For immediate release
(Coca, Ecuador. 24th March 2021) — Nearly one year after a disastrous oil spill dumped an estimated 15,800 barrels (664,000 gallons) of crude oil and other pollutants into Amazon rivers and tributaries, the Provincial Court of Orellana has rejected an appeal from affected Indigenous communities in a high-stakes lawsuit that demanded urgent environmental and community reparations from the Ecuadorian government and oil companies responsible. The outcome marks a grave blow to Ecuador’s pioneering Constitution, which was the first in the world to incorporate the rights of nature, and denies justice to more than 27,000 Indigenous people, who depend on the Coca and Napo rivers for drinking water in the biodiverse headwaters region of Ecuador’s Amazon.
The lawsuit, filed by Kichwa federation FCUNAE, Indigenous organizations, human rights groups and affected residents, said oil companies OCP Ecuador and Petroecuador EP and the environment and energy ministries had violated the constitutional rights of Indigenous people and the rights of nature. The verdict, issued yesterday by the appeals court judge after five months of unjustifiable delays, cites that the case was filed in the incorrect legal venue and that other administrative, civil and criminal mechanisms exist to address plaintiff’s claims for remediation and redress.
Plaintiffs and lawyers were subpoenaed last week and now face criminal charges for their work defending the Kichwa, following baseless allegations of intimidation and instigation in a lawsuit filed by the lower-court judge. Communities and human rights organizations denounce this action as dangerous persecution of human rights defenders and chilling evidence of the judicial branch’s attempts to discredit the Kichwa’s claim.
Throughout the trial, plaintiffs presented overwhelming evidence, testimony and first-hand accounts that the State and oil companies acted negligently and violated the rights of the Kichwa and of nature. OCP Ecuador, Petroecuador EP, and the Ministries of Environment and Water and of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources were unable to demonstrate that adequate measures were taken to prevent the spill, though they had been warned of regressive erosion in the area by scientists and experts since the collapse of the San Rafael waterfall on February 2, 2020.
Moreover, after the spill occurred, the entities responsible did not act to fully repair the damage to the affected population or to restore the natural environment. Community members, who received limited medical attention and food and water supplies, say the aid has been wholly insufficient and came with strings attached. Communities also report ongoing contamination after oil pipeline operators halted clean-up operations prematurely in September 2020. Reports from the Ministry of the Environment and Water indicate that areas on the banks of the Napo and Coca Rivers still have oil remnants less than a meter deep. Indigenous community members report a significant decrease in catch available for fishing, skin diseases from oil exposure, and impacts to their cultural and spiritual practices connected to the river.
The outcome of the case reinforces a decades-long legacy of impunity for Ecuador’s oil industry and gives a free pass to oil companies, OCP and Petroecuador, to continue to pollute the Amazon while skirting compliance with comprehensive remediation of affected ecosystems and impacted communities. Since the April 7, 2020 oil spill, at least one new major oil spill was reported in the region on November 27, 2020 in the Shiripuno river, which decimated vital resources that the Waorani and the isolated Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes rely on.
On April 7, 2021 exactly one year after the oil spill, hundreds of Indigenous peoples will mobilize in the Amazonian city of Coca to denounce impunity and call for justice. Plaintiffs will take their case to Ecuador’s Supreme Court and pursue all legal options nationally and internationally, as necessary.
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 seventy-five days due to the judge citing health concerns, as ongoing erosion and massive landslides threatened a second oil spill.
On August 4, 2020, 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 lower court’s decision when part of the highway along the same section of river collapsed due to erosion and state negligence. On September 1, 2020 a lower court judge dismissed the case, citing that it was the incorrect legal venue. Plaintiffs responded by appealing to demand justice, backed by 14,000 letters of global support.
Carlos Jipa, president of the Kichwa Indigenous federation, FCUNAE, released the following statement:
“Indigenous communities reject the ruling issued by the Orellana court. We feel outraged that the Ecuadorian judicial system has failed to recognize the violations to our rights and the damages caused to our lives, our rivers, and our territory. Our rivers are polluted, our children are sick, our food gardens are ruined, the fish have disappeared. The State and companies have not complied with their obligations. There is no justice for Indigenous people. We will fight back.”
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 still suffer 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.”
Andrés Tapia, Member of the Leadership Council of Amazonian indigenous organization, CONFENIAE, released the following statement:
“The Kichwa’s lawsuit has exposed the deficiency of Ecuador’s justice system. Cases are stalled or move forward according to national political agendas. But when it comes to serving justice to the most vulnerable, judges turn a blind eye and delay effective responses. In the case of the Kichwa people, who have suffered clear rights violations as a consequence of the oil spill in the Coca and Napo rivers, a year has passed without any response and now impunity continues.”
Maria Espinosa, Lawyer for the case from Amazon Frontlines, released the following statement:
“We deeply regret that corporate power has prevailed over the truth and the rights of the victims. We are shocked that the judges did not recognize the violations of constitutional rights and damages resulting from the oil spill and that the rights of nature are not even acknowledged in the sentence. Together with the communities, we will continue to fight and pursue all legal options nationally and internationally because the rights of 27,000 Kichwa people and the rights of nature have been clearly violated. These violations persist to date, and continue to cause very serious impacts on the physical and cultural survival of the Kichwa people and their territories ”.
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