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Court dismisses Ecuadorian government bid to shut down environmental NGO

  • The San Carlos-Panantza copper project in the Cordillera del Cóndor, south of the Ecuadorian Amazon, has given rise to numerous conflicts between the Chinese mining company EXSA and the Shuar indigenous community, which both claim rights to the land.
  • Ecuador’s leading environmental group, Acción Ecológica, has raised concerns about the government’s actions in dealing with the conflicts that have arisen from the San Carlos-Panantza mine.
  • The Ecuadorian Government attempted to close Acción Ecológica, generating criticism from the international community.
  • On January 11, a hearing was held against Acción Ecológica at the premises of the Ministry of Environment; a day later, the request for dissolution was dismissed.

In the Cordillera del Cóndor mountains of southern Ecuador, a copper mining project has incited numerous confrontations between Chinese mining company EXSA and the Shuar indigenous community, which both claim rights to the land. Ecuador’s leading environmental group, Acción Ecológica, has also raised concerns about the government’s actions in dealing with the conflicts that have arisen from the  San Carlos-Panantza mine.

The Ecuadorian Ministry of Interior subsequently requested the immediate dissolution of Acción Ecológica.

The government blamed the organization for supporting the Shuar communities’ acts of violence via social media in the conflict zone. The closure process began on December 20 with a notification to the NGO, triggering reactions at the national and international level. One of these reactions came in the form of a letter from a group of UN rapporteurs issued at the end of December, which questioned what they saw as the “repression” of civil organizations in the country.

“It seems Ecuador’s government is systematically dissolving organizations when they become too vocal or challenge official orthodoxy (…) The direct consequences are the progressive silencing of any group that challenges or offers alternative ideas to those of the government and, therefore, reduces the visibility of the situation of vulnerable and marginalized people,” the rapporteurs wrote in their letter. They concluded that the dissolution of groups is “the most severe type of restriction on freedom of association.”

In a statement, Ecuador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the letter as “tendentious” and claimed it distorted the situation in Morona Santiago.

UN experts had already criticized the regime for shutting down the ecological organization Pachamama, the National Union of Educators – the strongest guild of teachers in 66 years – and attempting to dissolve the NGO Fundamedios. All in a period of three years. In the case of Pachamama, the closure came shortly after a protest against the eleventh round of bidding for 13 oil fields was held in Quito, which involved officials and foreign businessmen. President Correa attributed the protest to the NGO and blamed them for insulting and beating the Chilean ambassador with a spear. Pachamama protested against what they called a unilateral action without the right to defend itself.

On January 11, a hearing was held at the premises of the Ministry of Environment. During the proceedings, Acción Ecológica denounced dozens of attacks against the organization and its members during the last ten years.

A day later, the request for dissolution was dismissed.

“It was ruled that there was no relationship between the events of violence in the Cordillera del Cóndor and the messages that Acción Ecológica spread,” President Esperanza Martinez told Mongabay-Latam. She insisted on the need for a Truth Commission to investigate the mining conflict and “what has happened with the previous consultation, with the conservation areas, rivers, and what have been the actions or omissions by the state.”
When asked if Acción Ecológica would tone it down after the threat of dissolution, Martinez said no.

“It is not a problem of tone but commitments, and either you are, or you are not in solidarity, you participate or not participate,” she said. “Our goals are to alert about environmental problems and defend nature. Otherwise, we are not complying with our goals.”

Banner image of the Cordillera del Cóndor. Photo by Conaie

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on January 17, 2016.