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Fighting extractive industries in Ecuador: Q&A with Indigenous rights activist María Espinosa

  • Human rights defender Lina María Espinosa has been an outspoken critic of Ecuador’s push for increased mining and oil development. But her work has also made her a target of death threats.
  • This year, national protests by Indigenous communities pushed the government to revoke a decree that would have expanded oil investment. It also announced major reforms to the country’s mining plan.
  • But Espinosa and members of CONAIE (the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) say the government needs to do more. This month, they’ll sit down with government officials to negotiate future policies.

National protests overwhelmed Ecuador in June, with Indigenous groups mobilizing in nearly every province of the country and President Guillermo Lasso announcing a state of emergency that restricted travel and allowed law enforcement to use aggressive force.

The protests were in response to a variety of grievances — gas prices, healthcare, education — but they also focused on environmental and human rights issues tied to increased investment in oil and mining.

In July 2021, Lasso signed the controversial Decree 95 that aimed to double national oil production and increase private sector investment in order to meet foreign debt repayments and address Ecuador’s economic crisis that has seen unemployment and poverty spike during the COVID-19 pandemic. But pressure from the protests, in addition to lawsuits filed by Indigenous communities, pushed his government to repeal the decree, thereby preventing the expansion of the oil frontier — at least in theory.

Lasso’s government also announced reforms to the national mining plan as laid out in Decree 151. The reforms are supposed to improve protections on water, eliminate illegal mining and “develop efficient and environmentally and socially responsible mining,” among other initiatives.

But the Indigenous movement, largely organized by CONAIE (the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), among other activists, says the government needs to do more. Lina María Espinosa, a senior attorney for the NGO Amazon Frontlines, has been an outspoken proponent of strengthening the prior consultation process, which requires developers to meet and negotiate with residents before breaking ground on a project.

Lina Maria Espinosa, a human rights defender and lawyer with Amazon Frontlines, during a public hearing in Nemonpare, Waorani territory. (Photo courtesy of Mitch Anderson/Amazon Frontlines)

Espinosa’s work has made her a target of death threats, both anonymous and in the media. They’ve gotten so serious that, earlier this month, Amnesty International published a statement calling on officials to do more to protect environmental defenders.

“Amnesty International urges the State to promptly, thoroughly, independently and impartially investigate the threats Lina María Espinosa has suffered, and bring those suspected of criminal responsibility to justice,” it said.

Mongabay spoke to Espinosa about Decrees 95 and 151, the protests, the negotiations happening with the government in August and September, and the threats she continues to endure in the process.



Mongabay: Despite the good news of Decree 151 being revised and Decree 95 being repealed last month, it sounds like you’re still concerned about the direction Ecuador is going in terms of Indigenous rights and the future of extractives.

María Espinosa: What it comes down to is that they have carried out extractive activities without prior consultation, and that means they’ve done it without the consent of Indigenous communities that are gravely impacted by the developments of these activities on their territories. The other important point is that [the prior consultation] has been designed to favor, to facilitate, even to incentivize business. So what they’re looking for is to adapt, make flexible and favor administrative procedures so that mining capital flows into Ecuador and investment development comes to Ecuador. That obviously goes against the rights of Indigenous peoples.

It’s important to know that at least 28% of mining activity overlaps with Indigenous territory in Ecuador [according to Amazon Frontlines] […] So there is a high percentage of territories, of communities and nationalities that are already listed on the mining registry, meaning they are waiting for a company to show interest in carrying out exploration or exploitive activities in those territories. All of this is still happening without the due process of prior, free and informed consultation both in the framework of the decrees and the granting of concessions.

Mongabay: A lot of these issues are in the national spotlight thanks to the protests that took place earlier this year. How influential have organizing efforts by Indigenous communities been in Ecuador?

María Espinosa: The national protest in 2022 isn’t an isolated event and isn’t new. It’s directly related to the protest that occurred in 2019, which was based on the really serious economic damage to the population and the dismantling of basic services, of special education and health, the aggressive firing of officials, rising oil prices — so the state is clearly becoming more neoliberal compared to a population that is becoming increasingly impoverished, a high percentage of that population being Indigenous. So this national protest happens in 2019 and then the pandemic comes, and the pandemic clearly exacerbates the entire situation of structural impoverishment, as well as the state reinforcing its neoliberal politics. And then what happens next are the 2022 protests.

