June 18th 2020. Puyo, Ecuador – A little over one year after the Waorani People’s historic legal victory, which protected half-a-million acres of rainforest from oil drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the indigenous nation has yet again triumphed in a new lawsuit aimed at securing protections for their communities, including uncontacted peoples, from an imminent risk of physical and cultural extinction owed to the acceleration of COVID-19 in their territory.

Yesterday, Judge Delicia de los Ángeles Garcés Abad from the Provincial Court of Pichincha ruled in favor of the Waorani people’s rights to health, life, and self-determination, and granted partial precautionary measures requiring the Ecuadorian government to take urgent actions to contain the virus in Waorani territory. The court ruling requires the Ministry of Health to coordinate with the Waorani leadership to conduct COVID-19 testing with the assistance of medical staff with intercultural experience in eleven affected and vulnerable communities across three provinces (Pastaza, Napo, Orellana) in Waorani territory; to provide adequate and sufficient medical supplies to local community health centres; and, to provide adequate and culturally relevant information to the Waorani throughout the pandemic. The resolution also requires provincial governors to coordinate with the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion (MIES) to provide food and essential supplies to Waorani communities.

The lawsuit, filed on May 21st 2020, was directed at Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno and Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner, as the legal representative and delegate, respectively, of the National Emergencies Operations Committee (COE), the Ministry of Health, the Secretariat of Human Rights,the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Attorney General. In a public statement at the time of filing the lawsuit, the Waorani emphasized that their actions were aimed first and foremost at protecting their elders or “Pekinani”, as well as their uncontacted relatives living in voluntary isolation within the Tagaeri Taromenane “Intangible” or Untouchable Zone (ZITT) in Yasuní National Park.

One of the Waorani’s key unanswered demands is an immediate moratorium on all extractive activities in their territory, due to the early appearance of COVID-19 infection in Waorani communities closest to oil roads and active operations. Despite increased risks to exposure since the onset of the pandemic, oil operations and legal and illegal logging within their territory have continued and have the potential to spread towards uncontacted peoples deeper within the territory. While the judge did not rule in favor of a moratorium, the ruling requires the Ministry of Environment and Water to send a report within eight days detailing its monitoring of illegal mining, logging and narco-trafficking in Waorani territory. The Ministry of Environment and Water and the Secretariat of Human Rights are also required to provide information on the COVID-19 protocols of companies, especially oil companies, operating within Waorani territory in order to establish whether adequate health and safety measures are in place to prevent further contagion in Waorani communities.

The Waorani nation, who number approximately five thousand, has registered at least 188 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to date and two Waorani people, including one elder, have already died. The Waorani have self-organized with the help of universities, indigenous coalitions and civil society allies to confront the health crisis in their territory.

With regards to the above developments, the President of the Waorani nation, Gilberto Nenquimo, issued the following statement:
“Today, Ecuadorian justice ruled in favor of our request for precautionary measures in the face of government inaction during this pandemic. The Waorani people and our uncontacted relatives are in great danger as the virus continues to spread rapidly across the Amazon. Unfortunately, the government’s response has been inadequate and they have not coordinated with our leadership. We are glad that the judge ordered precautionary measures, but we must remain vigilant. Although this is a positive step forward, we feel a deep sadness in our hearts as a Waorani leader from the Dikaro community in Yasuní died from COVID-19 yesterday. This demonstrates yet again, the grave risk we face as Waorani people.”

Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo, who helped to lead her people’s historic victory against oil companies last year, affirms: “We have fought for thousands of years to defend our territory and our lives against multiple threats: conquistadors, rubber tappers, loggers, and then the oil companies. Now, we are fighting against the threat of COVID-19 with our ancient wisdom, our knowledge of medicinal plants, and our own health protocols. But the State is putting the lives of our Pikenani (traditional authorities, wise people) and our uncontacted relatives at risk. Our demand for a moratorium on oil operations has not been respected. It’s obvious that the State is prioritizing resource extraction on our territory over saving our lives. We are happy to have won these precautionary measures but there is still a lot to do in order to protect our people. The State must listen to us and respect us.”

For more information, to coordinate interviews with Waorani leaders or other questions, contact:​
Sophie Pinchetti sophie@amazonfrontlines.org +593 98 148 4873