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In Ecuador, a pipeline cuts a trail of misery through indigenous land

  • The construction of an oil pipeline without the necessary permits has led to the destruction of the ancestral forests of the Siona indigenous community in San José de Wisuyá on the shores of the Putumayo River between Ecuador and Colombia.
  • The project has had far-reaching effects on the community’s long-held cultural traditions and practices, including the loss of medicinal plants and pollution of water sources.
  • For more than two years, the community has sought reparations from the companies that constructed the oil pipeline, but the state ombudsman and the Ministry of Environment have yet to provide a definitive resolution.

SAN JOSÉ DE WISUYÁ, Ecuador — One morning in November 2015, one of the elders, or taitas, of the Siona indigenous community in San José de Wisuyá, in Ecuador’s Sucumbíos province, heard strange noises in the rainforest near his home. When he went to see what was happening, he found a team of workers using machinery to clear the forest to create an access road. “It was all knocked down near his house. They didn’t leave anything,” says one of the leaders of the community, located by the Putumayo River, which separates Ecuador and Colombia in the Amazon.

The workers gave no explanation, but the discovery of their work was the beginning of a series of complaints from the Siona community against the oil companies Amerisur Resources and PetroAmazonas. Amerisur is a British company that operates in Colombia, and PetroAmazonas is a state-owned Ecuadoran company that searches for and extracts oil. Members of the Siona community say the companies’ work has caused environmental damage that has also led to spiritual harm. More than two years after the Siona community complained about this invasion of their territory, neither the Ministry of Environment, the state ombudsman, nor the local ombudsman (defensor del pueblo), have resolved their case.

Silence from the oil companies

Amerisur has operated in Colombia since 2003, and one of the oil fields that it works, Platanillo, is located in the department of Putumayo, across the border from Ecuador. The Platanillo oil field has a long history of armed conflict. Amerisur initially used tanker trucks to move crude oil from Platanillo to pumping facilities in the Colombian municipalities of Mocoa and Neiva, according to María Espinosa, a human rights defender and legal adviser to the Siona community. Each trip to Mocoa meant traveling over 150 kilometers (93 miles) to the north, while journeys to Neiva exceeded 400 kilometers (250 miles).

A source, who asked to remain anonymous, says the trips were difficult. To pass through the area, the truck drivers had to pay bribes to armed Colombian groups that operated there. Over time, these bribes increased, and when Amerisur refused to pay, several tanker trucks were set on fire, according to the source. Mongabay Latam contacted Amerisur to confirm whether this happened but has yet to receive a response.

Oil is present in the community of San José de Wisuyá. In this photo, an oil pipeline owned by PetroAmazonas crosses the San Miguel River toward San José de Wisuyá. Image by Mateo Barriga Salazar.

Espinosa also says the mode of transportation used “was not profitable because of the insufficient capacities of the tanker trucks and of the storage tanks.” For this reason, Amerisur proposed to PetroAmazonas the construction of an oil pipeline that would cross below the Putumayo River, emerging on the Ecuadoran side, to pump crude oil into Ecuador’s distribution network.

“The pipelines are being used at 70 percent capacity in Ecuador,” Espinosa says. According to an agreement signed by both oil companies on June 11, 2015, the pipeline would be an expansion of the Amazon District Oil Pipeline Network (RODA) operated by PetroAmazonas. Amerisur would construct the pipeline on both sides of the border and connect it to PetroAmazonas’s portion on the Ecuadoran side. The crude oil extracted in Platanillo by Amerisur would be delivered to the Lago Agrio station, to the center of the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System (SOTE), or to the Amazonas Terminal of the Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline (OCP). Amerisur would pay PetroAmazonas a tariff of $1.09 per barrel of oil for the use of the RODA.

The cross-border pipeline could turn out to be a thriftier solution than continuing to transport the oil by tanker or constructing a pipeline within Colombia itself. The presence of the armed groups meant building a pipeline in Colombia wasn’t feasible, Espinosa says. “It was more profitable for the company to cross underneath the Putumayo River, come above land on the Ecuadoran side, and move the production to Ecuador,” she says.

