An indigenous community from the Ecuadorian Amazon just won a landmark case that protects their territory from being mined for oil by international entities. The Waorani (or Huaorani) people, about 4,500 members strong, sued the Ecuadorian government earlier this year in order to retain their ancestral rights over nearly half a million acres of land.
“I feel a lot of courage today, courage to reclaim our right to our territory. Our territory is not for sale, it’s our decision and [the government] has to respect us,” Nemonte Nenquimo, a Waorani representative, said when first announcing the move to take three government bodies to court. In 2012, the Ministry of Hydrocarbons had met with the community in order to get their permission to allow oil companies to drill for oil on their protected territories. This meeting and the agreement that followed, the Waorani tribe alleged in their lawsuit, was based on fraudulent practices and claims that favored oil companies and profits over the interests of people living on “valuable” land.
“Today, the courts recognize that the Waorani people, and all indigenous peoples, have rights over our territories that must be respected,” said Nenquimo after Friday’s win in court. “The government’s interests in oil is not more valuable than our rights, our forests, our lives.” Al Jazeera reported that the 2012 consultation meeting was not a good faith effort to hear out the Waorani people; it was characterized by poor translations from Spanish to the Waorani language, not enough elders to truly represent the interests of the tribe, and was not, in fact, a dialogue between the Ecuadorian government and the indigenous community. After reviewing evidence of the meeting, the court agreed.
The Waorani pressed the suit against the government not only for their own sake but also as a matter of worldly principle. “Humans are changing the planet because big companies, big factories are destroying it. It is the moment now for the peoples to join and protest, to live well. If we don’t protest, if we don’t carry out actions, it means we are destroying the planet,” Nenquimo told AFP. “I am not here for myself, rather for the future, all the kids that will come.”
Environmental activist and actor Leonardo DiCaprio praised the ruling, tweeting out to his followers, “The Waorani people have won a legal victory to protect the rainforest from oil drilling and set a historic precedent for indigenous rights.” He shared a link to Amazon Frontlines, an organization that works to protect the Amazon from encroaching industries, encouraging people to support permanent protection of the Waorani land. (The Amazon Frontlines legal team represented the Waorani people in their suit.)
Currently, the Ecuadorian government owns the “wealth” in the subsoil of the land covered by the lawsuit, suggesting that the case isn’t entirely closed. The Ministry of Energy and Non-renewable Natural Resources announced on Saturday that they are appealing the court’s decision in hopes that the original 2012 agreement between the government and the Waorani will be upheld.