How Indigenous peoples won a landmark victory protecting the Amazon from oil drilling

The Waorani people of Ecuador won a historic lawsuit to save their homes – and the planet – from destruction.

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SOURCEIndependent Media Institute
Image Credit: Independent Media Institute

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

On May 16, hundreds of Indigenous peoples traveled from different regions of the Ecuadorian Amazon to the capital city of Quito to demand respect for the April 26 historic court ruling, in which the Waorani people of Ecuador successfully defended half a million acres of Indigenous territory in the Amazon rainforest from oil drilling. Coming after two weeks of deliberations, the landmark decision by the three-judge panel of the Pastaza Provincial Court immediately and indefinitely suspended plans to auction around 180,000 hectares of Indigenous Waorani territory to oil companies. It represents a major setback for the Ecuadorian government.

The total land area that the ruling protects, at least for now, is much larger even than the land that was up for auction. According to Amazon Frontlines, a nonprofit advocacy group that assisted the Waorani’s legal case, “The verdict also disrupts the contemplated auctioning of 16 oil blocks that cover over 7 million acres of Indigenous territory by providing an invaluable legal precedent for other Indigenous nations across the Ecuadorian Amazon.”

At the May 16 mobilization in Quito, Indigenous groups also denounced the government’s statements following the ruling. “We hope that in the appeal that sentence can be reversed,” said Minister of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources Carlos Perez. Disregarding Indigenous autonomy and rights, Perez added: “It is not possible to make regional or local decisions about certain things that have a national impact as in the case of hydrocarbons and mining.” In their ruling, the judges stood by the standards of the Constitutional Court of Ecuador and international law. Decisions about Indigenous territory simply cannot be made by the central government unilaterally.

Specifically, the ruling voids the consultation process with the Waorani that was undertaken by the Ecuadorian government in 2012, which the judges said violated the Waorani’s right to free, prior and informed consultation and to self-determination. The ruling said that the consultation was done in bad faith, failed to properly inform the Waorani of the risks and impacts of the government’s plans to auction off their territory, and didn’t take into consideration Waorani culture or traditional decision-making methods.

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After the Waorani were called to a rushed March 13 hearing to argue their case in the provincial capital of Puyo, Lina Maria Espinosa, attorney for the Waorani, said that the court demonstrated “the discriminatory practices of the Ecuadorian state, and its inability or lack of interest in respecting the rights and customs of the millenary cultures and peoples seeking to protect their territories and their constitutional rights.”

“Our ancestors’ bones are buried under this earth,” said the Waorani people in a statement on Amazon Frontlines. “Deer, boar and jaguar still roam free across this land. Our memory, our language, and our songs are borne from the forest, and we will ensure that they live on, generation after generation.” One of the key elements of the ruling is the fact that the lands in question are protected under Ecuador’s constitution, which establishes the “inalienable, unseizable and indivisible” rights of Indigenous people “to maintain possession of their ancestral lands and obtain their free adjudication.”

The panel of judges ruled that the Ecuadorian government must repeat the free, prior and informed consent process according to the standards of international law and the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, and that the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources and the Ministry of the Environment must sufficiently train government officials regarding the right to free, prior and informed consent and self-determination before sending them out into the field.

“The government tried to sell our lands to the oil companies without our permission,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, president of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador–Pastaza (Pastaza CONCONAWEP), a political organization of the Waorani and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We decide what happens in our lands. We will never sell our rainforest to the oil companies. The government’s interest in oil is not more valuable than our rights, our forests, our lives.”

Co-filed with Pastaza CONCONAWEP and the Ecuadorian Human Rights Ombudsman against the Ecuadorian Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, the Secretary of Hydrocarbons and the Ministry of Environment, the lawsuit alleged that the Waorani’s rights granted to them under the Ecuadorian constitution “were violated due to an improper consultation process prior to an oil auction which would offer up the Waorani’s lands in the Pastaza region to the highest bidding oil company,” according to Amazon Frontlines. The government’s auction, announced in February of last year, included 16 new oil concessions covering over seven million acres of roadless, primary Amazonian forest across southeast Ecuador. An eastern jungle province whose eponymous river is one of the more than 1,000 tributaries that feed the mighty Amazon, Pastaza encompasses some of the world’s most biodiverse regions.

Waorani spokesperson Oswando Nenquimo said that while the ruling is “a legal precedent for Indigenous rights,” he conceded that “the fight is far from over.”

He added, “The government will appeal because they still want the oil beneath our land.” Indeed, the day after the ruling, the Ecuadorian government announced just that. In a statement, the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources said it “will appeal the decision, given that although documents and videos were presented and compliance with all standards was demonstrated, these were not taken into account.”

