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Ecuadorean Indigenous Group Challenges Oil Drilling in International Court

Case Is a Major Test for Indigenous Rights Throughout the Western Hemisphere

“I think I see them!” said Samai Gualinga, an Indigenous youth from Sarayaku, a Kichwa community located in the Ecuadorean Amazon. She craned her neck to see over the security checkpoints at Quito’s Mariscal Sucre Airport and then, with the help of her friends, lifted a 10-foot banner with the words “Sarayaku: kawsay sacha” (“Sarayaku: living forests”) boldly emblazoned in vibrant green paint.

Soon her father, José Gualinga, President of Sarayaku, passed through the security gate wearing his traditional headdress made of parrot plumes and the skeletons of two boa constrictors crisscrossed against his chest. A few spectators looked on with curiosity as he and his daughter embraced. One by one, a 16-member delegation of men, women, and elders from Sarayaku passed through the airport checkpoint and were reunited with their friends and family who had stayed behind in Ecuador.

Photo by Lauren JohnsonFrom left: Jose Gualinga, President of Sarayaku Mario Melo, lawyer representing Sarayaku, Patricia Gualinga,
leader of women´s initiatives in Sarayaku and Eriberto Gualinga, filmmaker from Sarayaku.

The delegation of leaders from Sarayaku were returning from San José, Costa Rica, where on July 6 and 7 they had testified before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is hearing their case: The Kichwa Peoples of the Sarayaku community and its members v. Ecuador.

“We had a great opportunity to present our testimonies before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights about the systematic human rights violations that were committed against our community during 2002 and 2003,” said President Gualinga. “We, as the peoples of Sarayaku, have requested material reparations and that the state of Ecuador declare that the forest is living and sacred. We have also requested that all of the damages done to our community be investigated.”

In 1996, Ecuador signed a contract with the Argentine oil company, Compania General de Combustibles (CGC), to open oil concessions in Block 23, a portion of land in the jungle where the Kichwa peoples of Sarayaku live. The company, with the support of the Ecuadorian government, entered Kickwa territory and began seismic trials, including placing underground explosives in the areas where Sarayaku residents hunt and farm. The Sarayaku residents say the oil company did so without the community’s free, prior, and informed consent, a right that is recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the ILO Convention 169, an international law to protect tribal peoples’ rights that Ecuador has ratified.

“In 2002, the company, protected by armed forces, police, and private security, forcefully and violently entered our territory causing panic, violence, familial and community division,” President Gualinga wrote on July 7 in a public letter. “The company planned to forcefully displace us, reducing our territory to 2 km, called the “Sarayaku Center” from the 140,000 hectares that were collective property.

“The oil companies CGC (Argentina) and CGG (France) were able to enter our living areas. These zones are still affected. And over all, the Company CGC planted below the earth 1.5 tons of dangerous explosives of pentolite used to locate petroleum.”

The Sarayaku residents also complain that oil company and government forces physically abused community members.

“In the beginning of 2003, four youth were captured illegally and tortured in the headquarters of the petro company,” President Gualinga told me. “This goes to show how militarized Sarayaku was — the military captured the youth with accusations that they were acting subversive. The youth were captured, tied up, received abuse to the eyes and were also placed in ants.”

In 2003, with the support of various national and international organizations, Sarayaku filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. After years of litigation, the Inter-American Commission in 2009 issued a report concluding that Ecuador violated the Sarayaku Kichwa’s rights to life, integrity, property, education, and a fair trial.

The Commission issued a series of recommendations to Ecuador to correct these human rights violations. So far the Ecuadorian government hasn’t pursued any of the recommendations. In April 2010, the Commission decided to refer the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Court is expected issue a ruling in October.

The community and its lawyers say a favorable ruling would not only be a historic achievement for Sarayaku, but also for Indigenous peoples throughout the continent. “The case is transcendental because it is emblematic of the continuing violation of the rights of Indigenous peoples, not only in Ecuador but throughout the continent,” said Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Justice and International Law and one of Sarayaku’s lawyers

During the July 6-7 hearing, simultaneous viewing events were held in Quito, Sarayaku, and Puyo, the capital of the province where Sarayaku is located.

“The simultaneous viewings were used to diffuse Sarayaku’s struggle to the local, provincial, and national levels,” said Mario Santi, leader from Sarayaku and coordinator of Campaign Kaparik, which means “the scream of the jungle.”  “Many people from other Indigenous nationalities such as Shuar, Achuar and Zaparos attended the events in Puyo in solidarity with our community. In Quito, representatives from recognized NGOs like Accion Ecologica, Fundacion Pachamama, and the authorities of the FLACSO attended. It was a good opportunity to reconnect with and find new allies within the social sector.”

Those relationships will be key as communities confront new oil industry incursions into the Ecuadorean Amazon. A new round of petroleum explorations are poised to take place in Achuar, Shuar, Zaparo, Andoa, and Kichwa communities in the Pastaza and Morona Santiago provinces. The Sarayaku-led Campaign Kaparik is being organized to educate communities about the impacts of the extractive industries on the forests and to lead resistance activities.

“The work is only just beginning,” Santi said.


Lauren Johnson is a freelance writer and communications specialist living in Quito, Ecuador. She spent 2010 volunteering with the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE and is particularly interested in issues facing the Amazon Rainforest. She graduated from Emerson College in 2007 with a degree in print journalism and is originally from Tampa, Fl.

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