For indigenous people in the Americas, one of the greatest struggles has been for the right to their land and autonomy. Historically, this has been an uphill battle, but a recent legal victory by the Waorani tribe in the Amazon rainforest set an important legal precedent for indigenous people’s self-determination in Ecuador.
The Waorani Tribe’s Legal Victory
In the past few years, the Ecuadorian government has been dividing much of its rainforest land, including Waorani territory, into blocks to be leased out for mineral and oil rights through international auctions. The lawsuit contends that the tribe was not properly consulted about the auction. According to Amazon Frontlines, a non-governmental organization that worked with the tribe on the lawsuit, the consultation process by the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources had numerous failings in design and implementation.
Some issues cited in the lawsuit were “bad faith and false reporting of compliance, unintelligible communications, grossly insufficient time allocation, unaddressed complexities of translation, and poorly crafted informatic materials.” On April 26, 2019, a panel of three judges ruled that the Ecuadorian government had failed to properly inform the Waorani tribe or receive its consent for its land to be auctioned off. They ruled that the free, prior and informed consent process must be repeated.
A Victory for All Amazon Tribes and the Land
This ruling was not only a victory for the Waorani tribe but an overall win for indigenous people’s self-determination in Ecuador because the Waorani people’s territory was not the only indigenous land up for auction. According to Maria Espinosa, one of the Waorani’s lawyers, the ruling means that, because the land of the other tribes was dealt with under the “same flawed and unconstitutional process” as that of the Waorani, “the State cannot auction off the territories.” This is a huge victory for indigenous people in Ecuador.
This victory has also set a precedent for the rights of the rainforest itself. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize the rights of nature to exist and act out its processes. Ecuador has some of the most diverse varieties of species on the planet. Globally, it has the highest number of species per area, including at least “1,500 species of birds, more than 840 species of reptiles and amphibians and more than 300 species of mammals.” In Yasuni National Park alone, there is more flora variety than any other place on the planet with more than 20,000 species.
Alternatives to Oil
The Ecuadorian government has appealed the verdict. The South American country is currently the fourth-smallest producer of oil, but it is looking to attract investors in the fossil fuel industry. In 2018, President Lenín Moreno argued that the public-private partnerships in infrastructure, oil, energy and telecoms could bring in $7 billion dollars in investments by 2021.
However, Ecuador has shown success in producing clean energy, and a more sustainable solution to boosting the economy could be found in tourism. With its natural beauty and biodiversity, the Ecuador tourism industry grew by 44 percent from 2017 through 2018, bringing in an estimated 1.3 billion dollars. Through building these sectors, Ecuador could find an alternative to auctioning off its oil rights.
It’s unclear how the courts will rule on the appeal. At the moment, it is a victory for the protection of the rainforest and indigenous people’s self-determination in Ecuador. Even if they lose on the appeal, the Waorani people are not giving up. Nemonte Nenquimo, president of the Waorani Pastaza Organization said, “We have shown the government to respect us, and other indigenous people of the world, that we are the guardians of the jungle, and we’re never going to sell our territory.
– Katharine Hanifen