Photo credit: Petroglyph in the Amazon rainforest, Napo province, Ecuador. CIFOR/Tomas Munita
The Ecuadoran government is facing renewed opposition against untrammeled industrial development from its Indigenous population.
Earlier this year, the Waorani, native Amerindians from the South American country’s Amazonian region, launched a lawsuit that alleges 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 7 million acres of roadless, primary Amazonian forest across southeast Ecuador.
In December 2017, the government of President Lenin Moreno made a commitment to the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) 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.
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.
Ecuador is one of the smallest oil producers in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). 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 Moreno last year, arguing that public-private partnerships in the infrastructure, oil, energy, mining and telecoms sectors could generate $7 billion of investment by 2021.
The Waorani’s 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.
The Ecuadorian Amazon is not just one of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world, it is key for the environmental health of the world. 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.
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.”
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