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.