Ecuador apologises to indigenous community over ‘illegal’ oil activities on their land

Ecuador’s government praised for undertaking court order to apologise to indigenous community for oil extraction on their lands, but doubts remain as to how serious an apology it can be.

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The apology from the Ecuadorean government marks a significant victory for the Sarayaku indigenous community, who have been fighting for justice for years. Photo courtesy of Fundación Pachamama

Ecuador has taken an unprecedented step by formally apologising to an indigenous community over ‘illegal’ oil extraction in their territory almost twenty years ago. A team of ministers travelled to meet the Sarayaku community, part of the wider Kichwa indigenous people, on October 1st to issue a public apology for the Ecuadorean state’s role in human rights violations suffered by the Sarayaku during oil drilling in their territory. Mario Melo, a lawyer working for the Sarayaku, said that “this is the first time that a Latin American state has gone to an indigenous community to offer apologies for something it did poorly”, a belief echoed by the opinions of many other observers.

A previous conservative government of President Sixto Alfonso Durán Ballén, in 1996, had issued permits to drill for oil in Sarayaku territory to an Argentinean oil company, Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC), without properly consulting with the community beforehand or gaining their consent. The oil concession, in the eastern province of Pastaza, was almost entirely located within indigenous territories, with 60% of the concession covered by Sarayaku land and most of the rest belonging to other indigenous groups. When community leaders and members attempted to resist CGC’s activities, the company turned to force and gave way to the militarisation of the area, with several Sarayaku leaders ending up being detained and tortured.

The team, led by Justice Minister Ledy Zúñiga and also including the Attorney General and ministers for Non-Renewable Natural Resources, Defence, and the Environment, travelled to Sarayaku land in the Amazon rainforest in the east of the country, in order to comply with a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). The Court had ruled in 2012, following a lawsuit presented by Sarayaku leaders in 2003, that the Ecuadorean state was guilty of violating the rights to communal property and prior consultation under the internationally-recognised norm of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), and of putting the life and integrity of all members of the Sarayaku at serious risk.

The ruling meant that the government had to issue a full public apology – officially called a Public Act of Recognition and Responsibility – to the community, and also provide financial compensation and commit to engaging in proper consultation in the future. The compensation came in the form of US$1.4m paid out to the Sarayaku people last year, and the government was also ordered to ensure that more than a tonne of explosives, dating from the seismic exploration tests carried out in the area before drilling, were removed, although media reports suggest this has still not happened.

Ecuadorean Justice Minister Ledy Zúñiga, who delivered the government’s official apology to the Sarayaku. Photo courtesy of MercoPress

Delivering an official statement from the Ecuadorean government in both Spanish and Kichwa, Ledy Zúñiga stated that the Ecuadorean state recognised its responsibility for “human rights violations suffered by the Kichwa Indigenous People of Sarayaku [including] violation of communal indigenous property, violation of cultural identity, violation of the right to consultation, having put at serious risk their lives and personal integrity, and for violation of the right to judicial guarantee and judicial protections”. The statement read by Zúñiga concluded that the Ecuadorean state “[offers] our most heart-felt apologies for these threats brought to pass by previous governments”.

The apology was largely well-received by local Sarayaku members, with Félix Santi, the community’s Tayak Apu or President, saying that for his people “this act is the ratification that we were always justified in opposing the entry of the oil industry into our territory”. He added that “this is a great step forward for the indigenous peoples’ battle to defend their rights and their ancestral lands”.

Meanwhile, Patricia Gualinga, an international representative of the Sarayaku who recently travelled to New York for the UN climate change summit (and whose daughter Nina appeared in a well-publicised video message from Ecuadorean indigenous groups to world leaders assembling at the summit), said that “the public apology offers hope to other indigenous peoples who are currently facing situations similar to what we dealt with years ago”. She added “it is also a precedent through which governments will see that they can’t violate the rights of indigenous peoples under the rationale of economic interests”.

The Sarayaku community is one of many indigenous communities in the Ecuadorean Amazon which has seen its cultural and social integrity threatened by oil works in recent years. Photo courtesy of El Ciudadano.

However, critics have pointed out that the statement contained no evidence of a binding promise on the part of the state that there would be no repetition of the abuses suffered by the Sarayaku in the future. Fernando Santos, a lawyer with a speciality in oil industry-related disputes, also pointed out that “under the current law the government is obliged to carry out prior consultation, but results are not binding [meaning that] although there may be community opposition, the government can develop projects”.

There are several other reasons to be cautious about the longer-term implications of what is still undoubtedly a historic event: for starters this was hardly a voluntary act by the Ecuadorean government, coming a full two years after it was ordered to do so by the IACHR. It could also be argued that a US$1.4m fine and a day-trip for a few government ministers is a small price for the government to pay, and hardly a significant disincentive from continuing to look to tap into lucrative oil deposits in indigenous territories.

More importantly, though, it comes set against the current context of a drive to expand the oil frontier ever deeper into the Ecuadorean Amazon regions that often fall under indigenous territory, bringing plenty of clashes with these groups. The recent and indeed ongoing furore over the government’s decision to drill for oil in Yasuní is a particularly well-known case in point, while the never-ending legal case over Chevron’s responsibility for the destruction caused under its watch (when operating as Texaco) proves that justice for indigenous people who are made to suffer for oil-extraction activities is far from easy to come by.

Nevertheless, the Ecuadorean government’s apology to the Sarayaku community has to be seen as a positive step in and of itself. More importantly, as Patricia Gualinga pointed out above, it can be seen as a sign that the rule of law can in fact be upheld and enforced, and governments held to account, bringing some semblance of justice for the rural and indigenous communities who have to live with the negative side-effects of resource extraction on an increasingly frequent basis. Finally, as an apparent first in Latin America, this event “could be an example for other communities not only in Ecuador, but the entire region”, as stated by the Sarayaku’s lawyer Mario Melo.

Sarayaku members protesting in Quito in 2013. It took two years for the Ecuadorean government to issue its public apology, as stipulated in a court order by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Photo courtesy of Amazon Watch.