For immediate release
Coca, Ecuador, 1 September 2020 — Today, after months of unjustifiable delays in a high stakes lawsuit concerning a massive oil spill that occurred on April 7 in the biodiverse headwaters region of Ecuador’s Amazon, which affected the health and livelihoods of thousands of Indigenous Kichwa community members, the Provincial Court of Orellana issued a ruling. The lower court judge dismissed the case, citing that it was the incorrect legal venue. Instead, he asserted that administrative, civil and criminal mechanisms exist to address plaintiff’s claims for remediation and redress, thereby denying that the constitutional rights of Indigenous peoples and nature were violated.
The outcome gives oil companies OCP and Petroecuador a free pass for industrial scale pollution in the Amazon and raises concerns about the oil industry’s capture of the judicial branch. The decision is the corroboration of what Indigenous communities’ have feared since the start of this trial—that the justice system is rigged in favor of the country’s economic interests and does not guarantee due process or constitutional rights to Indigenous peoples. It also tarnishes Ecuador’s pioneering constitution, which was the first in the world to incorporate rights of nature and undergo an extensive participatory process in its formation and passage by public referendum.
Despite substantial evidence that the state and oil companies acted negligently and violated the rights of the Kichwa and of nature, which included extensive testimony from scientific experts and first-hand accounts from community members, the defense’s lawyers disingenuously argued throughout the trial that the companies were not responsible. They claimed that the oil spill was an unpreventable “act of nature” and that the river would clean itself over time. They also claimed to have supplied adequate food and water to communities whose lands and drinking water were contaminated, but community members who received limited supplies over the past four months say the aid was wholly insufficient to survive on and came with strings attached.
One report documents that just over 1,000 gallons of water was provided to 50 families for five months of consumption, which is the equivalent of just three liters per week per family. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 50 and 100 litres of water per person per day are needed to ensure that most basic needs are met and few health concerns arise. Indigenous victims were told that they could not receive vital supplies unless they signed a document waiving their rights to participate in a lawsuit against the oil companies.
At a time of heightened vulnerability for Indigenous peoples due to the state’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic discrimination against the Amazon’s Indigenous communities appears to extend to the national court system. The Kichwa say this ruling is an egregious dismissal of justice that denies their rights to a healthy environment, clean water, food sovereignty and health.
Plaintiffs will immediately appeal the verdict and, with other Indigenous organizations and international partners, ramp up their global campaign “Stop Amazon Extraction” calling for a moratorium on all extraction in the Amazon.
About the oil spill
The SOTE and OCP pipelines ruptured earlier this year as a result of negligence in addressing forewarned headward erosion on the Coca and Napo rivers. Backed by human rights organizations, Indigenous communities immediately filed a lawsuit asking for remediation, redress, and an end to oil company impunity on behalf of 27,000 Indigenous people from 105 different communities who were affected by the oil spill. The case was then suspended for 75 days, with the judge citing health concerns, as continued erosion and massive landslides threatened a second oil spill.
On August 4, more than two months after the case was filed, Kichwa communities along the spill zone escalated their demands by filing dozens of lawsuits to trigger court-ordered injunctions that would shutdown the oil pipelines. The risk of another catastrophic event was on display in the lead-up to the court’s decision when part of the highway along the same section of river collapsed due to erosion and ongoing state negligence.
Carlos Jipa, president of the Kichwa Indigenous federation, FCUNAE, released the following statement:
“We denounce the judge’s decision today. The judge failed to even so much as acknowledge our rights, when, in fact, his decision should have ordered the immediate suspension of crude oil through the compromised pipelines that continue to endanger my people. Oil operations are still contaminating our rivers and threatening our lives. We protect our rivers and our forest, and we are ready to fight this until the end. We will appeal the Court’s decision”.
Veronica Grefa, Kichwa leader and President of Toyuca community, released the following statement:
“As a Kichwa indigenous woman, I will continue to fight for my people’s rights and lives. We demand justice. Our families are still suffering from the disastrous impacts of this spill, and we still don’t have clean water and food. Our communities are united to defend our rivers for future generations.”
Marlon Vargas, President of Amazonian indigenous organization, CONFENIAE, released the following statement:
“We have not lost this fight, we are ramping up our fight. The Ecuadorian government and companies must respect Indigenous rights and territories. For decades, we have been saying “no” to extractive activities on our territories. We are tired of the lies, discrimination, and rights violations. We will continue to call for the shutdown of Ecuador’s major pipelines and to fight against the governments and extractive interests that invade and destroy our homes in the name of profit and greed. We call upon the world to unite and join us to protect the Amazon.”
Maria Espinosa, Lawyer for the case from Amazon Frontlines, released the following statement:
“The court’s decision is unacceptable. 27,000 Indigenous people are still in grave danger and facing the imminent risk of another oil spill. Throughout the trial, we have demonstrated how the Ecuadorian government and the oil companies violated the constitutional rights of Indigenous Peoples and the rights of nature, and that extractivism is destroying people’s lives and the Amazon rainforest. To this day, there is still no guarantee of justice or reparations for those affected. We will appeal this ruling, and fight together until justice is delivered.”
Additional photos and spokespeople available upon request.
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