In the agreement between the two companies, PetroAmazonas assumed an obligation to “the relations with the local communities.” The company also agreed to obtain all the licenses required by Ecuadoran law. Among them is an environmental license — permission granted by the Ministry of Environment before the execution of any project to prevent, mitigate or correct any unexpected environmental impact.

On the day that the Siona elder found the Amerisur workers cutting down ancestral trees and invading territory that the Siona consider sacred, the construction of the oil pipeline did not have that permission.

Darwin Rodríguez, a member of the San José de Wisuyá community, inspects the oil spilled by machinery owned by PetroAmazonas and Amerisur during the construction of the oil pipeline in December 2015. Image by Alonso Aguinda.

Like Amerisur, PetroAmazonas did not immediately respond to Mongabay Latam’s requests for an interview. Espinosa says Amerisur claims the land where the pipeline emerges in Ecuador does not belong to the community, and that it has private authorization from the owner of the land. “Here there is a big debate. The community does not have a property title because no one in the area owns it,” Espinosa says. Because the area is near the border, she says, there are several limitations to their tenure.

In 2010, without prior consultation, the Siona territory was included in a protected forest called the Cuembí Triangle, an area between the San Miguel and Putumayo rivers on the border with Colombia. Members of the Siona community, as well as of the Kichwa community, who also live in the area, are opposed to this designation because it interferes with their ancestral cultural practices. According to the Federation of Organizations of Kichwa Nationality of Sucumbios (FONAKISE), the designation limits “the traditional activities that the Indigenous communities conduct in their territories.”

Espinosa says that although there is no formal land demarcation, “their limits are outlined and agreed upon with the neighboring communities. There is a life plan [plan de vida] laid out within the Siona community that delimits their territory cartographically.” According to Espinosa, Amerisur received authorization for the project from the community of Chíparos, which is adjacent to the community of San José de Wisuyá. Chíparos is home to Mestizo, Kichwa and some Siona families who have been displaced by violence on the Colombian side of the border. With this authorization, according to Espinosa, Amerisur entered the Siona territory, even though it did not have permission: “[The people] who give the authorization are Mestizo people who border the ancestral Siona territory.”

Schemes without answers

To obtain an environmental license, an environmental impact study needs to be carried out. According to the Constitution of Ecuador, that study needs to pass through a prior consultation process in order to be approved. This prior consultation is the right of “the Indigenous communes, communities, towns and nationalities to be informed and consulted in a reasonable time period, about plans and programs for the exploration, mining and commercialization of nonrenewable resources that are found on their lands and which could affect them environmentally or culturally; [and to] participate in the benefits that those projects yield and receive compensation for the social, cultural and environmental damages that they may cause.”

When they saw that part of their forest had been cut down, the Siona community submitted a complaint to the Ministry of Environment, which then opened a case for illegal logging. On March 15, 2016, Jorge Salazar, an official with the ministry’s management team for Sucumbíos province, conducted an inspection of the indigenous territory in San José de Wisuyá to confirm whether ancestral forest had been cut down. The goal of the visit was to gather information on the environmental conditions of the affected area, to evaluate compliance with the environmental regulations, and to create a report for the affected Siona community and for PetroAmazonas.

The oil pipeline constructed by PetroAmazonas and Amerisur and the deforested area within the San José de Wisuyá community. Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2015. Image by Alonso Aguinda.

One month later, Salazar presented the report with eight conclusions, in which he found noncompliance with current environmental regulations: “The project ‘Expansion of the RODA for the Evacuation of Crude Oil from Platanillo Field to VHR Station Block 58’ does not possess an environmental license granted by the Ministry of Environment.” The pipeline went on line in April 2016, moving crude from Colombia into Ecuador. A month later, on May 24, 2016, PetroAmazonas admitted before the Public Defender that it had carried out the prior consultation between November 2015 and January 2016 — well after construction of the pipeline began, and just months before it went into operation.

Two years later, in May 2018, the Ministry of Environment confirmed in a letter to Mongabay Latam that it was not until Jan. 29, 2016, that the environmental impact study for the expansion of the RODA was approved. After this approval, according to the letter, the project was granted “on February 4, 2016, the environmental license for the project ‘Evacuation of Crude Oil from Platanillo Field to VHR Station Block 58,’ located in Sucumbíos Province.”

