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‘We can’t hunt or fish’: the villages in Ecuador’s Amazon surrounded by abandoned explosives
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‘We can’t hunt or fish’: the villages in Ecuador’s Amazon surrounded by abandoned explosives

Living on the banks of the Bobonaza River, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Indigenous communities in Sarayaku have always lived in harmony with nature. The rainforest, says Patricia Gualinga, is a sacred, conscious being.

So when an Argentinian company was allowed to place a huge amount of high explosive around the rainforest to prospect for oil, the local Kichwa people fought back and eventually took their case to an international court. More than a decade after winning their legal battle, however, the explosives remain strewn around the community’s territory.

The Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC), an Argentinian oil and natural gas producer, signed a contract with the state oil company Petroecuador to look for oil in the area in 1996.

Although four neighbouring communities – Jatún Molino, Pacayaku, Canelos and Shaimi – accepted CGC’s offers, the 1,200 people of Sarayaku had consistently rebuffed the company’s sweeteners for gaining access to the area – which included medical care, 500 jobs for the community and $60,000.

In 1999, Indigenous people in the area destroyed camps and confronted the oil workers, bringing work to a halt. Nevertheless, by 2002, with the support of Ecuador’s military, CGC had brought its workers in, built oil facilities and dug 467 wells.

And, for seismic prospecting, it laid 1.43 tonnes of pentolite high explosive for seismic prospecting across 20 sq km (4,940 acres) of Indigenous territory.

An aerial view of lines of people standing in an open space around an arrangement of palm frondsView image in fullscreen

Pentolite, a part-TNT high explosive used in warheads by the military as well as in industry, is described as “very sensitive to heat and shock” by a US government database and can throw fragments up to a mile away if it explodes.

Local people fear the pentolite, which is buried underground and is in an unknown number of places around the forest floor, could explode at any time and say it blocks full access to their land, puts them at risk and threatens the forest itself.

The Sarayaku community’s appeals to local and national authorities failed to stop CGC and its use of explosives, so they turned to the courts. In a 2012 ruling, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) condemned Ecuador for violating Sarayaku’s right to “free, prior and informed consultation” before authorising oil exploration on their land.

The verdict represented a historic victory for Indigenous rights in the Americas. But more than a decade after the ruling, CGC’s failed oil project still haunts the community.

An orange cylinder, like a stick of dynamite, in front of a box marked ‘explosives’ in SpanishView image in fullscreen

Deactivating and removing the explosives from Sarayaku, as demanded by the community, was ordered by the IACHR ruling. However, despite being Ecuador’s responsibility since 2012, it has still not been carried out. “It’s total abuse,” says Mario Melo, the Ecuadorian lawyer who has represented the Sarayaku community since 2002.

Ecuador did pay $1.4m (£1.1m) in compensation in 2013 and apologised to the community. The “Midday People”, as the Indigenous community in Sarayaku calls itself, believed their relationship with the state would improve after this. But it was not to be, says Melo, who is also a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador in Quito.

“Ministers came to Sarayaku to apologise, and [the community] did accept the apologies. It felt like a new era. But the apologies didn’t extend beyond words,” Melo says. He says the state has also not yet guaranteed the right of the local people to be consulted.

A Latino man in a suit sits at desk next to an Indigenous man wearing feathers in his hair, with other similarly dressed people behind themView image in fullscreen

Kevin Koenig, at Amazon Watch, a US-based environmental organisation that has been supporting the Sarayaku people since the early 2000s, says: “Since oil was discovered in Ecuador in the late 1960s, governments have seen this resource as a ticket to economic development and Indigenous peoples as an obstacle in its way.”

About 63%, or 5,069,228 hectares, of Indigenous territories in Ecuador’s Amazon have concessions for fossil-fuel extraction – and the situation in Sarayaku is not an isolated case.

