- Unrest over environmental issues was at the fore of October’s national strike in Ecuador precipitated by economic difficulties, with strong opposition to the expansion of resource extraction.
- The country experienced a mixed 2019 on the environmental front, with indigenous groups winning court rulings to oppose large extraction projects on their land.
- There were also setbacks, however, including lack of compliance on a 2018 referendum to make greater room for uncontacted tribes in Yasuní National Park; persistent criminalization of indigenous activists and environmental defenders; and massive budget cuts for environmental agencies.
For Ecuador, 2019 was a critical year for court decisions regarding environmental and social issues.
At the end of 2018, the courts set precedent by ruling in favor of the Cofán indigenous people of Sinangoe, who were opposed to illegal mining activities in their ancestral territory. In July 2019, the courts ruled again in favor of another indigenous people, the Waorani, who opposed the exploitation of an oil exploration concession, Block 22, on their land. Two months later, the Ecuadoran courts stopped a hydroelectric project on the Piatúa River in indigenous Kichwa territory, as it did not comply with the requirement of prior consultation and it was shown there had been corruption by a judge.
Despite these advances, compliance with a popular referendum from February 2018 regarding resource exploitation in Yasuní National Park has not materialized. Reports indicate that deforestation exceeded the maximum allowed in the park. In addition, the order expanding the intangible area where isolated indigenous peoples are located created controversy, as the expansion would eat into indigenous Waorani territory.
Then a national strike took place in October, and President Lenín Moreno’s government declared a state of emergency for several days. The strike demonstrated that on top of the economic crisis, there are serious issues pending with regard to the environment. One of them is the criminalization of the country’s social and environmental leaders, a practice that continues to be used to repress social protest. So what were the main environmental issues still pending in Ecuador at the end of 2019?
Contested: The Yasuní park controversy
The popular referendum of February 2018 asked Ecuadorans if they agreed to increase the intangible area for isolated indigenous peoples in Yasuní National Park by at least 50,000 hectares (approximately 123,600 acres) and reduce the area of oil exploitation authorized by the National Assembly from 1,030 ha to 300 ha (approximately 2,550 to 740 acres). The citizens answered “yes,” but almost two years later, compliance with the decision remains uncertain.
President Moreno issued a decree in which he claimed to comply with the referendum, but its contents surprised social, environmental and indigenous leaders. Article 3 of the decree states that “inside the buffer zone [of the intangible area] it is prohibited to carry out new infrastructure works such as highways, hydroelectric power stations, petroleum facilities centers, and other works that technical or environmental impact studies find to be incompatible with the objective of the intangible area. An exception to the prohibition in Article 3 is made for oil drilling and production platforms.”
Ecuador’s minister of the environment at that time, Marcelo Mata, said that although oil platforms and well drilling are allowed in the buffer zone — including inside the contentious ITT oil block — the government will not do so and “future governments will decide if they allow it or not.”
The controversy goes beyond the blocks and oil wells. For the Waorani people, Decree 751 would take part of their territory, since the expansion of the intangible area and its buffer zone would take their land. “This was done without any protocol for prior consultation,” said Benito Bonilla of Fundación Pachamama.
Esperanza Martínez, leader of the Acción Ecológica organization, says the government’s response is unconstitutional. “Instead of expanding the isolated peoples’ protected area into where the Yasuní oil is located and which we want to leave in the ground, they are expanding it into the land of the Waorani people.” A lawsuit challenging the decree’s constitutionality is currently in progress.
The Waorani people are not the only critics. According to a report from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), an initiative of the Amazon Conservation Association and ACCA Conservación Amazónica, more than 300 ha have already been deforested with authorization. The report records a deforested area of more than 400 ha (approximately 990 acres) related to oil activities across Yasuní National Park.
“Of this total, we calculate a direct deforestation of 57.3 hectares [142 acres] for platforms and roads in the controversial ITT Block and Block 31,” said Matt Finer, the MAAP director. “Further, incorporating the edge effects caused by deforestation” — impacts that extend into the surrounding forest beyond the deforestation’s limit — “the impacted area increases to at least 655 hectares [1,618 acres], which is above the 300 hectare limit established by 2018’s popular referendum.”
What is most worrying is the tight secrecy with which the government has handled the matter. No Ecuadoran may travel freely in these blocks in Yasuní. Carrying out verification is difficult, even for monitoring agencies like the Ombudsperson’s Office. One of the most complete reports is from the end of 2018, carried out by the organization Geografía Crítica and the Ombudsperson’s Office, but obtaining the permits was quite a process.
Information access is another obstacle. Organizations like Geografía Crítica, Acción Ecológica and EcoCiencia have gone through formal channels to request official information from the Ecuadoran government about what is happening in Yasuní, but have received no answers.
