Nemonte Nenquimo, an Indigenous Waorani leader and one of the main plaintiffs behind the lawsuit, said the government has consistently ignored pleas over the past few months to help with testing and monitoring the virus in their territories. When medics did visit communities, Nemonte said, they didn’t coordinate with community leaders, and either told locals they had the flu or undertook COVID-19 quick tests but never returned the results to the corresponding individuals, making it impossible to implement health and security measures.

“We have suffered a lot, this illness isn’t easy. It’s not like any other illness,” Nemonte told Mongabay by phone from her home in Shell, just outside the Amazon city of Puyo.

“The Ministry of Health has to coordinate with us,” she said, adding, “They need to be more transparent, and as soon as possible, so support can arrive, so people can isolate, and actually reduce the contagion.”

Nemonte and fellow Waorani leader Gilberto Nenquimo spent the last month coordinating with the local Universdad De Las Americas and NGO Amazon Frontlines to send medical brigades with PCR COVID-19 tests to several Waorani communities themselves. Through this process, they identified several communities where more than 80% of the population has COVID-19, Nemonte said.

The community filed the lawsuit May 20, demanding precautionary measures be taken by the state to ensure their right to health, life, and self-determination. The suit was directed at Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, as well as the country’s Ministry of Health, the Secretariat of Human Rights, the Ministry of Environment and Water, and the Attorney General’s Office.

The ruling by the provincial court of Pichincha last week grants partial precautionary measures to the Waorani community, forcing the Ministry of Health to coordinate with Waorani leadership to send medical teams with intercultural experience into their territories to conduct COVID-19 testing, return the results, as well as provide sufficient medical supplies to local community health centers.

Waorani leader Gilberto Nenquimo uses nettle leaves to treat a community member, Waorani community of Shellpare in the frontier town of Shell, Pastaza, Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo courtesy Mitch Anderson/Amazon Frontlines.

It also forces the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion to coordinate with local governors and Waorani Indigenous leaders to provide food and essential supplies to communities, many of which have been hit so badly by the virus that people have been unable to hunt or fish as usual.

The Waorani’s lawyer, Lina María Espinosa, said the ruling is good news but came 27 days after they filed the motion, which she deemed too late. The situation went from 11 communities with suspected cases at the end of May, to 190 confirmed cases and two deaths, and several others hospitalized with severe conditions, she said.

“What we were trying to avoid, has already begun to happen,” she told Mongabay by phone.

The judge also left some of the Waorani’s demands unanswered, including that for an immediate freeze on all extractive activities in their territory. Espinosa described these activities as “vectors of contagion,” saying that some of the first signs of COVID-19 among the Waorani happened in communities located near oil, and illegal mining and logging operations, which never stopped during quarantine.

Espinosa rejected explanations by officials that Indigenous communities have been contracting coronavirus because of their own lack of self-discipline. Earlier this month, the Secretariat of Human Rights’ undersecretary of peoples and nationalities told local media that the Waorani had been secretly traveling to the cities and carrying the virus unknowingly back to their communities. “There’s nothing farther from the truth,” Espinosa said.

Instead of freezing extractive activities, the judge ordered the Ministry of Environment and Water to send a report detailing its monitoring of illegal mining, logging and drug trafficking activities in Waorani territory.

She also ordered the ministry as well as the Secretariat of Human Rights to provide information on the COVID-19 protocols for oil companies operating within Waorani territory, to establish whether adequate health and safety measures are in place to prevent further contagion within communities.

Espisona said the community filed a motion to the judge on the morning of June 19, requesting she modify this response to include the immediate cessation of extractive activities. 

Mongabay contacted the president’s office and the Secretariat of Human Rights for comment, but did not receive any response by time of publication. The Ministry of Health was also unable to accommodate an interview request by time of publication. Nemonte Nenquimo said officials from the ministries involved in the lawsuit met online with Waorani leaders on the evening of June 19, in their first attempts to coordinate next steps with communities.     

This is the third lawsuit filed by Indigenous communities in Ecuador against the government during the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in the South American country in mid-March. On April 7, Ecuador’s national Indigenous confederation CONAIE filed a motion with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the Ecuadoran government for violating citizens’ rights to life and health. The president’s office had called a state of emergency and tried to suspend jurisdictional guarantees at the beginning of the pandemic. When these guarantees were reinstated April 30, the IACHR denied CONAIE’s original motion. The indigenous community is now evaluating what legal steps to take next, according to the confederation’s attorney Lenin Zarzosa.

On April 29, the Kichwa federation FECUNAIE, CONFENAIE and other supporters filed a lawsuit against the government and private and state oil companies for a massive oil spill that occurred April 7, when a pipeline burst and spilled some 15,000 barrels of crude down the Coca and Napo rivers, contaminating the water supply for up to 2,000 Indigenous families who live along the rivers. Espinosa, who is also the main lawyer for the plaintiffs in this case, said it has been suspended for unknown reasons for an undetermined period of time.

Andres Tapia, communications director for CONFENIAE, told Mongabay that all nationalities in the rainforest are experiencing “the same situation of abandonment by the state.”

Waorani leaders distribute food supplies as part of the humanitarian aid that the Waorani organizations have self-managed with the support of the campaign and Indigenous Emergency Action Fund, organized by Amazon Frontlines together with the indigenous organizations CONAIE, CONFENIAE and Alianza Ceibo, Shellpare, Pastaza, Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo courtesy Mitch Anderson/Amazon Frontlines.

Like the Waorani, most communities have had to coordinate with local universities to get PCR COVID-19 tests in their territory themselves, while CONFENIAE has been delivering food kits to communities in need. He said he was unsure if any other communities plan to sue the government, as the Waorani have done, but these kinds of measures “have not been ruled out.”

The biggest concern now, Tapia added, is local governments loosening restrictions and opening the economy again, which will increase the circulation of people in the region.

Back in Shell, with fever and intense body aches, Nemonte Nenquimo herself is showing signs of COVID-19. Most of her family and neighbors have been diagnosed with the virus, and have been using medicinal plants to make strong teas and vapor baths as a treatment, which seem to be helping with respiration difficulties and reduce body aches, Nemonte said.  She said she’ll be watching the government closely to make sure it complies with the recent ruling.

“We know how they work. Sometimes they come, talk, meet with local representatives and then don’t take action in communities,” she said. “We’ll be there watching, evaluating, communicating. They have to comply.”

Banner image: Waorani leaders get ready to hold a virtual press conference on May 21, 2020, to report on the COVID-19 emergency in the territory and the legal actions being taken by Shell, Pastaza, Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo courtesy Mitch Anderson/Amazon Frontlines.

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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