The traditional lands of the Sarayaku – a Kichwa Indigenous People numbering some 1,200 – lie in a remote area of eastern Ecuador’s Amazon region.
“Living in Sarayaku is living in freedom, harmony and peace – we’re all united,” Noemí Gualinga, a representative of the community, told Amnesty International.
But that sense of harmony was shattered in 2002 when Ecuador’s government failed to consult with the community before allowing a foreign oil company on their land to explore the potential for despoiling it of fossil fuels.
The Sarayaku managed to resist those explorations, but since then they have been mired in a legal battle to seek redress and hold the Ecuadorian state to account, as well as to ensure that no decisions affecting their lives are made without their agreement.
International standards require states to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples for any such development projects and laws and policies that affect their way of life. This should be reached through a consultation where communities are involved in the decision-making process at an early stage, and are provided with objective information in an accessible format.
The Sarayaku have had to take their case as far as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica, where a ruling is expected soon.
“Getting to the Inter-American Court has been a very long process, with much suffering,” Gualinga said, adding that along the way community members were made to “feel very small” and subjected to death threats, public humiliation and other psychological pressure.
But the Sarayaku never abandoned their fight and Gualinga is hopeful their persistence will pay off and their story will inspire other Indigenous Peoples – in Latin America and beyond – who face outside interests encroaching on their traditional lands.
“Our struggle and that of so many [Indigenous Peoples] around the world continues – we want to be respected and listened to,” she said.
The Sarayaku and Amnesty International co-produced the upcoming documentary Children of the Jaguar about the community’s fight to defend their rights.