Urgent: Protecting the territories of isolated indigenous peoples
Related to the developments in Yasuní National Park last year were the policy changes affecting indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in Ecuador: the Tagaeri and the Taromenane.
President Moreno’s decree creates a buffer zone for the isolated peoples’ intangible area but also allows oil exploration and exploitation within it. This was one of the greatest worries of indigenous and social leaders in Ecuador. In addition, as Martínez from Acción Ecológica says, the expansion of the isolated peoples’ territory is into the territory of the Waorani people, who have had confrontations with the “uncontacted” peoples in the past.
Recent statements from the new minister of the environment, Raúl Ledesma, have raised concern. In a televised appearance, Ledesma said, “I have reviewed the decree in depth, the Constitution, and what has been done historically in Ecuador. In fact, previously there was not even a buffer zone. [The uncontacted peoples] have general assemblies, they have their means of communication. I have not been able to contact them but we are going to have a way to communicate, perhaps through the Waorani people’s assemblies.”
In response, Andrés Tapia, the leader of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadoran Amazon (CONFENIAE), said, “This is not only concerning but demonstrates the minister’s profound ignorance regarding the matters that involve the Ministry of the Environment.”
The oil blocks that put the intangible area at risk are not only inside Yasuní National Park, but also at the park’s southern border. The government decided to accept an oil company’s withdrawal from oil exploration activities in Block 79, in the province of Pastaza. However, controversy ensued because the very same company has exploration and exploitation rights in Block 83, where the isolated indigenous peoples are located. The government did not make a statement in response.
Leaders from the indigenous associations CONFENIAE and CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) demanded that the government desist from oil exploration in Block 83, since it also affects part of the territory of the Sapara people, a community of just 580 individuals. Furthermore, according to Bonilla from Fundación Pachamama, the Sapara people’s stories tell of a time when some ancestors also decided to isolate themselves from society and live in isolation in the jungle. “Although only the Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples are officially recognized, other isolated groups probably also exist,” he said.
Bittersweet: Current protected areas
The support budget for the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP) was reduced by a third, from $6.7 million in 2018 to $4.5 million in 2019. The cuts were a prelude — a sign of the economic difficulties that sparked large protests in October.
The economic crisis has not only affected protected areas, but the environmental sector in general. The 2019 budgets for the Ministry of the Environment and the National Water Secretariat (SENAGUA) were cut by an average of a third from 2018, according to the daily El Comercio. The two agencies received a combined $94 million last year, compared to almost $142 million in 2018. The ministry saw the biggest reduction, of 41%.
The Socio Bosque program experienced the most drastic cuts. The program began in 2008, its main objective to conserve the native forests and páramos (alpine tundras) by providing economic incentives to campesinos and indigenous communities who have voluntarily committed to conservation and protection. For years, the program was among those receiving the biggest chunk of the environmental budget, but in 2019 it suffered the largest reduction, 71%, from $22.8 million in 2018 to $6.62 million.
Public servants from some institutions like the National Institute of Biodiversity (INABIO) told Mongabay Latam that lack of resources was one of the main obstacles to the discharge of their duties. “I am in charge of the National Herbarium’s database,” said researcher Diana Fernández. “Being a botanical taxonomist, I have had to learn the computer part on my own because there are no resources.”
The lack of resources has also been felt in the face of threats like deforestation. In 2018, Ecuador had 12.5 million ha (30.9 million acres) of native forest, down from 14.5 million ha (35.8 million acres) in the 1990s. “Ecuador has the highest rate of deforestation in Latin America in comparison with its size, even more than Brazil,” environmentalist Nathalia Bonilla told the newspaper El Universo.
Despite this outlook, in 2019 some communities and private organizations have made efforts to protect Ecuador’s biodiversity. In the municipality of Marcos Pérez de Castilla, in Azuay province, residents succeeded in getting 8,604 ha (21,261 acres) of their territory, which contains important páramo areas and 29 lakes, declared the second community protected area in Ecuador under the National System of Protected Areas.
“Now comes the hard part, conservation,” said Germán Solano, a representative of the municipality. They must ensure the protection of nearly 83 bird species, nine mammal species, and more than 46 plant species that live inside the protected area, and seek their own mechanisms of financing it.
More than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off the Ecuadoran coast, on San Cristobal Island in the Galápagos, Fundación Jocotoco also created a private reserve spanning 100 ha (247 acres) on the highest mountainous area of the island to conserve the Galápagos petrel.
The seabird is endemic to the islands and is categorized as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. The objective is to conserve one of its main breeding areas, which was not protected before. “There are nests that may have been there for over 30 years receiving descendants,” said Lucía Norris, the reserve coordinator for Fundación Jocotoco. “It is a shame when you find them destroyed. Not only does the chick die, but an entire generation is left without a nest.”
