Known for its biodiversity, the Amazon Rainforest is the largest tropical rainforest in the world. It functions as a repository of numerous ecological services, which are crucial not only for the local communities and tribes but also for the entire world. Sadly, deforestation coupled with oil and gas exploration greatly threatens the survival of this natural gem. That is why when this small, indigenous tribe in Ecuador won a lawsuit against big oil and essentially saved half a million acres of Amazon land from being drilled, the whole world took notice and celebrated their victory.
The Waorani, an indigenous tribe in Ecuador, have lived in the Amazon for generations, but their existence and territories are being threatened by deforestation and oil exploration.
The Waorani, also called “Huaorani,” are indigenous Amazonians from Ecuador. These native Amerindians once covered one of the largest territories within Pastaza, Orellana, and Napo Provinces, but today the tribe only has about 2,000 people. They are nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in small settlements. American missionary groups first contacted them in 1958, and since then, many Waorani families have been relocated to larger communities or converted to Christianity. However, they have long struggled to adjust to modern society. For generations, the Waorani have called the Amazon their home, but most of their land is gone due to logging and oil interests.
The tension between oil companies and indigenous communities in Ecuador have existed for over six decades, but when the Ecuadorian government sought to auction off nearly half a million acres of the Amazon rainforest to big oil, the natives fought back.
Ecuador wants to exploit more of the rainforest and develop its gas and oil reserves in order to improve its slow-moving economy and reduce foreign debt and high fiscal deficit. However, the government’s plan to auction off a significant portion of the Amazon land for oil drilling did not sit well with the native tribes. In fact, the tension between the big oil companies and indigenous communities started as far back as the 1960s, when Texaco, now called Chevron, first began operations in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Although the government has the right to extract minerals and develop energy projects on any land, they must first consult the local communities and tribes and inform them about the project and its possible impact.
The Waorani fought the government’s decision on the grounds that they were not properly consulted or informed before the project was passed. Though the tribe won the court case, the government appealed the decision. In the end, the Waorani won the appeal as well.
In April of 2019, the Waorani won their first legal battle against the government’s decision to auction off their land. In July of the same year, the tribe won the appeal that permanently nullified the Ecuadorian government’s consultation process with the indigenous peoples and indefinitely suspended the auction of their land. A panel of three judges delivered the landmark verdict, during which the judges pointed to several structural flaws that occurred in the 2012 consultation process.
There were wide-ranging failings both in terms of design and implementation. Some of the issues that were raised included insufficient time allocation, false reporting on compliance, bad faith, unintelligible communications, and complexities of translation that remained unaddressed. Moreover, the government not only disregarded the tribe’s decision-making practices and traditional governance, but they also failed to include the traditional leaders of the tribe. In essence, the Waorani did not get the opportunity to make a well-thought-out and collective decision on the matter.
The historic verdict is a big win for the Waorani. It not only protects their land but also sets a legal precedent for the other indigenous tribes that inhabit the Ecuadorian Amazon. The court’s decision was even lauded by A-list celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo.
The court’s decision ensured that the Ecuadorian government could not auction off the tribe’s land without their consent. The verdict completely halts the approaching auction of 16 oil blocks, which spanned across seven million acres of Amazon land. The Waorani’s fight against the government’s decision not only saved a good chunk of the precious rainforest, but it also gave other indigenous groups in the region the hope and opportunity to save their lands from oil drilling.
After the court’s ruling was passed, hundreds of Waorani women and men marched victoriously in the streets of Puyo. People across the world joined in the celebration through social media. Hollywood celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo joined in.