Eye on the Amazon

Jungle Justice: Ecuador Recognizes Rights Violations in Sarayaku Case

An unprecedented site visit by the IAHCR sheds light on testimony of abuses and a surprising admission from the state

Sarayaku in Ecuador is one of the more unique places in the Amazon. The community has beaten back oil drilling plans on their lands for over a decade. They have better internet in their roadless, remote rainforest community than in the capital city of Quito. Their leaders have risen to national prominence; an award-nominated young filmmaker from the community just completed his 4th documentary. Solar panels are powering a good share the region's energy needs, and their plan de vida for future development and land management is visionary – and does not include oil extraction. Or any resource extraction for that matter.

Sarayaku is the name of both the community and a people – a subgroup of Amazonian Kichwa that number roughly 2,000. The name means "pueblo del medio dia" or People of Midday – for the time when the sun is at its zenith directly above their lands. They have come to symbolize the indigenous resistance against oil, logging, and mining in the indigenous rainforest lands of Ecuador’s southeastern Amazon that stretches to the Peruvian border. And Sarayaku is leading the charge in a little known lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government that has wide sweeping implications for indigenous rights over resources in the Americas.

So it was par for the course that Sarayaku was able to turn a late April ploy by the government to delay a verdict in their nine year legal case against the state into a jujutsu move in the community's favor. Sarayaku originally filed the case in 2004 before the Inter-American Human Commission for Human Rights (IAHCR) against the Ecuadorian government over rights abuses suffered when an Argentine oil company began conducting seismic testing in search of oil reserves with the aid of Ecuador's military. The entrance of the oil company into Sarayaku lands occurred without the consultation or consent of the community. Their territory was militarized, and community members were threatened, intimidated, and several detained and abused by the military at a company facility.

The case wound its way through the Commission and was passed up to the higher Court. At what was thought to be the final hearing in Costa Rica this past July, it appeared the Court was very sympathetic to Sarayaku's arguments. Government lawyers were treading water at best. The government hadn't given much importance to the case, and was outright hostile to Sarayaku and its legal team, underscoring the state disdain for its own indigenous people, and in effect, almost proving Sarayaku's case for them.

On the verge of a negative verdict, the government launched a Hail Mary: asked the court to come to Ecuador to conduct a site visit. President Correa personally wrote a letter inviting the Court, the Court accepted, and it indeed postponed a verdict until late 2012, rather than the initially predicted end of 2011.

Unfazed and savvy as ever, Sarayaku saw this as a historic opportunity. It would be the first ever site visit by the Court, and what better way to show the Court the meaning of their territory, their forest, and their culture than in person?

Sarayaku began to organize – inviting outside observers, and virtually every media outlet in the country, and several international correspondents.

As the date grew closer, Correa finally realized he had a major problem on its hands. Primarily, Sarayaku had set the stage for major media coverage. Second, the implications of the actual legal case had been ignored. Correa's government plans to launch a new oil auction consisting of 21 new oil blocks – close to ten million acres of mostly primary forest and indigenous lands – in the southeastern Oriente, Ecuador's Amazon. The XI Round includes all of Sarayaku territory, as well as Achuar, Shuar, Zapara, Shiwiar, Wuaorani, and Andoa lands. Favorable media attention of Sarayaku's resistance campaign could dissuade interest from potential bidding oil companies. And a legal victory for Sarayaku could set a precedent within Ecuador and beyond, giving indigenous communities the right to consent over any proposed project on their lands. All of this puts Correa's plan to double Ecuador's oil output at risk.

So at the 11th hour, suddenly awaking to the implications of his less-than-strategic decision to invite the court to Sarayaku, Correa gathered his cabinet and devised a plan. The government designed a logo to try to brand the issue in their favor, and devised a good cop/bad cop strategy to woo the court and media.

On Friday April 20, the president of the Inter-American Court, Diego Garcia Sayan and fellow judge Rhadys Abreu traveled down to the town of Shell (named after the oil giant who first looked for oil the Oriente in the 1940s) for a pre-hearing meeting between the Ecuadorian government and Sarayaku. The government legal team tried in vain to hijack the agenda, and threw out a last minute half-baked negotiation offer to the community, which was rejected. The hearing in situ was on, and the community ready.