Another of Salazar’s conclusions from his inspection was that 3,000 square meters (about 32,300 square feet) of primary forest, an area the size of nearly seven basketball courts, had been removed from the San José de Wisuyá community’s territory. The report also told of the alteration of the landscape by the “introduction of infrastructure into the environment.”

The report was refuted by PetroAmazonas and brought to the national office of the Ministry of Environment in Quito, where it still awaits resolution. On May 23 this year, a delegation from San José de Wisuyá met with the deputy secretary of environmental quality, Jorge Jurado, in the hope that a decision was on the horizon.

Others present included Jéssica Coronel Carvajal, the ministry’s forestry director, and the ministry’s legal representatives in charge of deciding the case. The conversation was filmed.

Elders from the San José de Wisuyá community, including Pablo Maniguaje, LaureanoPiaguaje, Hermogenes Piaguaje and FelintoPiaguaje, gather before meeting officials from the Ministry of Environment, the local ombudsman, PetroAmazonas and Amerisur on Aug. 25, 2016. Image courtesy of Amazon Frontlines.

Leaders from the indigenous community and Espinosa presented their original complaint and their subsequent grievance about a delayed solution. According to Espinosa, Amerisur has said that it fixed the damage caused by cutting down the forest through a reforestation process. But the supposed remediation was ineffective: of the 150 species planted in the reforestation, 70 percent were not endemic to the area. Additionally, the new trees “do not correspond with the immaterial conditions and the spiritual value” of the trees that were cut down. The Siona people said the oil company never consulted them to ask which species should be planted. For them, that amplifies the damage done.

Legal officials from the Ministry of Environment said there were two cases against PetroAmazonas for environmental violations in Siona territory: one for illegal deforestation and the other for the violation of environmental quality regulations. Both cases already have some initial solutions. For the first case, PetroAmazonas was ordered to pay a token fine of $40 per illegally logged tree, as well as $9,000 for reparations. For the second case, PetroAmazonas has also been ordered to pay $73,000 in fines. The company is appealing both rulings.

The officials also said PetroAmazonas was protected through what is known as an “ex-post license,” issued after a project has started. Espinosa interrupted the statement of one of the Ministry of Environment lawyers to ask if a lawsuit would be initiated for the work having started without an environmental license. The lawyer told her that could only be judged upon evaluating the damage done.

The conversation turned into a volley of legal and technical arguments. Espinosa said it was illogical to begin work without an environmental license, obtain it later, and then remain unpunished; she said the simple act of beginning a project without complying with this requirement should warrant sanctions. The officials said they could only act upon existing complaints, but that a new investigation could be opened to determine why officials at the time did not act more quickly. Jurado, the deputy secretary, said that what Espinosa said made sense, and that he expected the two cases to be resolved within the next 15 days. Since then, time has marched on and the situation remains the same.

Community elder Humberto Piaguaje cleanses a guard from the indigenous tribe after an ayahuasca ceremony in San José de Wisuyá in March 2018. The elders offer spiritual protection to the guards. Image by Mateo Barriga Salazar.

Newfound hope

In early 2016, in addition to turning to the Ministry of Environment, the Siona people went to the local ombudsman’s office for legal support in their complaint against the oil companies. The ombudsman is mandated to promote and protect “the rights of the people, communities, towns, nationalities and collectives that inhabit the country, of Ecuadorans and Ecuadorans abroad, and the rights of nature.”

However, Espinosa says it failed to meet this mandate in the case of San José de Wisuyá: “The ombudsman of Lago Agrio did not attend to the complaint. The community was obligated to move their complaint to Quito, before the national ombudsman [Defensor Nacional], which is where it has been for more than two years.” Even then, the case remains unresolved by the higher authority, according to Espinosa. “It is a large document because we have requested several procedures and asked for several documents,” she says. In October 2017, the national ombudsman told them it was important to have an anthropological report that demonstrated the damages, “but they told us that they did not have the money to do the report, [and] that if the community could cover the cost it could be done. Fortunately, the community paid for it and the report was submitted one month ago.”