Now, between 2019 and 2022, the Indigenous movement, and in particular the Amazonian communities, had a clear agenda of denouncing how the oil and mining industries were putting their lives at risk, how mining and oil extractives have developed behind their backs in violation of the right to prior consultation, and that the state’s actions, far from protecting the right to territory, has been based in […] protecting the interests of big companies and capitalists. And finally, what this Indigenous movement does in June 2022 is, within the agenda of their 10 demands, is include as a central point the topic of extractives and the guarantees of the 21 collective rights included in the constitution, among them the right to prior consultation.

Indigenous peoples and allied group march in the streets of Quito during the national strike. (Photo courtesy of Nico Kingman/Amazon Frontlines)

Mongabay: Do these 10 demands go far beyond Decree 151 and 95?

María Espinosa: The 10 demands from CONAIE and the Indigenous movement are a kind of moratorium on the expansion of the extractive mining and oil frontier, the development of audit processes and the comprehensive reparation for the impacts caused by these activities and, in effect, the protection of territories, water sources and the most fragile ecosystems. All of these macro demands come with the repeal of Decrees 95 and 151. Decree 95 is already repealed and the government has promised to make some modifications to Decree 151.

But what I maintain is that the repeal of Decree 95 or making changes to Decree 151 aren’t sufficient measures. On the one hand, Decree 95 already served its purpose, to some extent, by favoring the development of the “Intra-campos” [small oil fields operating between larger ones]. And the changes to Decree 151 aren’t enough because they don’t talk about prohibiting the mining of ancestral territories. It only talks about prohibiting it in “intangible” areas [protected spaces of cultural and biological importance where no extractive activity can be carried out] and that’s already prohibited in the constitution. It’s nothing new. And it also talks about water protection zones without making clear where in the country these zones are located, because they haven’t been declared.

[…] The right to prior consultation is also still in limbo […] What we have been trying to show, even in court, is that the state calls it consultation when it’s really all on paper. The state isn’t guaranteeing that the process occurs, nor is it guaranteeing that the process is culturally appropriate. Just handing over 3,000 pages of environmental impact studies to a community doesn’t qualify as a consultation.

Mongabay: The Indigenous movement and the government agreed to set up formal negotiations on various topics this month. What do you hope comes out of them?

María Espinosa: We have to show up. We have to sit down at the negotiating table and see what officials are willing to bring to it, what the ministers show up with. That will be a big measure of where it will lead […] The state insists that Ecuador needs extractives, that it needs to develop mining and oil activity in order to advance in other parts of the economy. It insists that Ecuador needs to fulfill the agreements that it has already made with businesses involved in extractives. And obviously they were going to come to the negotiating table with that kind of discourse. Negotiating is impossible.

Leonidas Iza Salazar, President of Ecuador’s Indigenous umbrella organization CONAIE, during the national strike. (Photo courtesy of Nico Kingman/Amazon Frontlines)

Mongabay: And while all of this is happening, you’ve been receiving death threats?

María Espinosa: Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that this has happened while working as a human rights defender and especially for being so close with communities that oppose extractives. I’ve received, in many instances, death threats, threats against my life. The most recent happened during the national protests. I received a phone call and a male voice said they were going to send me a crown of flowers, like a funeral arrangement. And afterwards, when the protests had ended and a meeting was set up between the Indigenous movement and the state for establishing an approach to the negotiations, I received a call that they didn’t see me in that meeting and it was a shame because that was the day they were going to give me the flowers.

At the same time, the Indigenous movement has been suffering from some hateful discourse, too. In fact, a media outlet published an article saying the Indigenous Guard [intergenerational groups dedicated to the defense of ancestral territories] was a kind of clandestine agent. And it said a “Lina E” was being investigated. My full name is Lina María Espinosa. Because I’m part of these groups, that seems like a clear attempt to stigmatize me and open potential criminal proceedings against the work I do.

Mongabay: Is it difficult to continue your work when you receive these kinds of threats?

María Espinosa: I think these threats are interested in discouraging my work. But they’re not going to succeed. I think that the threats are also a sign that the work I and other defenders do is necessary. Because it’s the people who abuse corporate power, political power, that are watching our work. And that gives us an incentive. Rather than dissuading me, these threats are encouraging me to continue my work, because I see that it is legitimate and necessary.

Banner image: Indigenous peoples mobilize in the streets of Quito during the national strike in Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Nixon Andy Narvaez/Alianza Ceibo.

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