Drilling for oil has also raised concerns in the Yasuní national park, Ecuador’s largest protected area. Yasuní is home to the Tagaeri and the Taromenane, two of the country’s last isolated Indigenous communities. Ecuadorians voted in a national referendum last year to stop oil exploration in Yasuní, although the state oil company, Petroecuador, claims the country would lose $13.8bn (£11bn) over the next 20 years as a result. Oil operations in the region are continuing.

“Ecuador prioritises the oil industry over its people’s rights,” says Melo. “Transnational companies act as partners of the state.”

Melo says the “negligence” over the explosives in Sarayaku is, ultimately, a state choice. “If Ecuador removes the pentolite, it recognises that the oil industry causes damage to nature and people.

“If the state gives in to Sarayaku, other Indigenous peoples might get motivated to request the shutdown of oil activities in their territories.”

Kushillu Urku is one of seven communities in Sarayaku. It is about 6 miles from Wirakaspi, an area with explosives spread over 20 sq km. “My family and I no longer walk in Wirakaspi. We don’t know how these explosives function, which makes us think they could explode at any moment,” says Dionicio Gualinga, 51.

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For a long time, after CGC withdrew from Sarayaku, he feared that the company could return.

Galó Gualinga, 35, says that before the explosives were laid in Wirakaspi, people from Kushillu Urku used to hunt there. “We would go to the area in peace,” he says. When CGC arrived, locals started feeling unsafe.

An Indigenous Amazonian woman with a tattoo on her faceView image in fullscreen

Patricia Gualinga, 53, felt intimidated by the company as the community resisted drilling for oil.

She says the presence of CGC became a source of conflict between neighbouring Indigenous communities. At one point members of the Jatún Molino fired at Sarayaku people on the Bobonaza River. And after failing to persuade them to sell their land in 2003, the Canelos and Pacayacu blocked the Sarayaku’s passage through their territory. Later that year, the Canelos allegedly attacked the Sarayaku.

“For sister communities, we became the subversives – the people against the region’s social development,” she says.

Gualinga thinks the victory at the IACHR will make “any company think twice before entering our territory”. However, she still worries about the impact of the remaining explosives on her people’s way of life.

“We can no longer perform our ceremonies [in the forest], hunt or fish in that area,” she says. The explosives are past their expiry date and Gualinga says experts have told her “the expiry date is stated for a commercial ends only”, meaning the pentolite could still be active.

The Sarayaku people’s concern for the environment reaches beyond their own territory. The community contributed to the move in 2008 to give Ecuador’s forests, rivers and air similar legal rights under the new constitution to those given to humans. The country became the first in the world to incorporate a bill of rights for nature into its constitution.

They observe the principle of Kawsak Sacha (“the living forest” in the Kichwa language), an ancient philosophy of respect for nature and a belief that every part of the jungle, from the smallest to the largest, forms one living being with its own consciousness.

Aerial view of mist over a bend in a river as the sun risesView image in fullscreen

“Preserving nature guarantees that ecosystems can always regenerate, that there is harmony in Mother Earth, and that life continues to exist,” says Gualinga, for whom the explosives not only threaten the people but the Sarayaku’s cosmic harmony.

This January, Ecuador’s constitutional court issued a new six-month deadline for the government to consult and develop a plan for neutralising and removing the explosives, and to consult the people of Sarayaku about oil projects in their territory, noting the repeated failure to fulfil its obligations under the original 2012 ruling.

On 8 April, Ecuador’s ministry of women and human rights received representatives of the Sarayaku to discuss the issues further.

But Melo says it is still too soon to be optimistic. “Since 2012, we have already had meetings with the ministry, but they were all fruitless,” he says. “Our feeling is that the state isn’t serious about this matter.”

The Guardian has contacted the CGC and the government several times but has not received a response.

According to Melo, Ecuador’s government must present a plan to remove explosives before June. “Otherwise, it will constitute contempt [of court], and we will take new measures against the state,” he says. “IACHR is the highest court in the Americas. Not complying with the ruling will put Ecuador outside international law.”

Source: theguardian.com