February 2024 /

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  • Following 80 years of displacement, Indigenous Siekopai communities regained ownership of their ancestral Amazonian homeland on Ecuador’s border with Peru.
  • The provincial court of Sucumbíos ruled in favor of the community, saying the environment ministry must deliver a property title for 42,360 hectares (104,674 acres) to the Siekopai, as well as a public apology for its violation of their collective territorial rights.
  • The ruling is historic because it’s the first time an Indigenous community whose ancestral territory lies within a nationally protected area will receive title to the land.
  • According to experts, this new ruling may change the approach communities use to obtain their ancestral lands in Ecuador, and the country may see more communities filing similar lawsuits to obtain lands locked away for state conservation.

After winning a historic lawsuit, an Indigenous community in Ecuador has finally obtained legal ownership of its land in a protected area — 80 years since being forcibly displaced. According to experts, this new ruling may change the approach communities use to obtain their ancestral lands in Ecuador, and the country may see more communities filing similar lawsuits to obtain lands locked away for state conservation.

Ecuador now recognizes the 42,360-hectare (104,674-acre) ancestral Pë’këya territory in the northeast of the Ecuadorian Amazon, which is also home to some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, as under the legal ownership of the Indigenous Siekopai nation.

The decision by the provincial court of Sucumbíos means that the Siekopai people now have legal rights to the place where their ancestors are buried. It also means the community is free to sustainably manage the local natural resources as it sees fit.

“This does not imply that the ministry of environment should not monitor deforestation or river pollution in our territory,” Justino Piaguaje, a Siekopai leader, told Mongabay. “Obviously, the ministry has that responsibility. But above all, we exercise control over our territory.”

Jorge Acero, a human rights defender and Amazon Frontlines lawyer who represented the Siekopai in court, told Mongabay that the rules of use for a protected area have always been established by the Ministry of Environment and Water. But now, for the first time, the ministry will have to respect the decision-making capacity of a community to self-determine its own management plans.

The forests are an integral part of Siekopai culture, leaders say, and communities have experience trying to protect them using camera traps, drones and studies, to monitor impacts from extractive industries on biodiversity loss. Once their management plan is established, the Siekopai will sit down with the ministry and ask for any technical advice, Acero said.

Photos and paintings displayed around the hearing space recall the legacy of past family members who tried to recover their ancestral land after being forcibly displaced by the military conflict between Ecuador and Peru in the 1940s. Image by Amazon Frontlines.

“Until now, the ministry of the environment did not provide titles in protected areas, but it also did not allow communities to make their own decisions,” he said. “The Siekopai will not ignore the ministry as an entity in charge of taking care of natural areas. But they will not allow them to impose on their territory or tell them how to manage it.”

The area, which is also known as Lagartococha, is home not just to many of the community’s ancestral traditions, but also threatened biodiversity like the Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) and the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis). The forest is also home to flora and fauna vital to the Siekopai’s daily existence, such as the endangered wankuneo tree (Aniba rosaeodora).

“We believe that this titling is not only beneficial for the Siekopai but also for other peoples who are in similar conditions and still do not have titling,” Piaguaje said.

A legal precedent

In the 1940s, the community was forced off its land when the Ecuador-Peru War militarized the area and formed a border, making it difficult for Siekopai families to travel freely as they had for generations before. After the conflict ended, in 1979, the Ecuadorian state took ownership of Pë’këya and turned it into a protected area, known as the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, without the Siekopai’s consent.

For decades, the Siekopai were prevented from returning to the land by the Ecuadorian state. Over the years, the communities filed several requests to the environment ministry, but with little response. Meanwhile, the settlement that housed their community was being encroached on by large mining companies and plantation owners from all sides, Piaguaje said.

Members of Siekopai communities gathering together to talk about the recovery of their ancestral homeland, known as Pë’këya. Image by Amazon Frontlines.

In 2022, the Siekopai decided additional action needed to be taken and they filed a lawsuit against the government. Then, on Nov. 24, 2023, the regional court ordered the ministry to deliver a property title for 42,360 hectares to the Siekopai, as well as a public apology for its violation of their collective territorial rights. The ministry will have 45 days to follow orders after the court clarifies the sentence.

