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Indigenous Peoples Go to Court to Save the Amazon From Oil Company Greed

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Indigenous Waorani elders, youth and leaders gathered in Puyo, Ecuador, on Feb. 27, to launch a lawsuit against the government's auctioning of their ancestral lands to the oil industry. Mitch Anderson / Amazon Frontlines

By Reynard Loki

On Feb. 27, hundreds of Indigenous Waorani elders, youth and leaders arrived in the city of Puyo, Ecuador. They left their homes deep in the Amazon rainforest to peacefully march through the streets, hold banners, sing songs and, most importantly, submit documents to the provincial Judicial Council to launch a lawsuit seeking to stop the government from auctioning off their ancestral lands in the Pastaza region to oil companies. 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.


Co-filed with the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador–Pastaza (Pastaza CONCONAWEP), a political organization of the Waorani, 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 alleges 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, a nonprofit advocacy group supporting the Indigenous peoples living in the Amazon rainforest. The government's auction, announced in February of last year, included 16 new oil concessions covering nearly seven million acres of roadless, primary Amazonian forest across southeast Ecuador.

A hearing to argue the lawsuit was held in Puyo on March 13, but according to Amazon Frontlines, the group of assembled Waorani women "broke into song in court and did not stop" until the judge, "unable to be heard over the songs of the Waorani women ... called the parties' lawyers to the bench and declared the suspension of the hearing until a translator was found." The Waorani said that, in keeping with Waorani tradition, they would only accept a translator approved by their elder leaders. "The Waorani have their own authorities and their own systems, which must be respected by the Western systems," Lina Maria Espinosa, attorney for the Waorani petitioners and a member of Amazon Frontlines' legal team, told the Independent Media Institute. "This case is an example of the country's obligation to apply intercultural justice."

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 argue that the concessions trample on their constitutional rights.

In November 2018, following pressure from Ecuador's Amazonian Indigenous nationalities, Carlos Pérez, the nation's hydrocarbon minister, reduced the auction from 16 blocks to two. But it may end up being a pyrrhic victory, as the government said that the land may still be put on the auction block in the future. In addition, Pérez asserted that there should be no issue with the remaining two blocks, claiming that "there aren't any Indigenous [people] there." However, according to Amazon Watch, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California, the two blocks overlap with the titled territory of the Sápara, Shiwiar and Kichwa nations, and sightings of Tagaeri-Taromenane have been reported in the area, which is located along Ecuador's border with Peru.

Adding insult to injury was the emergence in November 2018 of a leaked draft of a presidential decree that revealed the government's plans to permit oil drilling in a protected area established for the Tagaeri-Taromenane that had previously been off-limits to fossil fuel development.

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 of investment by 2021.

The government, as it has for decades, is yet again facing stiff opposition against untrammeled industrial development from its Indigenous population. "We are demanding that the Ecuadorian state respect our territory and self-determination," said Nemonte Nenquimo, a Waorani leader and CONCONAWEP representative. "This fight didn't grow overnight; it's been the fight of the Waorani for years."

Indeed, the latest legal action launched in Puyo stems 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, the nation's capital, 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 current suit alleges, 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 nonrenewable resources located on their lands which could have an environmental or cultural impact on them." The suit claims 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:

"There are two different courses for the Ecuadorian government here. The first is an all-in bet on oil, and the last half-century has already shown us what that road leads to: environmental degradation, institutional corruption and further indebtedness to foreign interests, in this case China. Or they can 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."

"Oil has not brought development for the Waorani," Alicia Cahuiya of the Waorani group told President Lenín Moreno at a meeting at the presidential palace in Quito in March 2018. "It has only left us with oil spills and sickness."

A History of Pollution

The current lawsuit is the latest salvo 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

Indigenous Waorani women assembled in Puyo, Ecuador, on March 13, for a hearing on the lawsuit, which was suspended by the judge.

Sophie Pincetti / Amazon Frontlines

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 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."

"Our fight is not just a fight about oil," she said. "This is a fight about different ways of living. One that protects life and one that destroys life."

Penti Baihua, a leader of the Waorani village of Bameno, has seen firsthand the destruction of life that the outside world has brought to his idyllic slice of the jungle — from the oil spills that drive out local species his people rely on for sustenance to the destruction of ancient rainforest to make room for new cocoa and coffee plantations. What will happen to him, his family, and his community if extractive and agricultural industries continue the destruction of his ancestral home? Baihua said simply, "We do not want to disappear."

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's "Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow" in 2016. His work has been published by Truthout, Salon, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

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

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