Ecuador: historic apology to Sarayaku people raises hope of justice

By Lucia Hernandez, Campaigner in the Americas Program at Amnesty International.

No one thought it would happen, but it has.

After more than a decade of determined struggle for recognition of years of human rights abuses, members of the Indigenous People of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon, will receive an official apology by the Ecuadorian State.

The historic day is 1 October, when four Ministers (Justice, Environment, Defence and Non-Renewable Natural Resources) and the Attorney General will arrive at the Amazon region to apologize for the abuses that took place during the oil operations carried out by the company CGC in their territory from 2002 to 2003.

In those years, company staff, accompanied by soldiers and private security guards, carried out detonations, cut down trees, dug more than 400 wells, buried more than 1.4 tons of high grade explosives and polluted the environment with the noise of helicopters. The State had given the company the concession to exploit oil in their territory without consulting or informing the community beforehand.

“For the Kichwa people of Sarayaku this is an act of historical significance because it is the first time that the State is going to apologize to an Indigenous community for having put at serious risk their lives and integrity”, Felix Santi, President of the Indigenous people of Sarayaku, told me reacting to the news.

“Our people hope that the State’s apology is sincere and that there is a real guarantee that the abuses we suffered in our territory won’t be repeated”.
For years Amnesty International has accompanied this Indigenous community in its campaign to enforce their rights. For us, this is also a day of celebration.

A public apology is part of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ ruling of 27 July 2012. The Court condemned the Ecuadorian State for violating their rights to communal property, to consultation, to cultural identity, to judicial protection and for having put at serious risk the lives and safety of members of the Sarayaku community.

During the hearing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Patricia Gualinga, leader of the Sarayaku, said “we have come here from far away because we believe that the Court can help us, this is our last resort and our last hope”.

After more than ten years of litigation, and two years and three months after the ruling, the State is going to recognize its responsibility by travelling to the Sarayaku’s territory to apologize.

Felix Santi also told me that the people of Sarayaku are expecting more than 1,000 people from all the surrounding communities and representatives of international organizations. They are organizing an event that will be creative, dynamic and colourful. Besides the central act of recognition when the Minister of Justice will read a text that has been negotiated with Sarayaku, the event will include music, ritual acts, a welcome ceremony by the Sarayaku leaders, a speech by the President of the Sarayaku and a traditional lunch with all the guests.

Travelling to Sarayaku, never easy, will be by canoes and aircrafts, and the younger people and children of the community have been helping for days to arrange transportation.

“The act of 1 October is of great significance for the Indigenous movement and an important point of reference not only for the Indigenous people of Sarayaku but for all Latin American Indigenous peoples. We mustn’t forget, however, that once the State offers its apology, there are other key measures to be fulfilled. One is the removal of explosives, including both those buried close to the surface and deeper. This process is being planned already but it will take time, because once the field survey is done and before starting with the removal, an environmental impact study must be carried out, and this will take three months”, continued Santi.

“Not forgetting, of course, the measures of non-repetition, the approval of a Consultation Law that will ensure that before any oil activity is carried out in the territory of Sarayaku or any other Indigenous people, there must be a consultation that ensures free, prior and informed consent”, Santi said.

This act is an important symbolic step in the right direction and will certainly be celebrated by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, who, as with the Sarayaku, have been excluded for centuries from decisions taken by States and other powerful actors on key aspects of their lives often with disastrous consequences for their physical and cultural survival.

Amnesty International celebrates this public apology and hopes that it will open the door to a real guarantee of the right to consultation and free, prior and informed consent in Ecuador and the region. This is the only guarantee of non-repetition of human rights violations such as those that occurred in Sarayaku.

PHOTO: Sarayaku people watching a live broadcast of the hearing of their community’s case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Ecuador, July 2011.

More information on Sarayaku and the rights of Indigenous peoples of the Americas can be found below:

Documentary, Children of the Jaguar

Report commemorating the 9 August, International Day of Indigenous Peoples

Amicus Curiae: Case of the Kichwa People of Sarayaku vs. Ecuador: Submitted before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights