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Indigenous peoples denounce ongoing land rights violations in Ecuador

Indigenous women march in Puyo, Ecuador on March 8, 2018. Photo by Kimberley Brown/Mongabay.

Indigenous women march in Puyo, Ecuador on March 8, 2018. Photo by Kimberley Brown/Mongabay.

  • Indigenous leaders in Ecuador say that a lack of progress toward addressing key issues stands in the way of their fundamental territorial rights.
  • Concerns include resource extraction projects initiated without proper prior consent and consultation, as well as the activation of several mining and oil concessions in Ecuador.
  • The outcry comes at a time when indigenous peoples are increasingly being recognized as key partners in ensuring the protection of the world’s tropical forests.

Indigenous people in Ecuador say their territorial rights are being systematically violated, according to a top United Nations official. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, is urging the Ecuadoran government to form a “truly plurinational and multicultural society” in accordance with its constitution and international law.

Indigenous leaders cite a lack of progress toward addressing key problems impeding their fundamental rights, according to Tauli-Corpuz. That includes a lack of free and informed prior consent before implementing resource extraction projects. The leaders are also concerned about the activation of several mining and oil concessions.

While Tauli-Corpuz has praised the current Ecuadoran government for advancing constructive dialogues with indigenous people over territorial rights, she criticized it for maintaining a status quo established by predecessors that failed to recognize, respect or protect the fundamental rights of indigenous communities.

“The future of Ecuador’s indigenous people as well as the country’s forest ecosystems are at stake,” Tauli-Corpuz said in an interview with Mongabay. “The government has eliminated the autonomous institutions within the state that represented indigenous people, which means the national development plan is being developed without meaningful participation on the part of the indigenous.”

During a recent trip to Ecuador, Tauli-Corpuz met with the country’s top officials, including President Lenín Moreno, high-ranking ministers, and representatives from the legislative and judicial bodies.

Indigenous women march in Puyo, Ecuador on March 8, 2018. Photo by Kimberley Brown/Mongabay.
Indigenous women march in Puyo, Ecuador on March 8, 2018. Photo by Kimberley Brown/Mongabay.

The former president, Rafael Correa, borrowed billions of dollars from China to pursue his national development agenda from 2007 to 2017. That left Moreno with a massive budget deficit when he took office last year. To close the deficit, Ecuador signed contracts worth $1.6 billion in October to increase oil production at sites in the northeastern Amazon basin. The country is expected to increase metal mining investment from $1.1 billion this year to $7.9 billion in 2021, according to a BMI Research report.

“The government feels that the country is in an economic crisis with high debt,” Tauli-Corpuz said. “Therefore they’re pushing economic ventures to raise revenue to pay off their foreign debt.”

On her trip, Tauli-Corpuz reviewed a report put together by indigenous leaders that covered five emblematic cases in the Amazon Basin involving Chinese capital and investment. The extractive projects and infrastructure covered in the report were carried out without adequate human rights protection of indigenous peoples in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Brazil, creating concerns over China’s rising influence in the region.

Mining and oil threats

After visiting several indigenous territories around the country, Tauli-Corpuz said mining and oil extraction were the main threats to indigenous peoples, although agribusiness expansion and large-scale infrastructure projects also endangered their communities.

She cited the case of an older woman she met from an indigenous community, who told her she had been given just five minutes to clear out after being notified of her family’s eviction. Her home was bulldozed before she could get her children to come help her move her belongings, Tauli-Corpuz said.

“When the military and police arrive, the indigenous people are subjected to inhuman treatment as they are forced to leave land they have lived in for time immemorial,” she added.

Deforestation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo by Jeremy Hance

Although the security situation for indigenous communities has reportedly improved slightly in recent years, Tauli-Corpuz said indigenous peoples had complained to her about armed groups threatening and even assassinating land rights defenders with impunity for standing up to extractive industries such as gold mining. She pointed to the example of indigenous leader José Tendetza, a prominent critic of the Mirador gold mine operating on Shuar indigenous territory. His battered body was found floating in a river in 2014 and showed signs of him having been tortured and beaten.

“The perpetrators of that crime have never been brought to justice,” Tauli-Corpuz said.

Indigenous peoples have also demanded amnesty for land rights defenders held by the state after opposing extraction projects in their territories, Tauli-Corpuz said. Seven pardons and one amnesty have been granted to indigenous human rights defenders to date, and the government is considering a simplified process to grant 137 additional pending petitions.

Tauli-Corpuz called on the government to meet its commitments under its own 2008 constitution to fully recognize and implement “indigenous peoples’ rights in accordance with international human rights law.”

“Protection of rights of nature cannot be achieved without protection of stewards,” she said.

Indigenous land rights and climate change

A report released in November showed that countries are not on target to meet the 2020 goal of the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), which aims to halve global deforestation by 2020 and eliminate deforestation by 2030. The average annual rate of natural forest loss is 42 percent higher than in the previous decade.

According to the latest NYDF Goal 10 report, co-authored by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), studies have shown territories where indigenous rights are legally recognized have lower rates of deforestation than lands beyond their borders.

The Goal 10 report pointed to a study released this year that found that between 2000 and 2012, rates of deforestation inside legally recognized indigenous communities in the Brazilian Amazon were seven times lower than in lands beyond these borders. In the Colombian Amazon, the rates were three times lower.

Global forest programs such as REDD, or reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, have yet to invest substantially in the protection of land rights for indigenous communities, according to RRI spokesman Andy White. The REDD program was first negotiated under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2005.

“The problem was that the REDD program was first developed by ministries of environment in Europe,” White said. “From there, REDD mostly went to work with the ministries of environment in the tropical countries but it hasn’t really dealt with land rights as of yet.”

White said protecting and restoring the world’s forests could produce natural solutions to climate change impacts, and would go over 30 percent of the way to achieving the cost-effective mitigation necessary to bring down runaway carbon emissions.

“In a world where it has become a global priority to protect global forests, research shows that indigenous people do a better job at protecting forests than governments do,” he said. “We aren’t going be able to solve the climate change problem without protecting indigenous rights.”

Multiple attempts to reach Ecuador’s Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources for comment by email and telephone before publication were unsuccessful.

Banner image: Indigenous women march in Puyo, Ecuador on March 8, 2018. Photo by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article noted that the battered body of José Tendetza, a prominent critic of the Mirador gold mine operating on Shuar indigenous territory, was found in an unmarked grave in 2014. Tendetza’s body was found floating in a river and showed signs of torture and beating. Mongabay regrets the error.  

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