QUITO, ECUADOR — The indigenous Waorani community in Ecuador won a historic lawsuit against the government late last month, when a three-judge panel ruled that a consultation process conducted with the community in 2012 was inadequate and violated the community’s rights.
The ruling immediately suspends any possibility of selling the community’s territory for the sake of oil extraction. The lawsuit represents 16 Waorani communities who live deep in Ecuador’s southern Amazon rainforest, in an area that has long been part of the government’s oil development plans.
“Today, we have protected our forest from oil drilling, we have protected our water from contamination, we have protected our children from sickness,” said Oswando Nenquimo, spokesperson for the Waorani of the province of Pastaza, in an April 26 press release.
But April’s ruling is more than just a win for the Waorani. It also sets an important precedent for other indigenous communities in the Amazon fighting against extraction activities in their territory, and opens the door to reshape the country’s controversial free, prior and informed consent process.
The trial against free, prior and informed consent
The Waorani community co-filed the lawsuit earlier this year with the Ecuadoran Human Rights Ombudsman against three government bodies — the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, the Secretary of Hydrocarbons, and the Ministry of Environment — for conducting a faulty consultation process with the communities in 2012.
The state then proceeded to divide the southern Amazon into 13 blocks and put them up for sale in an international oil auction, called the Southeast Oil round. This includes Block 22, which overlaps almost entirely with Waorani territory. Last year, the government significantly reduced the auction down to two blocks and removed Block 22; but it emphasized that the region is not exempt from future drilling plans.
According to both national and international law, governments must undergo a free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) process with communities before undergoing extraction activities on or near their territory.
During the three-day trial in April, the Waorani presented a wide range of evidence to show how the consultation process undertaken in 2012 was deceitful and not in accordance with legal standards in many ways. The evidence they presented included government documents, testimonies from experts as well as witnesses from the community.
There were more than 50 testimonies by Waorani community members who said officials used the consultation process to promote the economic benefits of oil, but never explained the repercussions or environmental impacts of oil extraction in their territories. Others said they simply did not understand the consultation process or its implications, either from lack of translation into Waorani or a general lack of information.
The ruling went on for almost six hours, as the judges went through each piece of evidence and explained how the consultation process in 2012 was inadequate, not conducted in good faith, and did not take into account the Waorani’s cultural differences and communication needs. It also said the consultation process violated the community’s right to self-determination.