Eye on the Amazon

New Report Shines Light on Dark Days for Amazon Earth Defenders in Ecuador

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

For nearly a decade, the indigenous movement and Earth Defenders in Ecuador lived under an immense shadow. During the administration of former President Rafael Correa, they faced a major onslaught of new oil and mining projects on millions of acres of their titled rainforest territories. They also faced a systematic roll-back of rights and liberties by the administration that eroded their access to water and bilingual education, chilled free speech, curtailed the right to assembly, and proposed a constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits, allowing the indefinite re-election of elected officials – including President Correa, the very architect of these draconian policy measures.

And when they organized marches, protests, and peaceful resistance – guaranteed under the country's constitution – they were tear-gassed in the streets and in their homes. They were beaten in alleyways in the country's capital, just blocks from where Correa was entertaining paid sympathizers by singing songs of the Cuban revolution. They were subjected to grave miscarriages of justice. Many still face baseless charges of terrorism and sabotage, or are burdened by unending and meritless criminal investigations with no probative evidence.

Tragically, in Ecuador and around the world, last year was a dark time for environmental defenders. According to a Global Witness and Guardian investigation, 197 were killed around the world in 2017, and many more were threatened. Though Ecuador isn't at the top of the list for murders, judicial harassment is a major concern.

In fact, just last week a Shuar leader, Pepe Acacho, was sentenced to eight months in prison for blocking a road in 2009 during a wave of protests. This and other cases of judicial harassment – often known as "criminalization" – against Amazonian Earth Defenders under the Correa regime in Ecuador, are documented in a new Human Rights Watch report.

New report documents judicial harassment in Ecuador under Correa and lack of adequate response from new government

The Human Rights Watch report found that the Correa government "amassed broad powers to curb public debate of its policies on the environment and other pressing issues..[then] abused these powers to harass, intimidate, and punish Ecuadorians who opposed oil and mining projects that the president endorsed...and used the criminal justice system to target environmentalists and indigenous leaders to be prosecuted."

In two of the cases, Human Rights Watch found that "prosecutors did not produce sufficient evidence that supports the serious charges they brought." In the third case it examined, "a criminal investigation involving six indigenous leaders and an environmentalist has been kept open for four-and a-half years even though it has failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing."

The first case is Jose "Pepe" Acacho, who in 2009 was President of the Independent Federation of Shuar Centers (Federacion Independiente Centros Shuar – FISCH), an organization representing one of the largest indigenous nationalities in Ecuador. Faced with a new law that would allow mining projects on their lands without their consent and another that would lead to privatization of water resources, the Shuar organized protests and sought dialogue with President Correa to express their concerns. Instead of a meeting, Correa responded with force, sending riot police that cracked down on the march. A violent conflict ensued, and a Shuar school teacher – Bosco Wisum – was shot and killed.

Acacho was charged with "terrorism" for allegedly inciting violence by convening the march over the airwaves of the Shuar radio station. But no credible evidence was ever found, let alone presented in court. Witnesses against him were either tied to the government or mining industry, and he was sentenced to twelve years in prison. After multiple appeals, his original sentence was thrown out, only to be convicted for charges for blocking public infrastructure, for which he was never charged nor tried. Nine years later, no one has ever been held accountable for Wisum's death. Acacho now faces eight months in prison, if and when police serve the arrest warrant.

The report also looks at the case of Agustín Wachapá, who like Acacho also presided over FICSH during a conflict between local communities and the police related to mining extraction. The government pursued the same modus operandi as in the Acacho case, charging Wachapá with inciting violence. Yet the main evidence presented was ex post facto Facebook posts of the events he allegedly incited. The government raided FICSH offices, arrested Wachapá, and held him at a maximum security prison for four months before posting bail. He is awaiting a verdict and faces three years in jail.

A final case relates to ongoing investigations of seven indigenous leaders whom the government claims participated in a protest in 2013 against new oil extraction plans by the state to open some six million areas of roadless, pristine indigenous rainforest territories to oil drilling.

At that protest outside the Hydrocarbon Ministry, dozens gathered to denounce the auction of oil exploration and drilling concessions in a process known as the 11th Oil Round. As oil company and government representatives left the building, a symbolic spear held by someone in the crowd touched the head of a government official. The Correa administration used this as an excuse for a witch hunt aimed at criminalizing protest and hold the charges over the seven leaders for years--forced to appear at hearings only to have prosecutors cancel. The criminal investigation that has been kept open for four-and-a-half years even though it has failed to yield probative evidence against them.

The report also cites the effort by the Correa government to shutter one civil society environmental organization and attempt to close a second using an executive decree, something the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights characterized as an effort to "asphyxiate" civil society.

Hypocrisy at the highest levels

But while the Correa administration was busy using the legal system to harass indigenous leaders, senior officials were busy running afoul of the law. Now, under the administration of current President Lenin Moreno, the almost daily revelations of graft, corruption, abuse of power, and scandal is dizzying, even for Ecuadorian standards. Jorge Glas, Vice President under both Correa and Moreno, is in now jail for accepting millions in bribes as are close to a dozen of other former senior officials, including the Minister of the Interior who led the Police during the cases documented in the HRW report.

Moreno government needs to do more to protect Earth Defenders

Under Moreno, Ecuador has begun to create greater accountability for officials that broke the law, and moved to right abuses carried out under Correa by providing amnesty and pardons in specific cases. However, threats against those defending rights and lands from resource extraction continue.

"They attacked us on the streets, in our homes, for exerting our rights. And we're the criminals?" said Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa leader from the community of Sarayaku. "The report validates what we went through, what happened to us, our suffering."

A criminal case is still open against Patricia Gualinga over the 11th Round protests. However, little has been done by the prosecutor's office to investigate death threats she has received for her vocal opposition to resource extraction and defense of peoples' territory. The only concrete response from the Ecuadorian police has been to provide ‘protection' for her by way of police visits to her home. She is unsure whether they are actually protecting her or spying on her.

The report serves as a reminder of some of the ugly chapters Ecuador's Amazonian Earth defenders have had to endure over the last ten years. It also illustrates that if the Moreno government indeed wants to right past wrongs, it should start by putting an end to these cases of legal persecution and take measure to prevent future harm and rights violations.

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