Forgotten: Amnesty for environmental and social leaders
The previous government of Rafael Correa constantly condemned the persecution and criminalization of environmental and social leaders. When Moreno came to power, he announced an amnesty for these leaders, but 2019 passed without further advances in the matter.
Moreno issued seven pardons in 2017 and then met with the leaders. Two years later, Luis Guamán, a legal adviser for the indigenous rights group CONAIE, says there is barely any difference between the Correa and Moreno governments. “Nothing has changed because there is no progress in the dialogues. The previous government was much more violent, this one is peaceful, but fundamentally nothing has changed. Just offers that aren’t carried out.”
Yaku Pérez, the governor of Azuay province, told Mongabay Latam a few months ago that around 150 people are still awaiting amnesty. “If the mining and oil extraction continue there will surely be new instances of people being criminalized,” he said.
Rebellion, terrorism and intimidation are three of the crimes that protesters or leaders opposing large projects in Ecuador have been accused of. In October, amid the national strike, Pérez was accused of rebellion by parliament member Fabricio Villamar for allegedly trying to take the National Assembly building during the protests. Pérez has denied having done so, calling the claim an attempt to strip the indigenous movement of it leaders and compromise its ability to mobilize.
Another case of legal harassment in 2019 has been that of Christian Aguinda, an indigenous Kichwa leader and president of Pueblo Originario de la Nacionalidad Kichwa del Cantón Santa Clara (PONAKICSC – Native People of Kichwa Nationality of Canton Santa Clara). He faces two charges for opposing the construction of a hydroelectric plant on the Piatúa River in the Ecuadoran Amazon, despite the fact that the courts recognized that the project developers did not conduct prior consultation and that there were instances of corruption by officials to push the construction of the plant.
Aguinda said he’s being accused of things that never happened, including the charge of intimidation. “Our attorneys asked to close the case because it has no justification,” he said. “They are using these mechanisms to silence the communities’ rights.”
Good: The court rulings protecting rights
When extractive projects are proposed within indigenous territory, the developers are required to seek prior consultation and consent from the indigenous residents. Yet this principle was widely flouted in 2018 and continued to be flouted in 2019.
Communities complain that the consultations in which the extractive companies are required to inform them about the project and its potential impacts are scant and incomplete. At worst, they never even take place. The companies, on the other hand, say the consultations end up being co-opted by people opposed to progress who seek to delay the projects.
Nevertheless, in 2019 the courts shifted the balance in favor of the indigenous communities. Rulings in two cases found that the affected indigenous communities had not been properly consulted. The first case centered on the construction of the hydroelectric plant on Kichwa land, and the other on the exploitation of an oil block in the Amazon.
In that latter case, the Waorani community of Pastaza shut the door on oil activities in their territory after an appellate ruling on July 11, 2019. The ruling recognized again that the community had not been consulted in 2012 regarding the requests for bids for oil block 22, which affected some of their ancestral territory. The Ministry of Energy and Non-renewable Natural Resources and the Office of the Attorney General appealed the decision, but the Constitutional Court refused to consider it in a ruling on Nov. 27, 2019.
The other case is that of the Kichwa people of Santa Clara. The provincial court in Pastaza decided to suspend the hydroelectric project on the Piatúa River, withdrew authorization for the use and exploitation of the water flow, and revoked the environmental license issued by the Ministry of the Environment to the company responsible for building the plant. “We want authorities who work for the people, not ones that sell the people’s land and resources,” said Aguinda, the Kichwa leader.
But even though these two rulings have gone in favor of the communities, the challenge is compliance. “In the courts there is some progress in the recognition of rights, but when it comes to execution, for example by the executive branch or the electoral body, the state continues to align with extractive interests,” Manuel Bayón, a founding member of the collective Geografía Crítica, told Mongabay Latam.
The Kichwa community of Sarayaku recently lodged a complaint of non-compliance with the Constitutional Court. They say that since 2012 there has been no progress on the removal of 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) of pentolite explosives that an oil company had left buried in its territory more than 15 years ago. The explosives remain underground despite an order from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to remove them. “The government continues to owe a huge debt to indigenous peoples with regard to prior consultation,” said Bonilla of Fundación Pachamama. “This is why they have lost numerous cases related to the extractive industries.”
Banner image: The provincial court of Pastaza determined that the government did not carry out prior consultation in 2012 for oil block 22. Indigenous Waorani people won an appellate ruling to bar oil companies from their land. Image by Jerónimo Zuñiga/Amazon Frontlines.
This article was first published in Spanish by Mongabay Latam on January 8, 2020.