“The upcoming appeal is a critical moment for the Waorani, but also for Indigenous peoples across the country looking to protect millions and millions of acres of ancestral forest homelands,” Brian Parker, a lawyer with Amazon Frontlines, told the Independent Media Institute. “They are uniting behind the Waorani because Indigenous people’s right to free, prior and informed consent and self-determination has been violated systematically by the Ecuadorian government for the benefit of oil, mining and hydroelectric projects all across the country.”

Then on May 21, President Lenín Moreno issued a new decree, handing over two blocks of Indigenous territory in the Yasuní National Park Area—without consulting Waorani Indigenous communities, possibly setting up yet another legal confrontation.

Concessions vs. Constitutional rights

The concessions overlap with the titled territories of the Shuar, Achuar, Kichwa, Waorani, Shiwiar, Andoa and Sápara nations, with one block located almost entirely within Waorani territory. If taken over by the fossil fuel industry, the Indigenous coalition warns, the health and livelihoods of the communities living in the area—as well as the region’s unique biodiversity and sensitive ecosystem—will be threatened. But regardless of the environmental and sociocultural threat, the plaintiffs successfully argued that the concessions trample on their constitutional rights.

Oil and other extractive development may also pose a separate constitutional challenge. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize the rights of nature in its constitution, which was rewritten to acknowledge that nature in all its life forms “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

Industrial development vs. Indigenous people

Ecuador is one of the smallest oil producers in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)—only the Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon pump less. But that has not hindered it from making big deals with oil-hungry nations. In 2009, a year after Ecuador defaulted on around $3 billion worth of debt, then-President Rafael Correa made an oil-for-cash agreement with China. In exchange for selling his nation’s crude oil to Petrochina, China provided Ecuador with a $1 billion loan.

Now the country seeks to attract investments totaling around $800 million to boost the production of oil, which the government maintains is critical to improving the nation’s economy. “It’s time for the private sector to invest,” said President Lenín Moreno in the 2018 televised address, arguing that public-private partnerships in the infrastructure, oil, energy, mining and telecoms sectors could generate $7 billion in investments by 2021.

The Waorani’s lawsuit stemmed from the state’s broken promise. In December 2017, following a two-week, 200-mile march by Indigenous activists from the Amazon jungle to Quito demanding an end to extractive industry development on their territories, the Moreno administration made a commitment to the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), Ecuador’s largest Indigenous organization, to end new oil and mining concessions in regions where local Indigenous nationalities had not been consulted. However, as the suit alleged, the Waorani were not properly consulted.

Specifically, Article 57, section 7 of the constitution guarantees “free prior informed consultation, within a reasonable period of time, on plans and programs for prospecting, producing and marketing non-renewable resources located on their lands which could have an environmental or cultural impact on them.” The suit claimed these rights were violated as the Waorani were not properly consulted prior to the announcement of the new oil concessions. In addition, the Ecuadorian government is also bound by two international agreements to consult with its Indigenous populations: Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), ratified by the nation in 1998, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted in 2007.

However, many activists and Indigenous leaders ultimately don’t want consultation at this point; they want oil development to end entirely. “We took the president at his word regarding the end of oil and mining concessions in our territories,” said Jaime Vargas, CONAIE’s president. “We don’t need more consultation, however. Given the destruction in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon and in other areas of the world at the hands of the oil industry, we already have enough information to say ‘No’ to all oil activity.”

Mitch Anderson, executive director and founder of Amazon Frontlines, which created a petition on behalf of the Waorani urging the Ecuadorian government to halt oil development on Indigenous land, told the Independent Media Institute that instead of “environmental degradation, institutional corruption and further indebtedness to foreign interests, in this case China,” the Ecuadorian government should “take an urgently needed, forward-thinking path which supports forest protection, respects Indigenous rights and promotes investment in green economic alternatives that will ultimately contribute to the building of a sustainable future for the country and planet.”

As Alicia Cahuiya of the Waorani group told President Lenín Moreno at a meeting at the presidential palace in Quito in March 2018, “Oil has not brought development for the Waorani. It has only left us with oil spills and sickness.” Not only could drilling in the rainforest lead to the damage and contamination of the Amazon’s ecosystem from oil spills, leaks and the dumping of toxic waste, but the building of roads to access these remote regions may spur the development of other industries such as mining or agriculture, which could lead to the kind of massive deforestation that has decimated the Brazilian Amazon.

Instead of making the economy even more dependent on dirty fossil fuel—oil currently accounts for between a third and a half of its total export income—Moreno could instead increase incentives for the development of clean renewable energy. At the UN General Assembly Second Committee meeting in October, Ecuador’s UN ambassador Helena Yánez Loza underscored the importance of renewable energy, saying that Ecuador “emphasizes that human beings and Mother Earth must live together, recognizing nature as a subject with its own rights.”

