Murder of indigenous leader could be related to an internal disagreement in Amazon community

Feb 28, 2023 | 6 comments

By Katie Surma

Eduardo Mendúa, an Indigenous activist who was fighting to protect Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest from oil extraction, has been killed by gunmen, the Indigenous organization Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities reports.

Mendúa, the director of international relations for CONAIE, or the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, and a member of the A’i Cofan people, was part of a group of about 130 campaigners who have been blocking the state-owned oil company, Petroecuador, from expanding oil operations east of the oil town of Lago Agrio in the northeastern province of Sucumbíos.

Eduardo Mendúa (center), an Indigenous Ecuadorian activist fighting oil extraction in the Amazon rainforest, was shot to death in his garden on Sunday. (Photo by Kayla Jenkins)

Petroecuador had been planning to build 30 new wells in a government-approved oil concession block that overlaps with A’i Cofan land.

Mendúa, 40, was shot 12 times on Sunday in his garden by two armed men, both hooded, at his home in the A’i Cofan town of Dureno, CONAIE said in a statement. The group said the killing was related to the oil conflict that has unfolded in the area over the last year.

The federal Attorney General’s Office confirmed that two armed men approached Mendúa on Sunday afternoon and fired multiple gunshots. Mendúa’s wife, who was with him at the time, was not harmed, it said. On Monday, one person was arrested in connection with the killing, the authorities added.

Officials did not provide a motive for the attack. But like CONAIE, activists including representatives of the Union of People Affected by Texaco, or UDAPT, a local environmental and human rights organization, attributed the shooting to the clash over expanding oil operations. Although his identify has not been released, the man arrested is believed to be a pro-oil resident of the community.

UDAPT’s president, Donald Moncayo, said Petroecuador’s plans to drill had divided the Dureno community, with some people in favor and others opposed. Several social media posts suggest the killing could have been carried out by Cofan members who support Petroecuador’s plans.

The Indigenous community collectively holds legal title to around 9,571 hectares of land that is part of the only remaining intact rainforest in the region. Those in favor of allowing the company to drill see it as an economic opportunity for locals, while those opposed to it, including Mendúa, have sought to protect the forest from pollution.

Since the 1960s, when oil was discovered in the Lago Agrio area and Texaco began drilling there, the A’i Cofan have been dealing with the severe impacts of oil production. From 1964 to 1990 alone, the company dumped 3.2 million gallons of toxic water and flared nearly 50 million cubic feet of noxious methane gas per day from its oil operations there, according to the American lawyer Judith Kimerling, author of the 1991 book “Amazon Crude.’’

Eduardo Mendúa distributes supplies to Cofán families resisting oil operations in the Ecuadoran Amazon rainforest. (Photo by Kayla Jenkins)

The company also spilled 17 million gallons of crude in the rainforest, she has reported. Cancer rates in the area are higher than in Ecuador as a whole, according to a joint study by UDAPT and the Swiss nonprofit Centrale Sanitaire Suisse Romande. Oil from the Ecuadorian Amazon is exported to multiple countries, but about half goes to California, according to a 2021 report from the nonprofit Amazon Watch.

The oil development plans that Mendúa had been protesting included Petroecuador’s expansion of an oil access road built by Texaco that runs through A’i Cofan territory. The state oil company also planned to refurbish a former Texaco oil platform owned by the A’i Cofan people and construct two more platforms in the area, all of which would support the installation of the 30 new drilling wells. Texaco was acquired by Chevron in 2001 and ceased operations in Ecuador in 1990.

The president of the Dureno community, Silverio Criollo, had signed an agreement with Petorecuador that gave the company permission to pursue operations on A’i Cofan land in exchange for payments to each community member.

Mendúa had contended that the agreement was invalid because the company had not consulted the entire A’i Cofan community. Under both international and Ecuadorian law, companies and the government are required to respect Indigenous communities’ right to “free, prior, and informed consent” over projects that affect them. Exactly what that right entails and whether communities have a right to veto development has been a subject of recent litigation in Ecuador.

In January 2022, Petroecuador began work on extending the Texaco access road further into A’i Cofan territory. Those opposed responded by blockading the road. The opponents have established a permanent presence at the barricade, including basic shelters with tarps and corrugated tin roofs. On Jan. 12, pro- and anti-oil A’i Cofan groups clashed at the blockade site, where gunshots were fired and several injuries were reported.

In recent weeks, Mendúa had been searching for legal representation in the hope of filing a lawsuit against Petroecuador and the government on the grounds that they violated the Indigenous community’s right to prior informed consent for oil drilling, their right to live in an environment free of contamination and the rights of nature.

Moncayo, the president of UDAPT, said the government knew of the division within the A’i Cofan community over Petroecuador’s operations and should have taken steps to defuse the escalating violence.

“We blame the government and Petroecuador for this,” he said. “These are the consequences of purposefully breaking the social fabric within the community.”

Over the past decade, more than 1,700 people worldwide have died while trying to prevent environmentally damaging activity like logging and oil drilling on their land, according to the watchdog group Global Witness. The organization says that more than two-thirds of those killings have taken place in Latin America.
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Credit: Inside Climate News

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