Hundreds of Indigenous activists took to the streets in Ecuador this week to demand justice on the one-year anniversary of the country’s worst oil spill in 15 years.
Demonstrators marched through the Amazonian city of Coca to call on authorities to take responsibility for the 16,000 barrels of crude oil that poured into the Coca and Napo rivers when two pipelines ruptured last year.
Around 27,000 Kichwa people were impacted by the spill, and are reportedly still unable to use the contaminated water for drinking, bathing, and fishing. The Kichwa have also raised concerns over health issues arising from contact with the oil-contaminated water, including skin rashes and stomach problems.
Indigenous organisations, residents, and human rights groups have posed a number of legal challenges against the Ecuadorian government and the companies responsible for the pipelines, but say they have been met with a series of frustrating delays and dismissals.
In March, the Provincial Court of Orellana rejected an appeal from Indigenous communities regarding their lawsuit, citing administrative reasons after a five month delay to the case.
Responding to the news, Carlos Jipa, president of the Kichwa Indigenous federation, FCUNAE, said: “We feel outraged that the Ecuadorian judicial system has failed to recognise the violations to our rights and the damages caused to our lives, our rivers, and our territory.”
“Our rivers are polluted, our children are sick, our food gardens are ruined, the fish have disappeared,” Jipa continued. “The State and companies have not complied with their obligations. There is no justice for Indigenous people. We will fight back.”
Campaigners mounted their first legal challenge in April last year. The lawsuit demanded urgent environmental and community reparations from the oil companies responsible for the pipelines, OCP and Petroecuador, along with Ecuador’s government environment and water ministries.
But the trial was suspended a month later, in May, just before government authorities were due to give evidence, with Judge Jaime Oña citing health concerns among the court team. In September, after the case finally returned to court via videolink due to the pandemic, the judge threw out the case as “inadmissible,” saying it was the incorrect legal venue and that it could be dealt with out of court.
Five months after campaigners launched an appeal against that verdict, Orellana’s lower court once again rejected the case, announcing in March that the appeal had also been filed in the incorrect legal venue.
At the same time Judge Oña filed a criminal complaint against the plaintiffs and human rights defenders, citing “social unrest” for organising marches and advocacy on behalf of the Kichwa.
Andrés Tapia, member of the Leadership Council of Amazonian Indigenous organization, CONFENIAE, said the failure of the lawsuit has exposed the deficiency of Ecuador’s justice system, in direct conflict with the country’s “Rights of Nature” central to its constitution. In 2008 Ecuador was the first country to give nature legally enforceable rights to “exist, flourish and evolve”.
“Cases are stalled or move forward according to national political agendas,” Tapia said in a statement. “But when it comes to serving justice to the most vulnerable, judges turn a blind eye and delay effective responses.”
“In the case of the Kichwa people,” he continued, “who have suffered clear rights violations as a consequence of the oil spill in the Coca and Napo rivers, a year has passed without any response and now impunity continues.”
Cause of the spill
The cause of the spill is still under investigation, though experts believe the pipelines may have ruptured due to riverbed erosion caused by the nearby Chinese hydroelectric plant.
Campaigners say the oil companies ignored repeated warnings from geologists and hydrologists about the potential for such an accident when the nearby San Rafael waterfall, Ecuador’s tallest, collapsed into a sinkhole just upstream from the falls last February. And they claim the companies are not taking precautions against a similar spill happening again.
The OCP pipeline — which transports around 180,000 barrels per day of crude oil — and the state-owned SOTE pipeline, both halted operations after the pipes burst, but renewed activity in August that year.
Community members claim they received inadequate medical attention and food and water supplies after the spill, and that oil pipeline operators halted their clean-up operations prematurely last September.
Following the latest verdict last month in the string of court battles, Maria Espinosa, lawyer for Amazon Frontlines, released the following statement:
“We deeply regret that corporate power has prevailed over the truth and the rights of the victims. We are shocked that the judges did not recognize the violations of constitutional rights and damages resulting from the oil spill and that the rights of nature are not even acknowledged in the sentence.”
“Together with the communities,” Espinosa said, “we will continue to fight and pursue all legal options nationally and internationally because the rights of 27,000 Kichwa people and the rights of nature have been clearly violated. These violations persist to date, and continue to cause very serious impacts on the physical and cultural survival of the Kichwa people and their territories.”