correa’s government and the company AGIP, held in November of 2010, the authorities allocated the company a portion of Block 23 that affects the territory of various indigenous Amazonian people. The territory of the Sarayaku will continue to be affected by Block 10 as well. This redefinition of the block was made, once again, behind the back of the affected nationalities and peoples, without consultation or request of consent, despite the gravity of the effects that this decision will bring to their lives and territories.

January 26, 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights emitted its resolution regarding the case. The case has been presented to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. The 6th and 7th of July, 2011, in San José, Costa Rica, the hearing of the Sarayaku case will take place before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. This delegation is crucial because in it the Kichwa people of the Sarayaku, of the Ecuadorian Amazon, will present their oral allegations before the judges of the Court along with testimonial and expert evidence with which the delegation will demonstrate the violations of human rights that the community suffered during petroleum activity of Block 23. A delegation of leaders, traditional elders, men, and women of the community have travelled all the way from Sarayaku to Costa Rica to take part in the hearing.

The Inter-American Court will issue a decision that is awaited with anticipation by indigenous peoples and experts around the world and especially from the Americas; it will set new precedents regarding the right to prior consultation and consent of the communities affected by petroleum projects. For Ecuador this decision, with which the state should obligatorily comply, will bring great repercussions and will settle a debate that has been extremely intense in recent years, regarding the range of rights to consultation and of territorial rights of indigenous people that are affected by natural resource exploitation projects supported by the state.

Mario Melo is the attorney for the Sarayaku


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