Inter-American Court rules for Amazon people in Ecuador case

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruling in Sarayaku v. Ecuador on July 25, found in favor of a Kichwa community's right to consultation prior to industrial projects on their land—a decision that could have implications for many indigenous peoples across the Americas. The court found that the government of Ecuador violated the indigenous community's rights by allowing an Argentine oil company, Compania General de Combustibles (CGC), on their land without proper consultation. The community of Sarayaku filed the suit in 2006, after CGC, partnering with ConocoPhillips, felled forests, destroyed a cultural site, and drilled hundreds of boreholes for seismic surveying on tribal lands despite never gaining permission to do so from the community. As tensions rose, the Ecuadorian government set up military camps on indigenous land.

The IACHR found that the Ecuadorian state violated the community’s right to be consulted, as well as their community property rights and their cultural identity. The court ordered Ecuador's government to pay the community $1.34 million in damages and $58,000 to reimburse it and its lawyers for legal fees. Kichwa leader José Gualinga said, "The Sarayaku are extremely satisfied with this victory, reached thanks to the efforts of our people and the help and solidarity of organizations devoted to the rights of indigenous peoples."

"The Inter-American Court has established very clear standards for how consultations should be done," said Francisco Quintana, who heads the Washington DC office of the Center for Justice and International Law, which provided legal assistance to the community.

The ruling was hailed by rights groups across the hemisphere. "This sentence will have a far-reaching effect on countries across the region—it makes it crystal clear that states bear a responsibility to carry out special consultation processes before engaging in development projects affecting Indigenous Peoples and their rights," said Fernanda Doz Costa, Amnesty International's researcher on economic, social and cultural rights in the Americas.

The ruling comes as the Ecuadoran government is seeking to open 4 million hectares on indigenous Amazonian lands to oil concessions. (Earth Island Journal, Mongabay, July 31; Indian Country Today, July 28;