Indigenous Peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon Denounce Rights Violations and Government Inaction During COVID-19 Pandemic Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Amazon Watch and allied Ecuadorian organizations

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Quito, Ecuador – The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Indigenous peoples across the Ecuadorian Amazon, where numbers of cases and deaths continue to rise. It has further exacerbated the threats from oil and mining activity, illegal logging, and food insecurity, and exposed the government's discrimination and abandonment of indigenous peoples.

The failure of the state to act and protect Indigenous peoples during COVID-19 took center stage this week during the 177th Session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), where Indigenous organizations and human rights groups appeared Tuesday for a virtual hearing on the negligence of the government to guarantee the collective rights of Indigenous peoples during the COVID-19 crisis.

Over the 90-minute hearing, representatives of Indigenous organizations provided emphatic testimony – some virtually from their territory – explaining that Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities in Ecuador face an unprecedented lack of protection and discriminatory treatment by the state in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated historical conditions of inequality, exclusion, discrimination, and poor health conditions.

Indigenous leaders denounced the state's ineffectiveness in providing health services and discrimination in the care that was provided to some during the pandemic. They also denounced rights violations and negligent state response to other emergencies that occurred during the pandemic, such as the country's largest oil spill in over a decade, extreme flooding of the Bombonaza river basin, and food shortages in communities where agroindustrial and extractive industry activity is underway.

Among the other concerns raised is the violation of the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) that continues to occur with extractive industry projects in the country, as well as the risks to life and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation which are currently threatened by oil and logging activities. Testimony was also presented by representatives of Indigenous nationalities from Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador that have populations and ancestral territories across borders that face unique threats from armed groups, militarization, extractive industry, and negligent abandonment from the state.

Representatives of the Commission pressed the state for answers on its COVID-19 response, health care protocols, and impact of COVID-19 among Indigenous peoples and vulnerable groups, as well as the advancement of extractive activities during the pandemic. Representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs failed to respond directly to any of the questions asked by the commissioners and ignored the issues raised by Indigenous representatives, essentially reinforcing the argument of its ongoing neglect and disdain for Indigenous peoples.

The IACHR issued a rare and urgent warning in May 2020 on the specific vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples to the COVID-19 pandemic, calling on states to adopt targeted, culturally responsive measures that respect rights and territories. A month later, an Ecuadorian court ordered government ministries to take urgent action to contain COVID-19 in Waorani territory and protect the Tagaeri and Taromenane, two Indigenous nations living in voluntary isolation. However, the government failed to heed the warning of the IACHR or the decisions from its own judiciary. Indigenous representatives and organizations are hopeful that this week's hearing will force the government into belated but necessary action to protect the Indigenous rights to health, FPIC, among others, during the duration of the pandemic and beyond.

Andrés Tapia, CONFENIAE Communications Director released the following statement: "The urban Indigenous population was displaced from their ancestral territory for socioeconomic reasons or due to armed conflict. They face challenges for cultural survival. Most of them are in precarious economic conditions or poverty. None of our calls have received an effective response from the government and their actions continue to be disjointed and lack a holistic approach."

Nemonte Nenquimo, Waorani leader of Pastaza released the following statement: "The oil companies were working during the pandemic and that was the root cause of the spread into Indigenous territories. Our Tagaeri - Taromenane brothers live [near those work sites.] We request that our request for Precautionary Measures from the IACHR be respected because the Ecuadorian government has not complied with the court decision requiring them to protect our lives and that of uncontacted peoples. Our territory is our decision, our territory is not for sale. We demand that they listen to us and make the Ecuadorian government act."

Tupak Viteri, President of the Kichwa People of Sarayaku released the following statement: "Extractive activities in Ecuador have not stopped despite the pandemic. In some cases, they even increased, because the government decided to declare them essential and/or strategic activities through Executive Decree 1017 on March 16, 2020. On the other hand, authorities of the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources announced that the process to establish the "free, prior, and informed consultation" of the communities in the case of mining activities is almost ready via executive decree. This process has not been carried out with the participation of Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants."

Justino Piaguage, President of the Siekopai Nation released the following statement: "For us, grandparents mean a lot. An elder who dies does not die without wisdom, that grandfather or that grandmother transmits knowledge. In our Nation, a grandfather who had knowledge in ancestral medicine died, as did a grandmother who was the historian of our Nation. A teacher died. The son of a traditional architect died. On the issue of borders, we must say that for us there are never borders. Our brothers are on the other side of the river. When borders are militarized, solidarity between us is impossible. The state paints everything beautiful, but I don't know which country we live in."

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