In a case that could have broad implications, the Kichwa community of Sarayaku, Ecuador, won a major battle on July 25, when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Ecuadorian government had violated its rights to communal property and cultural identity.
The case, which was filed in 2010, stems from efforts to explore for oil in the community’s territory beginning in the late 1990s. The court ruled that the government ignored the community’s right to consultation about development projects that would affect its lands.
Members of the court took the unusual step of visiting Sarayaku in April to inspect the area and hear community members’ testimony.
With the ruling, “the Inter-American Court has established very clear standards for how consultations should be done,” said Francisco Quintana, who heads the Washington, D.C., office of the Center for Justice and International Law, which provided legal assistance to the community.
The court ordered the government to pay the community $1.34 million in damages and $58,000 to reimburse it and its lawyers for legal fees.
“Sarayaku expresses its satisfaction with this victory … and we will be alert to ensure that the sentence is enforced and that Indigenous Peoples’ lands are respected in the face of harmful extractive activities such as oil exploration,” the community said in a statement signed by community president José Gualinga.
The court said the Ecuadorian government had failed to consult with the community when it signed a contract with Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC) in 1996 to explore for oil in Lot 23, in the Pastaza region of Ecuador’s Amazon basin. Two-thirds of the 772-square-mile lot was in the Sarayaku community’s territory.
Over the next decade, the community resisted the company’s efforts to begin seismic testing. At one point, the government sent in troops, which set up camps in the territory.
The court ruled that meetings held by the company to inform the community about its operations did not constitute consultation, and the government had violated the community’s right to be consulted, which is upheld in international law and some Ecuadorian legislation. The military camps and more than a ton of explosive charges set in the ground for seismic exploration also violated the community members’ right to freedom of movement, the court said.
The ruling also noted that the company’s environmental impact statement failed to take into account the cultural, spiritual and social impact of the operations.
The court ruled that the government, in consultation with the community, must remove the explosive charges that were placed near the surface of the earth for seismic testing and “neutralize” charges that were buried deeper.
Conflicts between indigenous communities and mining or oil companies have erupted in various Latin American countries in recent years. According to the court’s ruling, governments must consult communities even before granting concessions for such operations. In some countries, such as Peru, government officials have argued that they have the right to grant concessions without consultation.
Quintana said the court’s ruling sets clear criteria, establishing that the consultation must be conducted before any decision is made about the project, must be carried out in good faith with the goal of reaching agreement, and must be accessible and respect the community’s traditions. The community must also be involved in environmental impact assessments and be informed of any risks associated with the project.
The court’s ruling could have implications for the next auction of oil leases in Ecuador, some of which overlap indigenous territories near Ecuador’s southern border with Peru.
“The court clearly establishes that consultation has to be done not only with the Sarayaku community, but with all other communities in Ecuador,” Quintana said.
The court ordered Ecuador to bring its legislation into line with international law on prior consultation and to train the military, police, judiciary workers and other state officials on indigenous rights.