An Uncommon Victory for an Indigenous Tribe in the Amazon
On April 26th, a parade of hundreds of Waorani men and women, members of an indigenous nation in a remote part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, marched triumphantly through the streets of Puyo, the regional capital of the eastern province of Pastaza. Many had come from villages in parts of the rain forest that have no roads—journeying by canoe and small plane. They were celebrating a new court ruling, which held that the Ecuadorian government could not, as it had planned, auction off their land for oil exploration without their consent. Nemonte Nenquimo, a Waorani leader, told me that they had come to Puyo to reclaim their right to self-governance and that the verdict had made them feel safer. “The court recognized that the government violated our right to live free, and make our own decisions about our territory and self determination,” she said, over WhatsApp. “Our territory is our decision, and now, since we are owners, we are not going to let oil enter and destroy our natural surroundings and kill our culture.”
In February, the Waorani, together with Ecuador’s Ombudsman, a parliament-appointed official who serves as a public advocate, had filed a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government for not properly consulting with them before opening up their territory to potential oil exploration. In recent years, Ecuador has divided much of its portion of the Amazon into blocks to lease the mineral rights in an international auction. One of the blocks included Waorani land. In 2018, the government removed Waorani territory from the auction but said that the region could still be subject to future drilling.
The path to the verdict had not been certain. In March, a group of Waorani women shut down a hearing with song, protesting the conditions under which the case was being tried; they objected to it being held in Puyo, far from the Waorani villages, and to the absence of a court-certified translator. Many of the Waorani representatives wore traditional dress in court and had red bars painted across their cheekbones and brows. Singing a song about their traditional role as protectors of the forest, they drowned out the judge and lawyers until the judge finally suspended the hearing, which was rescheduled for April.
The crux of the lawsuit was the Waorani’s claim that the government had not properly consulted their community about the oil auction. Nenquimo told me that representatives from the Ministry of Energy and Non-renewable Resources came to her village in 2012, seeking community members’ consent for the auction, but she and her family were out on a hunting trip and didn’t meet with them. Mitch Anderson, the founder of Amazon Frontlines, a non-governmental organization (N.G.O.) that works with the Waorani and other indigenous groups on sovereignty and environmental issues, said that the consultations were treated as a box that needed to be checked off, rather than as a serious discussion with the community about the impact of introducing oil extraction into the forest lands and rivers where they hunt and fish. Anderson said that language barriers and short visits made the process even more opaque.
On April 26th, a three-judge panel ruled in the Waorani’s favor, finding that the process did not afford the Waorani free, prior, and informed consent, and that their territory could not be included in an oil auction. The ruling could impact other indigenous groups whose lands are also up for oil exploration. One of the Waorani’s lawyers, Maria Espinosa, said in a press release that the judgement should also be interpreted to mean that “the State cannot auction off the territories of the six other indigenous nations in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon, which were subject to the government’s same flawed and unconstitutional prior consultation process.”
Just days before the Waorani victory, a coalition of Latin-American journalists unveiled a new reporting project, “Tierra de Resistentes” (“Land of Resistants”), focussed on the dangers that face environmental activists. Their reporting showed that advocates from ethnic minorities—particularly indigenous people—face a high risk of violent attack from supporters of mining, logging, and other industries. The project, which is supported by Deutsche Welle Akademie, the Pulitzer Center, and others, opens by declaring, “Defending the jungles, mountains, forests and rivers of Latin America has never been this dangerous.” One aspect of the project is a database, compiled by thirty journalists, from Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Guatemala, which documents more than thirteen hundred attacks on environmentalists that took place in these seven countries during a ten-year period, and the project includes in-depth stories about sixteen individual cases.
Andrés Bermúdez-Liévano, a Colombian journalist and the project’s editor, told me over the phone that, as the reporters compiled their stories, certain patterns emerged. Attacks often took place in remote regions, where the government and law enforcement had scant presence, if any. Bermúdez-Liévano told me that a 2016 report to the U.N. by Michel Forst, the special rapporteur on the situation of human-rights defenders, confirmed a global increase in attacks on environmental groups. Forst’s report said that, in the year 2015, worldwide, more than three environmental advocates were killed every week, often in conflicts related to expanding mining, logging, damming, or agriculture. Forst found that the people who oppose these activities are often portrayed as “anti-development” or “unpatriotic” and are subject to violent attacks.
In the stories published by “Tierra de Resistentes,” the physical threats take several different forms. An indigenous community in Ecuador was driven from its village by mining operators. In Peru, a community near the Colombian border was coerced into growing coca. Bermúdez-Liévano said that, although the reporters did not fear for their own safety while in the field, they did take special measures to protect their sources. They often brought people to outside locations to conduct interviews, “away from dangerous eyes,” so that they would not be seen talking to reporters.
Bermúdez-Liévano said that the group’s database—which draws on reports from N.G.O.s and governmental officials—is incomplete, but he called it a starting point for documenting an ongoing crisis. It shows how ethnic minorities are being targeted, by oil companies, illegal loggers and miners, and drug cartels.
In the weeks since the project was published, the violence has continued. In Coloradas de la Virgen, a community in northern Mexico that has been protesting illegal logging and drug trafficking, two activists were killed; both were relatives of a local leader names Julian Carrillo, who was killed in 2018 and whose story is documented by “Tierra de Resistentes.” In Colombia, one of the leaders profiled in the project, Francia Márquez, was physically assaulted. Bermúdez-Liévano said that the stories revealed a chilling duality: “Latin America has incredible biodiversity and natural beauty. But we also see such a large number of violent attacks on the people who are taking care of these resources.”
Against this backdrop, the Waorani victory in court stands out. Nenquimo told me that, the night before the verdict, she dreamed about the case and woke up feeling confident that they would win. She carried her spear to the courthouse, as a symbol. “In my blood, I felt my grandfather, and my other ancestors, who protected their territory at the tip of the spear,” she said. When the verdict came down, she was overwhelmed with happiness. She told me, “We have shown the government to respect us, and the other indigenous people of the world, that we are guardians of the jungle, and we’re never going to sell our territory.”
The following day, Ecuador’s Ministry of Energy and Non-renewable Resources announced, on Twitter, a plan to appeal the decision. After the verdict, though, the mood of the Waoranis gathered in the courthouse was celebratory. I spoke with Anderson and Nenquimo on a video call as they began their celebratory march through Puyo. The sun was bright as the group walked away from the courthouse. Nenquimo was singing and had tears in her eyes. Their cell-phone battery was running low and they quickly signed off. Nenquimo waved into the camera and kept marching.