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LITIGATION LIBRARY: Protecting Indigenous Land in Ecuador

By Eugene Chow | Along the Bobonaza River in the southern part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, lies the Sarayaku, an Indigenous community of approximately 1200 people from the Kichwa Nation. While the Sarayaku may be far-removed from the rest of the world, they are self-governed and incredibly self-sufficient. They rely on local subsistence and their main sources of income include fishing, farming, hunting and ecotourism. Moreover, they live in complete freedom, harmony and peace.


However, this peace was shattered in 1996 when Ecuador’s Government granted Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC), an Argentinian oil company, rights to explore oil reserves in the ancestral territory of the Sarayaku. The Sarayaku had not been notified nor were they consulted by the Ecuadorian Government about this. In 2002, without warning, CGC entered Sarayaku land with the aid of Ecuador’s military to begin its exploration. It carried out detonations, cut down trees, dug more than 400 wells and severely polluted the environment. 


Concerned for the future of her children and the Sarayaku’s ancestral lands, Patricia Gualinga knew that something had to be done. Patricia has been one of the community leaders for decades but she is first and foremost a mother. She could not allow the future of her children to be placed in jeopardy. But she also knew this battle would be a difficult one, as it was not only against the Ecuadorian government but also against a giant transnational oil company. Indeed, she was told by many that it was a lost battle, or that resisting would be a collective suicide. Nonetheless, she persevered to protect the dignity of her people and the future of her children. 


Firstly, Patricia and other Sarayaku women mobilised the rest of the community, and organised non-violent protests against the “occupation” of their land by Ecuadorian army and CGC personnel in 2003. These women were teachers, farmers, spiritual leaders, but they were all united in their fight against the “occupation”. However, nothing was smooth-sailing. Although the Sarayaku was able to stall the oil exploitation until 2010 through their protests and domestic legal actions, human rights abuses were alleged committed by the oil company’s employees, with women and young girls facing rape and death threats during these non-violent protests. 


Against this backdrop, Patricia knew that she and the rest of the community needed to rethink their approach. So the Sarayaku mounted an international campaign and strategically built a network of international allies including Amnesty International, by drawing upon human rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These efforts ultimately saw Patricia and the Sarayaku taking the Ecuadorian Government to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and then to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2012, for authorising CGC to drill oil and install explosives on their ancestral land without their free, prior and informed consent, and for failing to protect them from human rights abuses by the oil company’s employees. 


In the now landmark case Sarayaku v Ecuador, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against the Ecuadorian Government for violating the right to physical integrity and seriously endangering the right to life of members of the Sarayaku community. Furthermore, the Inter-American Court concluded that Ecuador had breached the Sarayaku's right to prior consultation, communal property, and cultural identity when it granted CGC rights to explore oil reserves. Importantly, the Ecuadorian Government did not establish a meaningful dialogue with the Sarayaku based on principles of mutual trust and respect. Consequently, the Court ordered Ecuador to pay damages to the Sarayaku for material and nonmaterial harm, clear the explosives planted on Sarayaku land, and make a public apology, recognising their responsibility for the harms caused. 


Unfortunately, in the eight years since the landmark decision, the Ecuadorian Government has not complied fully with the ruling. Explosives still remain buried on Sarayaku land and Patricia continues to face death threats and attacks. However, Patricia has not given up. If anything, she views the remaining explosives as a symbol of what could happen to other communities if she does not keep fighting. She is now more motivated than ever to safeguard the Sarayaku - their land, their dignity, their future. 


This chapter of the Sarayaku’s decade-long struggles and eventual triumph at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will never be forgotten. Undoubtedly, its ripples on the rights of Indigenous communities in Ecuador and throughout Latin America will be felt for years to come, as governments will be required to secure Indigenous communities’ free and informed consent before granting any investment and development projects on their traditional territory. 


But the story is not over. Far from it. Like many, Patricia will continue to her fight for Indigenous rights. But she knows that she cannot do it alone. So, her message to the rest of the world is simple: 

“Unify and fight! That little voice of fear in your heart saying, and what will happen to me now, that must be overcome! This is the way to make change. A process of resistance is hard, it is not fun. But it is the only way. And now is the time, the world is starting to have a consciousness. People are realizing we are on a path without a future. We have to find a way forward, not just indigenous peoples, but everyone!” 


Are you in?


Find out more about the Kichwa Indigenous community in Sarayaku and their movement to defend the environment.

Find out more about the Amazon Conservation Team, an organisation that supports Indigenous communities like Sarayaku to protect the Amazon.

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