Ecuador has already demonstrated success in developing solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy. In addition, sustainable tourism could ultimately fuel a larger share of GDP for Ecuador, which is blessed with remarkable natural beauty and biodiversity. According to the Ministry of Tourism, tourism revenues grew in 2018 in comparison to 2017, registering an estimated $1.3 billion. (By comparison, Ecuador crude petroleum exports in 2017 totaled $5.63 billion.) In 2018, more than 350,000 U.S. tourists traveled to Ecuador, representing a 44 percent increase compared to 2017.

A history of pollution

For decades, the Ecuadorian government has faced stiff opposition against untrammeled industrial development from its Indigenous population. “This fight didn’t grow overnight; it’s been the fight of the Waorani for years,” said Nemonte Nenquimo. Indeed, April’s court ruling is the end of the latest chapter in a protracted battle between Indigenous people across Ecuador and fossil fuel interests that has been going on since 1993, when local tribes turned to the legal system to compel Texaco—and now Chevron, its parent company since 2000—to clean up the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and care for the people who have been sickened by the oil operations that began in 1967, when Texaco struck oil in the country’s northeastern province of Sucumbíos.

In a 2008 Los Angeles Times op-ed about that legal battle, author and former public defender David Feige wrote that Texaco’s environmental legacy in the region “includes as many as 16 million gallons of spilled crude—50 percent more than the Exxon Valdez dumped in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989; hundreds of toxic waste pits, many containing the chemical-laden byproducts of drilling; and an estimated 18 billion gallons of waste, or ‘produced,’ water, which some tests have shown to contain possibly cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at levels many times higher than those permitted in the U.S. All these pollutants were discharged in one of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world—the Amazon rainforest.”

This troubling history makes the current administration’s push to auction off land to oil drilling all the more ill-advised. “When we extract oil, it has a very high price for the environment, and sometimes, it’s not paid by those who use the oil,” said Antoni Rosell-Melé, an environmental chemist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain, who co-authored a 2017 study that found that the Amazon rainforest in neighboring Peru is suffering from extensive contamination from decades of fossil fuel development.

In that study, the researchers analyzed nearly 3,000 water samples from four Amazon rivers gathered between 1987 and 2013 and found an “extremely elevated presence of chloride, chromium, barium, lead and hexavalent chromium,” industrial chemicals involved in oil drilling that are toxic to humans, wildlife and the environment. The researchers also estimate that oil extraction activities in the region have changed the overall chemical composition of the Amazon’s waters, including 30 percent more salt than is naturally present.

Destroy the rainforests, destroy ourselves

The Indigenous fight in Ecuador is a fight that anyone who cares about biodiversity and the global climate should join. After all, the Ecuadorian Amazon isn’t just one of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world—it’s key for the environmental health of the entire planet. Known as the “lungs of the planet,” the Amazon rainforest “inhales” carbon dioxide and “exhales” oxygen, helping to stabilize the global climate by safely storing up to 140 billion metric tons of carbon. Deforestation by extractive and agricultural industries releases this carbon into the atmosphere, further accelerating global warming, the effects of which are felt across the world, from rising seas along U.S. coasts and melting Arctic glaciers, to wildfires in Europe and droughts in Africa.

Ecuador is also home to an astounding number of species. The nation is the eighth most biodiverse on Earth and the most biodiverse when considering the number of species by unit area. It is home to the highest number of species by area worldwide, including more than 1,500 species of birds, more than 840 species of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 300 species of mammals. Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park boasts nearly 20,000 plant species, more flora than anywhere on Earth.

But despite its high level of biodiversity, Ecuador also has a low representation of species living within its protected areas. According to a 2014 study conducted by a team of researchers from the Technological University Indoamerica in Quito, there are more than 100 vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered species in the Ecuadorian Amazon for which conservation goals have been missed. Lawyers for the Indigenous communities fighting oil development can also refer courts to the nation’s constitution, which provides “protection of ecosystems, biodiversity and the integrity of the country’s genetic assets, [as well as] the prevention of environmental damage.”

Unfortunately, the pro-drilling camp “doesn’t see the forest,” said Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo in her keynote address at last year’s Bioneers conference in Marin, California, which gathered leaders and activists involved in environmental protection and the rights of nature around the globe. “They see oil wells where we see gardens. They see money where we see life.” Sharing her fight to protect her ancestral lands from exploitation by industrial development, Nenquimo warned that if given “a foothold in our lands,” the oil industry “will bring money, sickness and contamination. They will try to divide our families and change our way of thinking.”

“We demand our rights be respected. For our children, for other Indigenous communities,” Nenquimo told the judges in her closing argument. “Our territory is not for sale. Our territory is part of our life. We will die if the oil companies enter our lands. We will fight until the end, not just here in this court. That’s my last word, with all my heart and all my soul.”

#WaoraniResistance: Bringing the Forest to the Courtroom from Amazon Frontlines on Vimeo.

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