Many journalists arrived on Friday, interviewing residents, touring homes, and getting a feel for Sarayaku's traditional way of life. Representatives of the President's communications department sent a team, which appeared aimed at obtaining footage for internal espionage purposes and to try to dominate any interviews with favorable, pro-government softball questions.

NGO allies like Amazon Watch, Ecuadorian organizations Fundacion Pachamama, Accion Ecologica, and INRED (Regional Human Rights Foundation), among others, also entered Sarayaku on Friday.

Upon entrance, Sarayaku is paradisal. Dense forest that, from the air, is visually akin to numerous heads of broccoli together. In a clearing, a giant wiphala (symbolic indigenous flag) waves in the breeze. Though the heat swelters, it is noticeably cooler than areas of Ecuador's northern Amazon that have been deforested and ravaged by oil extraction. Sacred palm fronds and flowers line a walkway from the airstrip to the community hut where the hearing would take place, resembling a well-decorated aisle awaiting a to-be-wed couple. Some 25 men and women in blue shirts with shields, spears, and two-way hand held radios had been designated as security patrol. Perhaps most dramatic were the faces of the community – all with elaborate face paint designs using wuitu – a traditional plant that once hollowed out and roasted, leaves a stunning black paint lasting up to three weeks.

Traditional drummers drummed throughout the night, adding to the jungle cacophony of insects, frogs, birds, and other hoots and howls of rainforest animals. A special spiritual ceremony with Sarayaku's eldest shaman and community leaders was conducted into the first light of morning. By 7:30am on the morning of the 21st, Sarayaku lawyers, the government, and some 40 military officers descended into the community in two helicopters, and the official proceedings of the first of Inter-American Human Rights Court onsite began.

The entire community came to a stand still. In a round traditional Kichwa house, the court, the state, and Sarayaku began several hours of testimony and proceedings. Dozens crammed into the tiny building to watch. Sarayaku set up an overflow room in the nearby schoolhouse and transmitted the proceedings live. Over the next three hours, the court heard testimony from 16 Sarayaku residents young and old about the abuses they endured during 2003 militarization of their lands, and made the case that Sarayaku must have the right to consent regarding any projects slated for their lands. Though it was not a traditional hearing with back-and-forth examinations of witnesses or rebuttals from each respective legal team, the court did allow the government and Sarayaku lawyers to each make a short statement.

To the surprise of everyone, Alexis Mera, who is the lawyer for the Office of the President, represented the state. And his opening statement shocked everyone. Mera recognized that Sarayaku had indeed suffered abuses and rights violations (though previous governments were responsible), and that the state had mismanaged its relationship with the community. This was a major advance and validated much of Sarayaku's case. He said the government is willing to remove and remediate the explosives that were left by CGC in Sarayaku territory. He reiterated that no future oil extraction would occur on Sarayaku lands without proper consultation, though would not go as far as to guarantee the right to consent. He also again proposed a settlement with Sarayaku, but again, the community rejected the offer.

However, his conciliatory tone was in large part for show – the good cop before the community and the court. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, President Correa took advantage of his weekly radio address to lambast Sarayaku, accusing them of being manipulated by foreign NGOs, "gringos with full stomachs", and an obstacle to "national development.”

The judges ended their visit to Sarayaku with a tour around the community, and joined in with traditional dancers, as did the lawyers for the government. As quickly as they arrived, two giant military helicopters swept in and airlifted them out. The court went on to hold an official session in the coastal city of Guayaquil, though as the host country, Ecuador issues weren't on the table as is protocol. A diplomatic lunch with Correa was held, though again all parties were forbidden from talking about any pending Ecuador cases. One can only imagine that the Sarayaku issue was the elefante gigante in the room.

The visit was a historic event for the court and for Sarayaku. And the community was able to turn a government tactic to delay justice into an opportunity that may well have brought justice closer. A decision is expected by the end of 2012.

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