Campaigners demand court shuts down Ecuador’s oil pipelines after spill

“Now, with a global pandemic raging, climate change accelerating, and the survival of thousands of Indigenous peoples at risk, it is imperative that the Ecuadorian court impose an immediate suspension of the country’s oil pipelines to avoid another disaster.”

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Communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon are calling for an end to “violence against Indigenous peoples and nature” as a trial into a devastating oil spill resumes today. 

The Kichwa and Shuar tribes launched a lawsuit against the government and state-owned oil company Petroecuador in April after two pipelines ruptured. Around 27,000 Indigenous people already isolated by COVID-19 were left with little or no access to freshwater and fishing after more than 15,000 barrels of crude oil gushed into the Rivers Coca and Napa and downriver to Peru.

The communities are seeking “immediate measures to guarantee the supply of water, food and access to health for the populations that have been affected”, said Lina María Espinosa, lead attorney for NGO Amazon Frontlines, one of the groups bringing the case.

Pressure on authorities intensified last week when affected families filed dozens of individual lawsuits to shut down the pipelines with immediate effect until they are safe to operate. After temporarily suspending the pipe flow in June, the government has since restarted pumping. Campaigners have described the overall response as “woefully inadequate”.  

This week’s action — being heard via Zoom due to coronavirus restrictions — is against Ecuador’s environment ministry, Petroecuador and private oil company OCP, which runs one of the affected pipelines. The original trial started online in late May in the Orellana province, but was delayed after Judge Jaime Oña suspended the session just before government authorities were due to give evidence, citing health concerns among the court team. 

If successful, the action would suspend the country’s entire oil operations, as the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System (SOTE) and the Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline (OCP) pump all the country’s oil before it is shipped to international markets. Due to low exports from COVID-19, there are currently sufficient oil reserves to fulfill the country’s domestic needs.

Warning signs

Campaigners say the Ecuadorian government and oil companies ignored repeated warnings from geologists and hydrologists when the nearby San Rafael waterfall — at 150 meters Ecuador’s tallest — dramatically collapsed in February.

Though the government investigation is yet to be concluded, experts believe the collapse was the result of a depleted current caused by the nearby Chinese hydroelectric dam above the waterfall that led to extensive riverbed erosion. Despite clear warnings the nearby pipelines could be ruptured by the same erosion, the government and oil companies are accused of failing to take any remedial action.

Dozens of community members have testified in the lawsuit, claiming that the oil spill has violated their constitutional rights to territory, health, information, water and food sovereignty, a clean and ecologically balanced environment, and the rights of nature.

This is the latest battle for Indigenous communities, who have fought against oil extraction in Ecuador for 50 years. Around 70 percent of the Ecuadorian Amazon is leased by oil companies.

Last year the Waorani people won a landmark legal case to protect half a million acres of Amazon rainforest from drilling. Now, the River Coca oil spill has reignited an existing global campaign calling for a moratorium on all resource extraction in the Amazon during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gregorio Mirabal, General Coordinator of COICA, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, warned last week of a “physical and cultural extermination” if more is not done to stop the continued extraction of resources.

“We join this global campaign to end extraction in Ecuador brick by brick,” he said. “What does this mean? It means we fight from the bottom up. We fight to stop the genocide, ecocide, and violence against Indigenous peoples and nature.

“It is said that we are against development, but that is false; we demand an economy that respects the forest, the people and nationalities … an economy that ensures Indigenous peoples can continue to exist.”

Amazon Frontlines’ Executive Director Mitch Anderson said the court case is important because “for too long, oil companies have acted with total impunity in Ecuador”. 

“Now, with a global pandemic raging, climate change accelerating, and the survival of thousands of Indigenous peoples at risk, it is imperative that the Ecuadorian court impose an immediate suspension of the country’s oil pipelines to avoid another disaster.”


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