- The indigenous Waorani community filed a lawsuit against the Ecuadoran government in February for allegedly failing to properly consult with them before attempting to auction off Waorani land for oil drilling.
- At their first hearing, on March 13, Waorani women sang in the courtroom and refused to let the hearing go on, until finally the judge deferred it.
- The Waorani women were protesting what they felt was a rushed hearing held in the city of Puyo rather than in their territory in the Amazon, and the lack of a community-approved translator.
Indigenous Waorani women broke into song in an Ecuadoran court in Puyo on March 13, shutting down a high-stakes hearing in their lawsuit against the government.
The women were protesting what they felt was a rushed hearing held in the Amazon city of Puyo, rather than in their territory as they had requested, and the lack of an official translator. Both of these circumstances left the community “defenseless,” say their lawyers.
“The plaintiffs weren’t able to understand what was going on in court or the decisions that were being made that once again are going to impact their lives,” Brian Parker, one of the Waorani’s legal advisers, told Mongabay via telephone.
In February, the Waorani community co-filed with the Ecuadoran Ombudsman a lawsuit against the government for failing to conduct a proper consultation process with the community before attempting to sell their land in an oil auction. The lawsuit was filed against the Ecuadoran Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, the Secretary of Hydrocarbons, and the Ministry of Environment.
Under national and international law, the government must seek the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of communities that could be affected by extraction projects on or near their territory.
But according to the Waorani, a consultation process conducted by the Ministry of Hydrocarbons in 2012 only explained the economic benefits of oil and failed to warn the community about the negative repercussions of oil extraction in their territory. The government then included the Waorani territory in an international oil auction. In 2018, the government significantly reduced this auction, removing Block 22 that overlaps with Waorani territory, but warned that the region is not exempt from future drilling plans.
The hearing on March 13 was the first scheduled for the lawsuit, but was seen as “unfair and discriminatory,” according to a press release by Amazon Frontlines, one of the nongovernmental organizations helping the Waorani with their legal case.
According to Parker, the judge, Esperanza del Pilar Araujo Escobar, denied a request by the community on the night of March 11 to have the hearing in their territory in the Amazon rainforest, and obliged proceedings to continue in Puyo two days later. This put the Waorani community at a major disadvantage, as many of the community elders and other witnesses weren’t able to travel to the city on time.
There are no roads in the Waorani territory, and the only method of transportation is an expensive charter plane, canoe, or by foot.
There was also no community-approved translator at the hearing on Wednesday, which meant many members of the Waorani community who did arrive on time were not able to understand the proceedings.
The community says they need a translator they recognize and approve, saying there is a conflict of interest with the court-approved translator, who is running in regional elections this year. The judge has already denied a candidate that the community has put forward, saying the translator cannot be from any of the 16 communities behind the lawsuit.
“This is a country that calls itself intercultural and plurinational but in practice the Western ways dominate and will not budge to accommodate the Waorani culture and the Waorani ways,” Parker said.
The Waorani women began singing a traditional song as the hearing was about to begin, and continued until the judged ruled to suspend the hearing, Parker said. Amazon Frontlines captured footage from the courtroom of the singing.
“Our fight is not just a fight about oil. This is a fight about different ways of living. One that protects life and one that destroys life,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, Waorani leader and president of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador–Pastaza (CONCONAWEP), in the press release.
A new date has not yet been set to hear the lawsuit, nor was it clear if the judge would take into consideration the Waorani’s requests.
Judge Araujo Escobar did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment by the time of publication.
Banner image: Waorani women in Puyo at court proceedings. Photo by Sophie Pinchetti for Amazon Frontlines.
About the reporter: Kimberley Brown is a Quito, Ecuador-based freelance multimedia journalist. You can find her on Twitter at @KimberleyJBrown.
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