Elders of the Huaorani indigenous group in Ecuador’s northeastern Amazon have filed a lawsuit against Chinese-owned oil company PetroOriental, saying its operations have contributed to climate change and affected that community’s way of life.
It marks the first time a so-called protective action lawsuit has been filed that draws a direct link between the activities of oil companies in Ecuador and climate change.
The plaintiffs say other companies are also responsible for climate change, but decided to take legal action exclusively against PetroOriental, which is developing Block 14 in the Yasuni National Park and Biosphere Reserve, an area the Huaorani claim as their ancestral territory.
“The (Huaorani’s) Miwaguno community is filing the lawsuit in our capacity as victims, because our way of life has been forever altered. Our very subsistence is threatened as a result of climate change,” reads a summary of the legal complaint filed Thursday at a court in the eastern province of Orellana.
According to the lawsuit, the dispute centers on the burning of associated petroleum gas (a form of natural gas found with petroleum deposits) in so-called “mecheros,” or furnaces, a process that emits carbon dioxide – the primary greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. “These emissions have altered the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere, causing climate change globally,” the suit claims.
“They can testify to what life was like before the burn-off of natural gases began and what it is like today. It’s not a local environmental pollution issue. There’s been a structural change that directly affects life and the rainforest,” the plaintiff’s attorney Jose Fajardo said.
Juan Enomenga, one of the plaintiffs and leader of the Miwaguno community, offered his perspective of the case. “We want them to turn off the furnaces because they’re causing climate change, they’re affecting our ancestral territories,” he said. He added that the community members are only able to harvest half of what they plant on their chacras (small rural farms) and that their water now is so dirty it is only drinkable after being boiled.
“The wind carries (the gas) all the way here and pollutes the water that we’re drinking and now we don’t have potable water here. The smell also is chasing the animals we depend on for food far away,” Enomenga said.
A fellow community member, Huaorani female warrior Juana Baihua, said the constant burning of the associated petroleum gas was not only triggering climate change but causing people to suffer from headaches, stomach pain, coughing, diarrhea and other physical ailments. “It causes illness and harms the entire body. That’s why we’re suing,” she said.
While the plaintiffs’ protective action should trigger a hearing on the matter in the Orellana court within a period of eight days, their attorneys say they will take their case to the Constitutional Court in Quito if necessary.