On April 7 a catastrophic oil spill in Ecuador polluted the Coca and Napo Rivers where 27 thousand indigenous and 90 thousand mestizo people depend on for drinking water and fishing. It was a predictable industry-provoked disaster that geologists and environmentalists long warned about: the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant was generating heavy erosion near old pipelines owned by the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System (SOTE). Now close to three months later, the people who live by the river banks are still waiting for Ecuador’s government to take immediate steps to protect and provide direct attention to those affected, as well as take remediation procedures, in a transparent and efficient manner.
Members of multiple indigenous national organizations and the Alliance for Human Rights in Ecuador launched a coordinated campaign to monitor the situation and have taken both civil and legal action against the Ecuadorian government’s negligence. They filed a lawsuit against the state calling for precautionary measures to protect the people who now face a double pandemic: COVID and the lasting pollution of their homes and the natural environment they depend on. An audience began May 26 but was suspended June 1st citing the judge’s sickness and the Judicial Council has failed to reinstate a new process.
A similar lawsuit launched to protect the Waorani, Tagaeri, and Taromenane people was recently successful, providing precautionary measures and a court order to force the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Inclusion to improve COVID-19 testing and provide food and other necessities in direct coordination with indigenous leaders. Although the court came short of calling for a moratorium on extractive industries in the area, it did require the Ecuadorian government for a detailed report to “illegal mining, logging and drug trafficking activities in the region.”
“We have fought for thousands of years to defend our territory and our lives against multiple threats: conquistadors, rubber tappers, loggers, and then the oil companies. Now, we are fighting against the threat of COVID-19 with our ancient wisdom, our knowledge of medicinal plants, and our own health protocols. But the State is putting the lives of our Pikenani (traditional authorities, wise people) and our uncontacted relatives at risk. Our demand for a moratorium on oil operations has not been respected. It’s obvious that the State is prioritizing resource extraction on our territory over saving our lives,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, president of the Organización Waorani de Pastaza, in a press release. Unfortunately, Nemonte is presenting initial symptoms of COVID herself, although the community has been taking preventative measures to remain isolated and boost people’s immune system.
The success of Waorani’s lawsuit has roots in a powerful historical social movement in Ecuador that coalesced in the past decade to resist state repression under Correa and Lenin’s governments. They have been fighting for human and civil rights, as well as against extractive policies considered to be a narrow, short-term, unsustainable project of wealth production for a small privileged class and transnational corporations at the expense of life.
The Alianza por los Derechos Humanos Ecuador, just one example of this wider movement, began as an effort of several human rights organizations to expose state-promoted police repression during the indigenous movement-led protests in October 2019. Now made up of 18 organizations with an accumulated legal, political, social, communications, and research expertise, this coalition provides coordinated responses to different issues affecting the population. They’ve joined already existing indigenous coalitions under CONAIE, ECUARUNARI, CONFENIAE, CONAICE, among others, that have been fighting for structural changes since the 1990s. Together, leaders behind these organizations are part of a movement that made Ecuador’s new Constitution of 2008 possible and have pushed for radical change, regardless of the ruling political party.
To name a few, Acción Ecológica is an environmental organization that has outlasted several political reiterations governing the country, often under duress. Geografía Crítica del Ecuador is a researchers collective that provides mapping expertise and visual content for several campaigns and legal cases, including in the case of SOTE’s oil spill. CEDHU and INREDH go back to 1978 and 1993, respectively, and have proven to be key in documenting and reporting human rights violations. They are joined by several national and international organizations and allies.
These extended coalitions have not come together easily nor without controversy, have endured extreme state-sponsored surveillance, infiltration, and fought multiple legal battles to keep their leaders out of jail and their doors open. But their coordinated efforts are undoubtedly stronger, as a recent public complaint of the #SOSDerrameAmazonia campaign shows:
“Since April 7, the riverside communities face serious violations of their rights to a guaranteed LIFE, WATER, FOOD, HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT AND HEALTH and they live in fear that current events repeat themselves. The case of pollution violating collective and nature rights is becoming systematic and those violations go systematically unpunished, with irreversible and irreparable consequences…
WE DEMAND the JUDICIAL COUNCIL to fulfill its obligation of protection and judicial protection through the URGENT issuance of the PRECAUTIONARY MEASURES that we have repeatedly and motivatedly requested since April 29. At the same time, we demand that they activate the necessary mechanisms to resume a protection action hearing, suspended ALMOST A MONTH AGO. WE REQUEST that the Constitutional Court PRONOUNCES ITSELF. It is unethical to remain silent when the lives of at least 27,000 people are at grave risk…
The signatory organizations denounce the systematic violation of the rights of this population that today also face the impacts of a dengue outbreak and COVID-19; as well as denounce impunity 75 days after the spill that occurred on April 7, 2020.”
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