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Indigenous Rights Group in Ecuador are Shutdown, but not Silenced

Advocates remain committed to human rights and environmental protection in the Amazon

Earlier this month the Ecuadorian government shut down Fundación Pachamama, a prominent environmental and human rights NGO in Ecuador. The controversial move reflects the tumultuous relationship between environmental interests, indigenous rights and natural resource development in Ecuador, and leaves many environmental and human rights advocates concerned about the future of public expression and advocacy there.

photo fo a man in a forest, gloved hands in a pool of oily, tarry liquidphoto Rainforest Action NetworkEcuador's Fundacion Pachamama has opposed oil drilling in the Amazon region,
and now is the target of a government-ordered shutdown. .

The shutdown can be traced to what is known as the “11th Round,” an oil-licensing auction for petroleum blocks in Ecuador’s southern Amazonian region. The bidding process for these oil blocks has proven difficult for President Rafael Correa’s government: the close of bidding was delayed multiple times, eight of the original 21 blocks up for auction were removed from the bidding process, and ultimately, only four blocks received bids by the close of bidding on November 28.

Indigenous groups campaigned vigorously against the 11th Round, emphasizing the likely devastation to the ecologically rich southern Amazon, and the encroachment on their territory. “The bottom line is that the communities do not want oil development,” explains Leila Salazar-López, program director for Amazon Watch, a partner organization of Fundación Pachamama. “Even if it is the most responsible oil development, we know that there will be destruction.”

At the close of bidding, a group of environmental and indigenous rights activists gathered outside the Oil and Energy Conference in Quito to protest the 11th Round. The protest likely sparked the government’s decision to close Fundación Pachamama.

The Ecuadorian government and civil society groups disagree about the details of the protest and the non-profit shutdown.

According to the Ministry of the Environment, representatives of Fundación Pachamama “physically and verbally assaulted” the Chilean ambassador to Ecuador, and a delegate from a Belarus public oil company. An online statement by the Ministry declares: “The State determined that representatives of this entity staged a violent protest, undermining public order and the physical integrity of attendees [at the event].”

Pat Usner, special projects director with the Pachamama Alliance, a sister organization to Fundación Pachamama, provided an alternative interpretation of events: “Fundación Pachamama has come out and said that…they do not convene any protests, and they did not convene the protest that day. They have [also] said that they were not behind any violent acts…and they don’t condone any violent acts. They believe in peace as the only form of legitimate protest.”

Amazon Watch’s Salazar-López says that based on video she has seen of the event, any physical contact between protestors and conference attendees appeared accidental.

During his televised weekly address on December 1, President Correa chastised the group for its involvement with the protest. On December 4, after the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment issued a resolution dissolving Fundación Pachamama, police descended on the organization’s Quito offices, escorted staff out of the office, and shut the organization down.

Fundación Pachamama representatives were not available for comment. An online statement describes the shutdown as “an arbitrary act that seeks to oppress our legitimate right to disagree with the government’s decisions, such as the decision to turn over the Amazonian indigenous people’s land to oil companies, in direct violation of their constitutional rights.” The organization plans to appeal the decision.

The closure of Fundación Pachamama follows a June decree by President Correa’s government that tightened restrictions on NGOs operating in Ecuador. “The goal of the government is to induce fear so that other people and organizations…working to defend the environment, the rights of nature…will be silent,” says Salazar-López. “What is happening to Fundación Pachamama is symbolic of the repression of civil society groups and Indigenous peoples in Ecuador.”

Following the shutdown of Fundación Pachamama, advocates remain adamant that their work in Ecuador will continue. “The reality is that civil society… are speaking out louder than ever,” says Salazar-López. Usner agrees, emphasizing that the San Francisco based Pachamama Alliance intends to continue supporting Indigenous peoples in Ecuador. More than 100 organizations from around the world have signed a letter of solidarity with Fundación Pachamama.

Ultimately, Usner and other advocates remain hopeful that President Correa’s objectives are compatible with Indigenous rights and environmental interests. As evidence, she points to his Buen Vivir – or Good Living – campaign, which advocates an alternative model of development focusing on community and nature. “We in Fundación Pachamama San Francisco are not against the concept [of Buen Vivir] at all,” Usner says. “[But] the feeling is that a model of developing pristine rainforest land is not the model we would agree with.” 

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal. She holds a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and and writes about climate change, environmental justice, and food policy. Follow her on Twitter @ZoeLoftusFarren

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