In the Ecuadorian Amazon, human rights and land rights defenders are under threat

Jul 3, 2021

By Sofia Jarrin

Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world to be a defender of human and land rights. According to a Global Witness report, in 2019 at least 212 defenders were killed for their work to defend their rights and lands worldwide, two-thirds of which occurred in Latin America. Among the most dangerous countries on the list are Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Venezuela.

Ecuador’s absence from this list – aided by the government’s lack of information and tracking – gives the false impression that the country is a peaceful oasis where those defending their rights and nature can do so freely, without risk or threat. When in fact, rights violations, threats, and attacks targeting human rights and land rights defenders are widespread and rising, exemplified by the recent killing of Andrés Durazno in March 2021. Durazno was a water defender working with his community to stop the Río Blanco mega-mine.

In response, together with the Alliance of Human Rights Organizations, Amazon Watch released the first comprehensive report on the threats human rights and land rights defenders face in Ecuador. Entitled “Human Rights and Land Rights Defenders Under Threat in Ecuador: How Government Protection is Insufficient and Favors Industry Interests,” the report exposes the experiences of 449 human rights and land rights defenders who have faced persecution, intimidation, harassment, societal stigmatization, criminalization, and assassination in the last ten years. These threats were committed principally by the armed forces, national police, and public officials. The report reveals the intensifying dangers that human rights and land rights defenders face as part of their work to protect and defend their communities, autonomy, and identity, and puts the spotlight on government and industry complicity to undermine this vital work.

A community elder in Ecuador’s Amazon Pastaza Province.

The report documents 22 emblematic cases, most of which are related to extractive activities and that involve the exploitation of natural resources, including three assassinations linked to the mining sector that notably continue to be unsolved. The report also covers cases related to the misuse of criminal law, criminalization of defenders, and persecution by the government.

Sadly, the report concludes that like the rest of South American countries, defenders in Ecuador do not have a safe environment to carry out their work. Furthermore, the country lacks a comprehensive protection system that allows defenders to access the judicial system. There is no legal category for this type of rights violation nor specific measures to protect human rights and land rights defenders, forcing defenders to file routine assault charges disconnected from the political nature of the attacks. Rights violations are not routinely investigated, perpetrators are rarely found or convicted, and accountability measures for rights violations exist only on paper. The government continues to downplay or outright ignore these violations and doesn’t keep track of the physical and psychological threats to them or their relatives.

Of the 22 documented cases profiled in the report, 18 are related to extractive industries or in the energy sector. One of the main causes of these conflicts is the lack of requirement and enforcement of Free, Prior, and Informed Consultation and Consent, in addition to the right to environmental consultation which the government and companies are obligated to conduct. In this context, the most affected populations are Indigenous people who are systemically exposed to violations of their collective rights, like the right to territory, self-determination, the right of association and peaceful assembly, and participation in political affairs, among others. Likewise, most of the cases are located in geographically distant areas where the government has failed to provide services. In other words, defenders, in addition to these threats, face discrimination in access to fundamental rights such as health, education, food, and water.

One of the cases profiled in the report is that of Josefina Tunki, Shuar president who is leading the Governing Council of the Shuar Arutam People (PSHA). Her election as president is historic because she is the first woman to hold this position in the Shuar nationality, which is made up of more than 100,000 inhabitants and more than 600 communities in its binational territory, spread across Ecuador and Peru.

The role of Josefina Tunki is fundamental in the resistance of the PSHA. As the president of her people, she is representing their collective decision to reject mining extraction on their lands. The majority of the titled and ancestral territory of her people has been concessioned to mining companies: Lowell-Solaris Resources Inc (Canada), SolGold (Australia), ExplorCobres and EcuaCorrientexploeCobres SA (China), and EcuaSolidus SA (Canada), all hold mining concessions that overlap PSHA territory without the consent of the recognized Indigenous government.

Because of her role as president to represent the will of her people, Josefina has been an outspoken critic of the mining industry and the projects slated within her people’s land. In response, she has been subject to attack and threat. She filed a complaint with the Sucúa Criminal Prosecutor’s Office against the Manager of Lowell-Solaris Resources Inc, Mr. Federico G. Velásquez, who called Josefina on November 6, 2020, and threatened her. The call came the same month that PSHA filed its international complaint with the International Labour Organization.

“We are not terrorists. We are Ecuadorians. But we don’t have peace of mind because we are threatened. No Ecuadorian should be persecuted by foreigners and we are being persecuted by these companies. That is our fear,” shared Josefina Tunki in a June 15th press conference.

With the launch of the report, Ecuadorian and international organizations are calling on the government to urgently address the risk and threats that defenders face in their work, and implement the Escazú Agreement of which Ecuador is a signatory. The Escazú Agreement is the first regional environmental agreement of Latin America and the Caribbean, the only binding agreement from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, and the world’s first agreement containing specific provisions on environmental human rights and land rights defenders.

However, the future scenario is not very encouraging. According to recent statements in an interview by Gustavo Manrique, the Minister of the Environment, Water, and Ecological Transition, he will accelerate the approval of at least 20,000 backlogged environmental licenses which have been frustrating industry and private investors. But these approvals exacerbate the challenges faced by human rights and land rights defenders, as the environmental agency is prioritizing projects backed by foreign direct investment over environmental and human rights safeguards, and due diligence.

Faced with the emerging threats against human rights and land rights defenders, the Ecuadorian government should guarantee specific and suitable policies and protocols for the protection of defenders, since the existing mechanisms in the judicial system only constitute a possible response when the defender is a witness to or victim of a crime. Therefore, the report demands that the Ecuadorian government adopt measures that guarantee defenders the protection and agency to carry out their activities freely, promoting a culture of peace and a safe environment, free from violence, threats, and ultimately requiring the full recognition of their work to defend their rights, territories, and environment.

Credit: Amazon Watch