On May 3 this year, the national ombudsman’s office had a leadership change. Ramiro Rivadeneira left office and was replaced by Gina Benavides, a respected human rights activist. They also added other new officials. All of these changes were brought about because of a change implemented by the Transitory Council for Public Participation of Ecuador, an organization created by a referendum on Feb. 4.

In this referendum, Ecuador voted in favor of questions proposed by President Lenín Moreno. One of them, perhaps the most controversial, sought to dismiss the Council for Public Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), the organization that appointed authorities to their areas of control in Ecuador. The former CPCCS had been criticized by civil society organizations and certain politicians for appointing people close to the PAIS Alliance, the political party led by former president Rafael Correa. This led civil society groups to doubt its independence. With the approval of this vote, the former CPCCS was closed and the new organization began work immediately: one of its decisions was to evaluate and dismiss Rivadeneira because he was considered to have failed to meet the obligations of the ombudsman’s office.

Darwin Rodríguez shows an ayahuasca plant (Banisteriopsis caapi) destroyed by the construction work by PetroAmazonas and Amerisur in December 2015. Image by Alonso Aguinda.

After the overhaul, Benavides brought in a new team, and 15 days later the Siona were already in the ombudsman’s office in Quito. They met with the assistant defender of human rights and nature, Francisco Hurtado Caicedo, to whom they complained about living in “government neglect.” Hurtado apologized on behalf of the ombudsman’s office and said that, in this case, the institution had not complied with its duty since 2015. He also said there would be reparations and that they would be formulated by members of the Siona community itself, “the only [group] that can express and evaluate the damages.”

While the May 2018 meetings between the Siona people, the National Defender and the Ministry of Environment were encouraging, there have been no concrete results since then.

The road left untraveled

The report by Jorge Salazar from the Ministry of Environment gives an account of what is, perhaps, the worst part of the harm that the Siona have suffered: the razing of plants, including ayahuasca, or yagé, that the community of San José de Wisuyá use for medicinal purposes in their cultural practices.

The Siona, like many other indigenous nations in Ecuador, have had to balance their ancestral authority with politics. The former is exercised by the elders in the community, and the latter is in the hands of the authorities elected to serve as a link with the government of Ecuador.

The elders use their ancestral knowledge to guide the political authorities. To them, the harm caused by the transboundary oil pipeline goes beyond environmental damage. “When we take the sacred yagé, it is to look around and understand,” says elder Pablo Manihuaje, the ultimate authority in San José de Wisuyá. “So, for example, we have a governor who we cleanse and give more knowledge to so that he can stay protected, so that he has good energy, so that he speaks well of what we need in our life, in our land.”

Taita Humberto Piaguaje, a member of the San José de Wisuyá community, next to the Putumayo River in March 2018. Image by Mateo Barriga Salazar.

Manihuaje also says the noise of the machinery interferes with their rituals. “We need silence to concentrate and so that our spirits can go through space, traveling through the territory, understanding how things are. That way, we acquire knowledge of what there is, of what there was, of our wealth, our animals, our fish, our rivers, and our seeds to be able to serve humanity.”

Additionally, Amerisur’s work has contaminated a source of water that was used to prepare the ayahuasca; it appears to have been plugged by waste products from the construction of the oil pipeline. “Now dirty water comes down, which produces defective medicine,” says one of the community’s leaders. “This stops the taitas [elders] from being able to take the yagé. When the water is contaminated, there are no visions; we are left in the darkness. They cut off the energy from the sacred remedy.”

Two years have passed since this contamination began. That means two years since elder Felinto Piaguaje has been able to prepare or drink the ayahuasca. For two years, the Siona community’s legal complaint has been stuck in the twists and turns of the bureaucratic system. Two years have passed without answers from the Ministry of Environment, the ombudsman’s office, Amerisur or PetroAmazonas. For now, the Siona wait for the case to be resolved by the Ministry of Environment.

But even if it’s resolved soon in favor of the community, the oil companies can still appeal them before a court, among other legal recourses. The hope of the Siona community is for a definitive reparation for the damage that has been done, without losing any more time.

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