The men who arrived by plane in the middle of the Amazon rainforest had an agenda. The Ecuadorian government had sent them to meet with the Waorani indigenous people of Pastaza Province. They met, shot some video, and exchanged a few words. A few hours later, the men left the same way they had come.
The Waorani had no idea why the men came—nor did they realize the horrific thing that had just happened during the exchange: they had just signed over their land.
As awful as this sounds, it's a story that ends well. The Waorani people didn't take this lying down; they stood up to the government's fraudulent actions in court; and recently in April, the tribe won their lawsuit against government corruption and big oil. The victory will now set a huge precedent for indigenous people’s land rights in the Amazonian country and beyond.
The Waorani have called the Amazon home for many generations. When the region came under threat from a number of large oil companies hoping to exploit underground oil reserves, a long legal battle ensued. Last month, the three-judge panel from the Pastaza Provincial Court sided with the Waorani, trashing the Ecuadorian government’s consultation process that began in 2012 and rendering the land sale null and void.
The tribe alleged that the government had engaged in fraudulent practices in favor of the oil companies and their own bottom line over the people who rightfully live there. Some people believe (albeit without any evidence) that government corruption played a role in the exchange and that bribes were accepted underhandedly by government officials.
The judges ordered the government to redo the consultation process and apply the standards set by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights prior to any sale related to extracting underground resources. This would take into consideration environmental and cultural impacts that would affect the tribe.
Such legal precedent is hugely important for other indigenous nations of the Ecuadorian rainforest, and possibly even beyond their borders. The ruling ensured protection for half-a-million acres of Waorani ancestral territory from mining or drilling, and it also halted the potential auctioning off of a further 7 million acres of indigenous land to oil bids across 16 oil blocks.
The act supports the Ecuadorian constitution, which guarantees the inalienable, unseizable, and indivisible rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands, as well as their access to free adjudication.
"The government tried to sell our lands to the oil companies without our permission. Our rainforest is our life," stated Nemonte Nenquimo, the lawsuit plaintiff and president of the Waorani Pastaza Organization. "We decide what happens in our lands. We will never sell our rainforest to the oil companies. Today, the courts recognized that the Waorani people, and all indigenous peoples have rights over our territories that must be respected. The government’s interests in oil is not more valuable than our rights, our forests, our lives."