The environment ministry hadn’t issued a statement on the ruling and officials hadn’t responded to Mongabay’s requests for information as of the time this story was published.

“After years of struggle and frustration, the Siekopai finally see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Pablo Ortiz Tirado, a sociology professor and researcher at the University of Quito, told Mongabay. “The ruling marks a milestone and important legal precedent in matters of reparation and justice regarding the territorial rights of Amazonian peoples in Ecuador.”

The state’s slowness in granting legal land titles in protected areas to Indigenous groups in Ecuador has resulted in more than 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of land being caught up in the national park system awaiting titling, according to Amazon Frontlines.

“There are many communities, especially in the Amazon but also on the coast, who have this same constitutional right and have not been able to title their territories for many years,” Acero said. On the Peruvian side of the border, Siekopai communities, known there as the Secoya people, are also locked in their own legal battle with the state to reclaim their ancestral territory in Güeppi-Sekime National Park.

In Ecuador, there are A’i Cofán and Kichwa communities in the north of the country who have fought for legal rights to their land within a protected area for the past decade.

“They have not managed to move forward with the administrative process of titling and now with the help of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador [CONAIE], Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon [CONFENIAE] and other organizations like ours, we are going to enable the mechanism to make this a reality,” Acero said.

Fresh fish caught in the rivers of Pë’këya, the name of the ancestral heartland of the Siekopai people in their native language, located along the Lagartococha River. Image by Amazon Frontlines.

According to international law and the Ecuadorian Constitution, it’s the fundamental right of Indigenous peoples and other communities to have legal ownership over their lands, including those inside protected areas. And yet, in Ecuador, despite state recognition that these territories should be delivered to their ancestral owners, the right isn’t guaranteed because there’s never been an official pathway to complete the process in the case of protected areas. In 2021, then-environment minister Gustavo Manrique committed to creating the document, but never did.

Currently, the process of applying for legal ownership in a protected area begins with a request to the environment ministry, the government body responsible for the allocation of territories within these areas. The second stage involves a long, bureaucratic procedure to support community claims to the land. It involves the documentation of the exact limits of their ancestral territory.

For years, the Siekopai requested these rights, but their application was constantly stalled because the steps to do so had never been mapped out. International law and the country’s Constitution also state that rights violations are not excusable by the absence of any formal pathways. And so, rather than wait for the ministry to formalize this process — a step that could take years — the Siekopai decided there was too much at stake and took the government to court instead.

“This opens up the door for others to say if you want to take your sweet time with this technical document on how to adjudicate lands within protected areas, that’s fine,” said Luke Weiss, director of mapping and monitoring at Amazon Frontlines, “but there are going to be a lot of court cases.”

According to Acero, it also opens the possibility for many other communities to request legal security over their territory and, if they don’t achieve it, to go down the judicial route so the judges force the ministry to deliver it.

“It tells the ministry if you don’t comply you will have to go to trial and they will force you to do so,” he told Mongabay.

Nevertheless, Acero said he has hopes this new ruling will force the Ecuadorian government to finally establish the procedure to guarantee legal titles without having to resort to judicial means, bringing titles and much-needed protections to Indigenous lands and cultures.

“Nobody likes going to court on either side,” said Weiss. “It’s costly and time-consuming and it shouldn’t be the only pathway.”

Members of Siekopai communities standing together. Image by Amazon Frontlines.

A lot of the details of how this land will be managed is still unknown, as this has never been done before. According to Justino Piaguaje, the territory is no longer technically a protected area; it is Siekopai territory, and the environment ministry doesn’t exercise control over it. In theory, the community could accept extractive projects on the land if it consented to those; they would most likely not be permitted within a protected area.

But Weiss said it’s not fully clear yet whether this could happen because this is a first for the country. He said he believes the ruling signals more of a change in power dynamics. Previously, the Siekopai had to abide by the land management plan put together by the ministry, as they hadn’t yet gained legal rights to their territory inside Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. But now the Siekopai will draft their own land-use plan to give to the ministry.

“This turns the tables a little bit. The power dynamic changes. And there’s probably the same end game,” he told Mongabay. “But it’s still a little blurry for me exactly how it’s going to unfold as this is the first time it’s happened. There’s just a lot more power on the side of the people now, instead of the government.”

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