A historic win for Indigenous communities in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest as a new court ruling gives them the right to ban destructive practices such as oil drilling and mining.
In a landmark victory for Ecuador’s Indigenous communities, the country’s Supreme Court has given 14 recognized groups the right to oversee the future of the Amazon rainforest they call home. Collectively, the groups’ lands include 70 percent of the Ecuadorean Amazon.
The ruling gives the communities jurisdiction over 23 million acres of Amazon rainforest and thwarts efforts to double oil production and mining, a plan that had been backed by the country’s president, Guillermo Lasso.
The new ruling gives Indigenous communities the right to decide what happens on the forest land with few exceptions where the government may be able to override. But the ruling states that “under no circumstances can a project be carried out that generates excessive sacrifices to the collective rights of communities and nature.”
“This is historic,” Academy Award winner and longtime environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio said in an Instagram post. “The ruling provides one of the world’s most powerful precedents on the internationally recognized right of Indigenous peoples to have the final say on oil, mining or other extractive projects that affect their lands – otherwise known as the right to Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC) – providing new strength to a powerful tool for Indigenous-led global climate action.”
The lawsuit was filed by the Sinangoe community in the country’s northern region where the Andes and the Amazon meet. The region is home to hundreds of people. It has also become a preferred location for gold prospecting. For years, prospectors had been illegally mining on the tribal land. But in 2018, the government approved mining, leading the community to sue. It won that case and forced the mining operations to cease.
“We are a small community, but we have achieved something so great, so historic, that it will serve other communities that have the same problems of mining, oil and other extractive activity in their territories,” Wider Guaramag, a member of the A’i Kofán community of Sinangoe, said in a statement.
Last month, the A’i Cofan from the Sinangoe village and the Waorani communities from the Pastaza province, delivered more than 365,000 signatures from around the world to the court demanding they be given rights to the land.
“We have gold here but we don’t want to exploit it because the mining company will keep damaging our territory,” Victor Quenama, A’i Cofan community president for Sinangoe, told reporters.
“We defend our river, wood and animals, because these are our supermarkets and pharmacies,” he said.
The Amazon’s future
The Amazon rainforest is facing a growing number of threats. Once one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks, logging, mining, and animal agriculture, among other practices, have turned the world’s largest tropical rainforest into a major carbon emitter.
Like Lasso, Brazil’s president Jair Boslonaro has deregulated disruptive industries that have contributed to some of the most destructive years for the Amazon in recent history; sixty percent of the Amazon is in Brazil.
The decision by Ecuador’s court comes just days after a ruptured pipeline sent thousands of barrels of oil into the Amazon. It’s the second large oil spill in the forest in two years.
“This is the exact reason why we oppose oil extraction,” said Andres Tapia of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon. “Spills have become a part of our daily life, and we live with the contamination for decades. The oil industry has only brought us death and destruction. We are calling on the government to halt oil expansion plans and properly clean up this spill and all the others that continue to contaminate our territories and violate our rights.”
In a statement, Kevin Koenig, energy and climate director of the environmental group Amazon Watch, said, “This latest spill shows once again that Ecuador’s oil infrastructure is built to spill. Despite promises to use state-of-the-art technology and alleged commitments to environmental responsibility, Ecuador is averaging two oil spills per week. Government plans to double production and expand extraction deeper into the Amazon will only lead to more of the same.”