SINANGOE, ECUADOR – Early on the morning of Nov. 15, five Constitutional Court judges arrived by canoe to the Indigenous Cofan community of Sinangoe in Ecuador’s northern Amazon rainforest, wearing rubber boots and loose clothing to weather the intense jungle heat. This visit marked the first time in the country’s history that judges from the highest court have held a hearing in Indigenous territory, in an attempt to make the judicial system more accessible for those who normally can’t travel to courtrooms in the cities.
“I’m very excited because this is something historic, I have never heard of [judges] going to a hearing in a community,” Alexandra Narvaez, a resident of Sinangoe and president of the women’s association Shamecco, told Mongabay before the hearing began.
In previous hearings and other procedures in the city, “Only 10 people go, the whole community cannot go. So this hearing, we are all going to talk,” she said. “Our opinion is important.”
The hearing itself was part of the court’s process to review Ecuador’s free, prior and informed consultation process, or FPIC, using as a basis of analysis Sinangoe’s 2018 lawsuit, when the community sued the government for selling mining concessions on their territory without consulting with the community first, and won.
According to Ecuador’s constitution, Indigenous and tribal communities have a right to the process of FPIC before any extraction or infrastructure activity is planned on or near their land. In looking at Sinangoe’s case, the Constitutional Court will assess whether the consultation process, as it works today, adheres to these rights. If the court decides that it doesn’t, it could set new standards for consultation, which could grant Indigenous communities greater autonomy over their own land.
“This isn’t only good for us, but also for other communities and can guide them to defend their territory, to defend the decision they take,” said Nixon Andy, former coordinator of the Cofan guardia, or self-defense group, adding, “if Indigenous communities say ‘no mining’ it means no mining.”
More than 300 Indigenous leaders traveled to Sinangoe to show support for the hearing and consultation review process, and quickly filled the normally calm and quiet community. People traveled from all over the Amazon, and other areas in the country where territorial conflicts are prevalent with mining, oil and other infrastructure projects.