On November 15th 2021, just days after the COP26 climate conference ended, Ecuador’s Indigenous movement hosted judges from the country’s highest court for a historic hearing deep in Indigenous Amazonian territory, a first in Ecuadorian history. Indigenous leaders from across the nation, as well as government officials (opponents in the original case), presented oral arguments as the Court looks to set national precedent on perhaps the two most important rights for Indigenous guardianship of our planet’s largest rainforest.
As detailed in a communication published yesterday by Ecuador’s Indigenous Movement, the case concerns first, “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 second, “the Rights of Nature, that is to say, the right of rivers, forests, mountains, and animals to exist without threats, contamination or destruction.” With 70% of the Ecuadorian Amazon in Indigenous hands and a new conservative ex-banker President promising to double oil production and rapidly expand mining in the Amazon, this ruling could be a game-changer.
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The high-stakes hearing took place in the A’i Kofan community of Sinangoe, whose 2018 lower-court victory canceled 52 gold-mining concessions along one of the country’s most important Amazonian headwaters. The A’i Kofán, a legendary Indigenous group known for their healing powers, river navigation skills, and stewardship of one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in Ecuador, hosted hundreds of Indigenous leaders, elders and youth from across the country with a clear message: “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.”
The A’i Kofán of Sinangoe are a fishing, hunting and gathering nation, intimately connected to their territory and known as great ayahuasca healers.
Their 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.”
Five of the nine judges of the Court crossed the Aguarico River and participated in a traditional harmonization ceremony before connecting to satellite internet and initiating the official 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 Ministries, like the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, participated in the hearing online.
Leaders from across the country, especially the Amazon, traveled to the hearing to present a unified front against extractivism in their territories without their consent. Indigenous leaders presented briefs and testimony to the Court detailing a long and systematic history of rights violations.
Wider Gauramag, Coordinator of the Indigenous guardia of Sinangoe pictured above in coordination with the Court’s police escort, 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 A’i 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.”
“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.”
“Our land is everything. For us and for you. There we have everything. Fish, animals, medicine. You eat from the market in the city, we eat from the forest.”She added:“When we say ‘no’ that means no. I am the authority of my territory, as you are the authorities in the city.”
“My Nation, the Siekopai, have only 600 people left here in Ecuador. We want to continue to exist, and not fall into extinction like so many other Indigenous cultures in history.We must have the right to decide our future and we must guarantee the Rights of Nature. Because it’s not just my people that face extinction: the world is facing profound climate change, and a point-of-no-return.”
Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the Rights of Nature into its Constitution in 2008, giving citizens the possibility to sue on behalf of trees, rivers or animals. This case presents an opportunity for the Constitutional Court to recognize, among other things, how the rights of a fragile river ecosystem trump government plans for mining or oil that could destroy that river
Sinangoe’s lawyer Maria Espinosa of Amazon Frontlines, argued to the Court that the government’s history of systematic rights violations show that “the current practice of consulting Indigenous communities before extractive projects but not recognizing their right to say “no” violates their right to self-determination” and puts many at risk of physical and cultural extermination.
As Sinangoe and Ecuador’s Indigenous Movement’s published statement yesterday says, “The resolution of this case by the Constitutional 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 and stop deforestation 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 (which was recently challenged by Indigenous peoples in Court).”
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.
When the judges cut the hearing short, Indigenous leaders took immediate action, installing a General Assembly on-site to continue listening to testimonies. The Assembly resolved to maintain in constant vigilance until the Court publishes a ruling and called on the national government to freeze all future concessions or licences for extractive industries until the Court rules.
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