The indigenous Waorani community in Ecuador won a landmark lawsuit on Friday against three government bodies for conducting a faulty consultation process with the community before putting their territory up for sale in an international oil auction.
The ruling immediately suspends any possibility of selling the community’s land for oil exploration. It also sets an important precedent for other communities in Ecuador’s southern Amazon rainforest, trying to keep oil extraction out of their territories.
“Today, the courts recognise that the Waorani people, and all indigenous peoples, have rights over our territories that must be respected,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, one of the Waorani plaintiffs and representative of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality Ecuador Pastaza (CONCONAWEP).
“The government’s interests in oil is not more valuable than our rights, our forests, our lives,” she added.
In March, the Waorani community sued the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, the Secretary of Hydrocarbons and the Ministry of Environment for conducting a faulty consultation process with the community in 2012 before putting their territory up for sale in an international oil auction.
According to both national and international law, communities must be consulted before any extraction process is planned on or near their territory in what is called the free, prior and informed consultation process. As a result of the 2012 consultation process with the Waorani, and seven other indigenous nationalities, the Amazon rainforest was divided into 16 different oil blocks and put up for sale in an international oil auction. Last year, the government reduced the size of the oil auction to two blocks, removing block 22 that overlaps Waorani territory, but it quickly added that the region would not be exempt from future drilling plans.
During the three-day trial earlier this month, the three judges heard testimony from various experts and elders from the community who explained how the consultation process in 2012 was largely used as a way to promote oil extraction, rather than warn communities of its environmental impacts.
Friday’s ruling lasted almost six hours, as the judges highlighted a number of ways in which the consultation process was inadequate and violated the community’s right to self-determination. According to the tribunal, during these consultation meetings: there was no real dialogue with communities, they were called without enough prior notice, there were not enough elders present, and there were no clear translations into the local Waorani language, among others problems.
“This is undoubtedly a historic day for the advancement of rights and constitutional development in Ecuador,” said Lina Maria Espinosa, the community’s lawyer with the local non-government organisation Amazon Frontlines.
“It is the demonstration that state development plans cannot be executed over the life and integrity of the people,” Espinosa said, adding the ruling sets an important precedent for the seven other indigenous nations consulted in the 2012 process.
Dario Cueva, the lawyer representing the Ministry of the Environment, refused to comment on the ruling.
He told said by phone that his team was “analysing the case and what our next steps will be”.
The Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment by the time of publication.
This is the second community to win a major lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government in recent years.
Last year, the indigenous Kofan community in the northern Amazon sued the same three government bodies for allowing mining operations to continue near their territory, without undergoing a consultation process. Four judges ruled in the community’s favour and 52 mining concessions were cancelled.