Our Territory, Our Decision - Amazon Frontlines

by Amazon Frontlines

/ November 2021

November 15, Community A’i Kofán de Sinangoe, Ecuador – We send this communication from our ancestral territory, where the bones of our ancestors are buried, where our spirits live, and where we live in harmony with nature – harvesting fruits from the forest, planting plantains and manioc, healing ourselves with medicinal plants, and bathing in the rivers born from the jungle mountains that with have been protecting with spears for thousands of years.

Today marks a historic day for Ecuadors Indigenous peoples,, as it is the first time in history that the Supreme Court of Ecuador (Corte Constitucional) has complied with its obligation to come to our territories to understand our forms of self-determination, our cosmovision, our relationship with our territories, our cultures, our decision-making processes, and to feel the energy and spirit of our fight to defend our lives against centuries of non-stop threats,  that are now being expressed through   metallic mining, oil, logging and hydroelectric dams.

Today’s hearing is principally about two important things: the right for Indigenous peoples in Ecuador to decide what happens in our territories, that is to say our essential right to self-determination and Free, Prior and Informed Consent, recognized internationally but not yet recognized, respected or applied in Ecuador; and the Rights of Nature, that is to say, the right of rivers, forests, mountains, and animals to exist without threats, contamination or destruction.

The judges of the Supreme Court have the heavy responsibility to make a decision regarding our rights. This is about life and death, about our future or our extinction. After hearing dozens of testimonies from our elders, our leaders and our youth, the judges  hold in their hands  opportunity and obligation to publish a ruling according to the highest standards around our right to self-determination and our right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent, which are inextricably linked.

We are here with more than 300 Indigenous representatives from all  over Ecuador, especially the Amazon, who have shared their fights for their territories and today, many of which have cases pending before the Supreme Court like the Waorani of Pastaza, the Kichwa of Santa Clara, and the Kichwa of Sarayaku, amongst other nations, united with the same request, that our territory is the base of our very existence and as ancestral peoples we have the right to decide over our future and our territories. Equally important is our essential role in the protection of nature and the Rights of Nature.

Five of the nine judges of the Court crossed the Aguarico River in the heart of the Amazon early this morning and were welcomed by Indigenous leaders to begin the historic hearing. From the Ecuadorian state, the Ministry of Energy and Mining was present in Sinangoe to defend the extraction of metals and petroleum in Indigenous territories to promote “the wealth and progress of everyone.” Other state entities like the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, the Agency for Control and Regulation of Mining, and the Attorney General did not come to our territory, as they preferred to participate online to attempt to justify their actions and omissions that have systematically and consistently violated the rights of Indigenous peoples and Nature.

This case began in 2018 when Sinangoe discovered that without consulting them and without their consent, the State had auctioned off 20 gold-mining concessions and was in process to hand over 32 more in the mega-biodiverse Aguarico headwaters. Our community of the A’i Kofán de Sinangoe sued four ministries of the government and in October of 2018 won a lower court ruling in their favor that resulted in the annulment of the 52 mining concessions. The sentence recognized the violation of our rights and the grave risk for the survival of our community in the face of widespread mining. It was a historic victory for our community and the Indigenous peoples of Ecuador. Now, the Supreme Court has our case in its hands and the opportunity to leave a national precedent that must be strictly followed by the State.

During the hearing, the judges heard testimonies from men, women, and children from the A’i Kofán de Sinangoe community. Wider Gauraman, Coordinator of the Indigenous Guard of Sinangoe, explained to the judges that “as ancestral peoples of these territories, as millenary peoples, we have the right to be consulted but also that our consent is the ultimate objective of that consultation. If we say yes, that’s how it will be, if we say no, then that means no. We defend life, we defend our territory.”

Children from the community handed in drawings and hand-written letters to the judges as evidence. Tayra Narvaez, a 12 year-old Kofán girl, told the judges, “I want you to listen to us because as children this territory gives us everything and we are happy. We need you to take care of our territory, so we can live without mining and without contamination.”

The A’i Kofán of Sinangoe are a fishing, hunting and gathering nation, intimately connected to our territory and known as great ayahuasca healers. Our territory is 63,775 hectares of primary forest, where jaguars, spectacled bears, and tapirs live. Our spirits and the “invisible people” live there too, it is where our identity as a People resides and only there is it possible to live, think and be A’i Kofán.

Leaders of the following Nations provided testimony to the Court: Siekopai, Sapara, Sarayaku, Kichwa of Santa Clara, as well as the Indigenous organizations CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador), CONFENIAE (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon), CONCONAWEP (Council of the Waorani Nation of Pastaza), PAKKIRU (Kikin Kichwa Runakuna of Pastaza), PSHA (People of Shuar Arutam), and FENASH-P (Federation of the Shuar Nation of Pastaza), among others, who presented amicus curiae briefs to the judges, explaining similar violations of their rights. Nemonte Nenquimo, the recognized leader, whose organization represents the Waorani of Pastaza and whose historic court case will also be heard by the Supreme Court shortly, said to the judges, “You have a great opportunity as judges. We want our right to say yes or no to extractive projects to be respected. What has happened up until now has only led to deceit, division and destruction. As women, we demand that our rights are respected. We will be at the frontlines of this fight because we know that a great threat to our territories is on the horizon.” Jose Gualinga, ex-President of Sarayaku explained to the judges that “mining in our sacred territories is like mining in the ancient ruins of Rome or the Notre Dame in Paris.”

The resolution of this case by the Supreme Court is urgent and extremely important for the moment that Ecuador, and the planet, currently finds itself in. The hearing took place days after world leaders signed agreements to face climate change at COP26 in Glasgow, and months after the President of Ecuador Guillermo Lasso promised to double oil extraction and rapidly expand mining in the Amazon, through Presidential Decrees 95 and 151. The Indigenous peoples take care of 70% of the Ecuadorian Amazon, almost 7 million hectares of the most important rainforest on the planet. Deforestation of just one hectare of our territories represents the equivalent carbon emissions of 160 cars for a whole year. It is not possible to face climate change without the Amazon, and it is not possible to protect the Amazon without us, Indigenous peoples, and without guaranteeing our rights.

The Court should publish a ruling within the next few months that will set national precedent. The ruling will also set obligatory precedent for Ecuador’s Congress which must elaborate a law that regulates the right to free, prior and informed consent nationally. Given the lack of time that Court had to listen to us, and considering that all our voices and criteria are important to contribute to their analysis, after they left, exercising our own autonomous rights, the Nations, farmer communities, civil society organizations and academics accompanying the hearing in Sinangoe, installed an assembly of Indigenous peoples on site to reiterate that expressed at the Court hearing, declare the Indigenous peoples of Ecuador in permanent assembly and vigilance until the Court publishes this important ruling for all Indigenous peoples in Ecuador.

For more information about Sinangoe, their territory and their historic case, please visit the community’s interactive map: https://sinangoe.amazonfrontlines.org/content/sinangoe-map/

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