Waorani people accuse Ecuador of violating their rights and putting their territory up for international oil auction.
Puyo, Ecuador - More than 200 indigenous Waorani people and their supporters marched to the court in the Amazon city of Puyo on Thursday to begin their high-stakes hearing against the Ecuadorian government.
After long protesting oil extraction in its territory, the community are suing three government bodies - the Ministry of Energy and Non-renewable Natural Resources, the Secretary of Hydrocarbons and the Ministry of Environment - for violating their rights and putting their territory up for an international oil auction.
Indigenous protesters carried spears and came in their traditional dress. For the Waorani, this includes clothes made from special palm leaves found in the rainforest, as well as face and arm paint, normally reserved for special occasions and battles.
"I feel a lot of courage today, courage to reclaim our right to our territory. Our territory is not for sale, it's our decision and [the government] has to respect us," said Nemonte Nenquimo, one of the Waorani plaintiffs and representative of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality Ecuador Pastaza (CONCONAWEP).
At the heart of the Waorani lawsuit, filed together with the Ecuadorian Ombudsman, is a consultation process undertaken by the Ministry of Hydrocarbons in 2012, which the community is calling fraudulent. According to both national and international law, governments are required to undergo a free, prior and informed consent process with communities before beginning any extraction projects near their territory to warn them of the negative repercussions and seek their consent.
A Waorani man sings as hundreds of community members and supporters march to the
But the Waorani community say the consultation process undertaken in 2012 was only a series of presentations by the government about how oil money would benefit their community, but said nothing about the negative environmental effects of extraction projects. Following the consultation, the government proceeded to the divide the Amazon into blocks, and put these up for an international oil auction. This includes the Waorani territory, which overlaps with block 22.
Last year, the government significantly reduced this oil auction from 16 blocks to two, removing Waorani territory, but has said the region is not exempt from future drilling plans.
"The life of the Waorani is closely linked to its territory, and this territory is threatened by extractive activities, and the perspective of a Western world that ignores and denies interculturality and the relationship of these peoples with their territory," said Lina Maria Espinosa, the community's lawyer with the local non-government organisation Amazon Frontlines.
'We want our jungle to live healthy and happy'
Among the evidence the Waorani will present testimonies from community elders, official documents of promises made to communities and proof of environmental degradation caused by oil extraction in the Amazon, said Espinosa.
During the opening statements, Oswando Nenquimo, a Waorani spokesperson, presented to the court a map of the Waorani territory made by the community. This is the same as an interactive map and an international petition launched by the community last year in an attempt to save their territory, whereby they show how important the forest is for their survival.
Six lawyers were present representing the government ministries. They declined to comment while the hearing was ongoing.
Oil has always been an important part of Ecuador's economy, contributing to much of its growth from 2006 to 2014, according to the World Bank. The socialist policies of then-President Rafael Correa, and investments in education and social programmes, funded largely from oil revenues, helped lower the poverty rate by 15 percent. But this economy has also angered indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest, who have seen the oil industry cause contamination and community displacements.
Thursday's hearing is expected to go into the night, as all testimonies were being translated between the Spanish and Waorani. A ruling is expected in two weeks.
Among the Waorani supporters were members of the indigenous Kofan community from the north of Ecuador, who won a landmark case against the Ecuadorian government last year for allowing mining operations to continue in their territory that had not undergone a consultation process.
The judges ruled in favour of the community and 52 mining concessions along the Aguarico river were cancelled.
"We just want our jungle to live healthy and happy. That's what we've come to claim. We are not from the city," says Nemonte Nenquimo.