This spring, indigenous people in Ecuador’s Amazon took to the streets and the courts to defend their rights and territories. And they won! A series of victories over the last two months have set important new precedents in the ongoing conflict pitting indigenous rights against government plans to expand rainforest oil drilling.
In May, more than 1,500 indigenous people from the Napo province shut down 36 oil wells on Kichwa territory for five days and blocked a major highway through the Amazon region. The shut-down of production and disruption of travel and commerce quickly gained the government’s attention after years of neglect.
Joined by the powerful national indigenous confederation CONAIE and regional umbrella organization CONFENIAE, they demanded an environmental audit and clean-up for twenty years of contamination and the cancelation of new oil expansion plans. Even as the government declared a state of emergency, the protests swelled. Finally, on day five, an agreement was reached that met the demands of the 72 communities. It is the first time the government has agreed to halt expansion plans of a field currently in production.
After the deal was announced, Jaime Vargas, president of CONAIE said, “we showed the power of the grassroots as an essential strategy to achieve justice. And if the government fails to uphold its side of the agreement, we’ll be back out here. They now know what we can do. But today we can celebrate – this is an important victory. And it’s just the beginning. We will continue to rise up until we stop all of the destructive projects planned for our territories and until our rights are respected.”
Meanwhile, the government shelved plans to tender two new controversial oil blocks along the border with Peru over community opposition from the Shiwiar, Kichwa, and Sapara indigenous nations whose land the 1,500-square-mile concessions overlap. The delay was a setback for energy cooperation between the two countries, which had hoped to extract crude from remote wells in Ecuador and bring it to market using the under-capacity north Peruvian pipeline. The blocks were the only two slated to be tendered out of an original sixteen new concessions in the roadless, pristine southern Ecuadorian Amazon. Frontline resistance to the extractive industry combined with international solidarity and advocacy by partners like Amazon Watch forced the government to dramatically reduce the number of blocks for auction, and the delay of the border block illustrates government recognition that the country lacks a legitimate process for obtaining consent from indigenous peoples.
These delays, even if they prove to be temporary, are important achievements that add to the legacy of controversy of opening up Ecuador’s intact forest to new exploration, and they are an unmistakable signal of the elevated risk faced by any company considering jumping into new exploration in remote rainforests without the consent of indigenous peoples.
These victories were preceded by a historic ruling from the provincial court of Pastaza on April 26th on a lawsuit brought by the Waorani people against the government for failing to properly consult them in 2012 before including their territory for possible auction in the Ronda Suroriente. Delivered to a packed court house of Waorani who had traveled for days by foot, canoe, and road to get there from deep within their territory, the decision confirmed that they had not properly been consulted by the government over drilling plans slated for their territory and that their right to autonomy and self-determination had been violated.
The government had long maintained that it had properly conducted a consultation process with all indigenous nationalities that would be affected by the Ronda Suroriente, an oil tender that would affect six different nationalities and over 8 million acres of intact rainforest. However, the Waorani challenged the government’s claim, and provided evidence that showed the “consultation” process was far from international standards on Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), nor did it meet the government’s own aspiration language in its constitution. In fact, testimony at the hearing showed it was little more than a PowerPoint presentation conducted with an unrepresentative group of individuals and not in their native language, and those in attendance who signed an attendance sheet became duly “consulted.”
The case was brought by the Waorani Organization of Pastaza (CONCONAWEP) According to Nemonte Nenquimo, president of the organization and named plaintiff in the lawsuit, “The government tried to sell our lands to the oil companies without our permission. Our rainforest is our life. We decide what happens in our lands. We will never sell our rainforest to the oil companies.” She added, “Today, the courts recognized that the Waorani people – and all indigenous peoples – have rights over our territories that must be respected. The government’s interest in oil is not more valuable than our rights, our forests, our lives.”
While the government is appealing the decision, the case has exposed the weak or non-existent standards by which Ecuador has sought to impose extractive industry projects upon indigenous peoples and the lack of legislation or policy to regulate the consultation process. This glaring violation was highlighted in a 2018 report from the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples who, after a fact-finding mission to Ecuador, determined there were, “no adequate enabling mechanisms or processes which allow indigenous peoples to exercise [the] right” to Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC).
The litigation was spearheaded by Amazon Frontlines and the Ceibo Alliance, with support from Amazon Watch field coordinator Carlos Mazabanda, who has been providing documentation and expert testimony for the case on the government’s failed 2012 consultation process.
The Waorani case has sweeping implications for all of the other nationalities in the Ecuadorian Amazon potentially affected by the Ronda Suroriente, as well as any other indigenous nations who have had their right to consultation violated. The case may well force the government to finally pass binding regulations on FPIC, which had until recently been summarily decreed by the government.
All of these victories underscore the power of direct action – blocking highways, shutting off production at the wellhead, packing the court rooms – to keeping fossil fuels in the ground. The Waorani and the other indigenous Amazonian nationalities of Ecuador have new momentum, and they are setting their sights on other extractive industries and mega-projects such as a proposed hydroelectric dam on the Piatúa River.
As a long-time ally of indigenous peoples and movements in the region, we will continue to stand with them as they lead the way forward, protecting living forests, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and advancing rights – all essential parts of the climate change solution. Join us!