An Uncommon Victory for an Indigenous People in the Amazon
By Rachel Riederer - May 15, 2019
On April 26th, a parade of hundreds of Waorani men and women, members of an indigenous nation in a remote part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, marched triumphantly through the streets of Puyo, the regional capital of the eastern province of Pastaza. Many had come from villages in parts of the rain forest that have no roads—journeying by canoe and small plane. They were celebrating a new court ruling, which held that the Ecuadorian government could not, as it had planned, auction off their land for oil exploration without their consent. Nemonte Nenquimo, a Waorani leader, told me that they had come to Puyo to reclaim their right to self-governance and that the verdict had made them feel safer. “The court recognized that the government violated our right to live free, and make our own decisions about our territory and self determination,” she said, over WhatsApp. “Our territory is our decision, and now, since we are owners, we are not going to let oil enter and destroy our natural surroundings and kill our culture.”
In February, the Waorani, together with Ecuador’s Ombudsman, a parliament-appointed official who serves as a public advocate, had filed a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government for not properly consulting with them before opening up their territory to potential oil exploration. In recent years, Ecuador has divided much of its portion of the Amazon into blocks to lease the mineral rights in an international auction. One of the blocks included Waorani land. In 2018, the government removed Waorani territory from the auction but said that the region could still be subject to future drilling.
The path to the verdict had not been certain. In March, a group of Waorani women shut down a hearing with song, protesting the conditions under which the case was being tried; they objected to it being held in Puyo, far from the Waorani villages, and to the absence of a court-certified translator. Many of the Waorani representatives wore traditional dress in court and had red bars painted across their cheekbones and brows. Singing a song about their traditional role as protectors of the forest, they drowned out the judge and lawyers until the judge finally suspended the hearing, which was rescheduled for April.
The crux of the lawsuit was the Waorani’s claim that the government had not properly consulted their community about the oil auction. Nenquimo told me that representatives from the Ministry of Energy and Non-renewable Resources came to her village in 2012, seeking community members’ consent for the auction, but she and her family were out on a hunting trip and didn’t meet with them. Mitch Anderson, the founder of Amazon Frontlines, a non-governmental organization (N.G.O.) that works with the Waorani and other indigenous groups on sovereignty and environmental issues, said that the consultations were treated as a box that needed to be checked off, rather than as a serious discussion with the community about the impact of introducing oil extraction into the forest lands and rivers where they hunt and fish. Anderson said that language barriers and short visits made the process even more opaque.
On April 26th, a three-judge panel ruled in the Waorani’s favor, finding that the process did not afford the Waorani free, prior, and informed consent, and that their territory could not be included in an oil auction. The ruling could impact other indigenous groups whose lands are also up for oil exploration. One of the Waorani’s lawyers, Maria Espinosa, said in a press release that the judgment should also be interpreted to mean that “the State cannot auction off the territories of the six other indigenous nations in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon, which were subject to the government’s same flawed and unconstitutional prior consultation process.”
Just days before the Waorani victory, a coalition of Latin-American journalists unveiled a new reporting project, “Tierra de Resistentes” (“Land of Resistants”), focussed on the dangers that face environmental activists. Their reporting showed that advocates from ethnic minorities—particularly indigenous people—face a high risk of violent attack from supporters of mining, logging, and other industries. The project, which is supported by Deutsche Welle Akademie, the Pulitzer Center, and others, opens by declaring, “Defending the jungles, mountains, forests and rivers of Latin America has never been this dangerous.” One aspect of the project is a database, compiled by thirty journalists, from Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Guatemala, which documents more than thirteen hundred attacks on environmentalists that took place in these seven countries during a ten-year period, and the project includes in-depth stories about sixteen individual cases.
Andrés Bermúdez-Liévano, a Colombian journalist and the project’s editor, told me over the phone that, as the reporters compiled their stories, certain patterns emerged. Attacks often took place in remote regions, where the government and law enforcement had scant presence, if any. Bermúdez-Liévano told me that a 2016 report to the U.N. by Michel Forst, the special rapporteur on the situation of human-rights defenders, confirmed a global increase in attacks on environmental groups. Forst’s report said that, in the year 2015, worldwide, more than three environmental advocates were killed every week, often in conflicts related to expanding mining, logging, damming, or agriculture. Forst found that the people who oppose these activities are often portrayed as “anti-development” or “unpatriotic” and are subject to violent attacks.
Amazon Nation Wins Lawsuit Against Big Oil, Saving Millions Of Acres Of Rainforest
The Amazon Rainforest is well known across the world for being the largest and most dense area of woodland in the world. Spanning across nine countries, the Amazon is home to millions of different animal and plant species, as well as harboring some for the world's last remaining indigenous groups. The Waorani people of Pastaza are an Indigenous people from the Ecuadorian Amazon and have lived in the Rainforest for many centuries. However, there homeland came under threat from a large oil company - they didn't take it lightly.
After a long legal battle with a number of organizations, the Waorani people successfully protected half a million acres of their ancestral territory in the Amazon rainforest from being mined for oil drilling by huge oil corporations. The auctioning off of Waorani lands to the oil companies was suspended indefinitely by a three-judge panel of the Pastaza Provincial Court. The panel simply trashed the consultation process the Ecuadorian government had undertaken with these aboriginal people in 2012, which rendered the attempt at land purchase null and void.
This win for the Indigenous defenders of their homeland has now set an invaluable legal precedent for other indigenous nations across the Ecuadorian Amazon. After accepting a Waorani bid for court protection to stop an oil bidding process, the court also halted the potential auctioning off of 16 oil blocks that cover over 7 million acres of indigenous territory.
Just before the win Leonardo DiCaprio @LeoDiCaprio stated on Twitter:
The Waorani people are one day away from saving half-a-million acres of forest from oil drilling. Watch the video and send a message to Ecuador’s government: protect indigenous rights & the Amazon. htwaoresist.amazonfrontlines.org/action/
@AFrontlines #WeLoveTheEarth #WaoraniResistance
While there is no evidence, some people believe that the Ecuadorian government may be accepting bribes in some roundabout way. The land in question is meant to be protected under Ecuador’s constitution that establishes the inalienable, unseizable and indivisible rights of indigenous people to maintain possession of their ancestral lands and obtain their free adjudication.
The magical world of the Barneno River in the Waorani Amazon
Furthermore, the constitution also states that there is a need for prior consultation on any plans to exploit the underground resources, given the probable environmental and cultural impacts on Indigenous communities. The government claim they did do this in 2012, however, the people allege that the agreement they came to was based upon fraudulent practices in favor of the oil companies and the government was favoring their bottom line over the people the actually still live on this valuable land. Due to this, the judges ordered the Ecuadorian government to conduct a new consultation, applying standards set by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights before anything else is agreed regarding the exploitation of the natural resources below the ground.
Nemonte Nenquimo, president of the Waorani Pastaza Organization and plaintiff in the lawsuit, remarked:
"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. Today, the courts recognized that the Waorani people, and all indigenous peoples have rights over our territories that must be respected. The government’s interests in oil is not more valuable than our rights, our forests, our lives."
This is a major win for indigenous peoples all over the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, and even perhaps the Amazon as a whole! This has definitely set a new precedent regarding indigenous peoples’ rights over the land they live in and offers them a glimmer of hope in protecting their cultural heritage. They'll definitely need plenty of support in the coming years as economical advances, such as this one will keep coming more and more as the world becomes ever growingly desperate for the natural resources that the beautiful land holds.