QUITO, ECUADOR – When the Kichwa community closed off their village near the Coca River in Ecuador’s northern Amazon rainforest in March to protect themselves from the coronavirus pandemic, they planned to live off fishing and whatever food they could grow.
But about two weeks into their quarantine, two damaged oil pipelines leaked thousands of barrels of crude into the river, spreading along the banks and contaminating the water, said Carlos Jipa, leader of the indigenous community.
On Tuesday, a lower court judge ruled against the 105 mostly Kichwa communities affected by the spill, in a lawsuit that demanded urgent environmental and community reparations from the Ecuadorian government and oil companies responsible.
Already feeling trapped by quarantine, the more than 27,000 indigenous people living along the Coca and Napo rivers now cannot farm or fish on their own territory because of the oil in the water, Jipa said.
“We are trapped again,” said the local leader, who is president of the Kichwa indigenous federation, FCUNAE.
“Just thinking that my brothers and sisters will not be able to eat due to the contamination – I’m worried.”
Climate experts have long warned about the damage that the oil industry is causing to the Amazon rainforest, which plays a vital role in regulating the Earth’s climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, one of the main drivers of rising global temperatures.
SEARCH FOR CLEAN WATER
The recent oil spill, which environmentalists say was the largest in Ecuador in more than a decade, started on April 7 along the Coca River, in the northeast, when a landslide caused by severe soil erosion ruptured two oil pipelines.
By the time the pipelines’ owners – state-run oil company Petroecuador and privately-owned OCP Ecuador – halted operations, more than 15,000 barrels of crude had flowed downstream.
The suit filed by FCUNAE, other human rights groups and affected residents said Petroecuador, OCP and the environment and energy ministries had violated the constitutional rights of indigenous people and the rights of nature.
The plaintiffs also said authorities had not done enough to clean up the spill or help local populations.
The two oil companies told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they had alerted local and national authorities as soon as they detected the spill, and worked together to coordinate a community response which began the following day.
(Photo Credit: Telmo Ibarburu/Amazon Frontlines)