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Friday, December 24, 2021

Indigenous people battle extractive industries, government in Constitutional Court of Ecuador

Kichwa representatives appear before the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights (CIDH) in 2015. (CIDH photo CC BY 2.0.)
A case inching forward in Ecuador's constitutional court pits indigenous people against extractive industries and the government over the fate of the country's vast eastern jungles.

Among the many issues on which President Joe Biden and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin disagree is the Keystone XL Pipeline Project.

The President blocked Keystone first thing in January 2021. Environmentalists and indigenous peoples' advocates long ardently opposed the project, though as fuel prices rose in recent months, Senator Manchin was among those renewing criticism of the termination.

Meanwhile, an environmental battle implicating extraction and with arguably more precious real estate in contention is playing out in the Constitutional Court of Ecuador.  In mid-November, the court heard the first in a series of oral arguments over a bid by the Kichwa indigenous people in the eastern Sarayaku region to reclaim control of the jungle and repel extractive industries working at the behest of the government.

There are many facets to the Kichwa's struggle.  The government has for decades promoted drilling, mining, and logging in eastern Ecuador, denigrating environment and inflicting injury with the introduction of explosives and toxic run-offs.   Emily Laber-Warren wrote a concise history for Sapiens in April.  The Kichwan spiritual angle is the focus of a short but more recent piece in √Ďan. Indigenous people have won cases in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as long ago as 2012, and in the the Ecuadorean courts, but not always to any avail with the government.

A compelling aspect of the present dispute in the Ecuadorean courts is that the issues overlap with the environmental disaster left behind at Lago Agrio by Big Oil actor Texaco, later Chevron, memorialized in the 2015 book by Paul Barrett, Law of the Jungle.  The Chevron-Ecuador saga and the related prosecution, critics say persecution, of American attorney Steven Donziger continue to make headlinesI'm still waiting for the Hollywood retellings.

Lago Agrio is 217 km north of Sarayaku; that distance says something about the scope of the slowly unfolding tragedy.  I've assigned Law of the Jungle yet again for my spring 2022 Comparative Law class.  I keep waiting for the story to take some major turn, ideally an environmentally sound one, that renders the Barrett book intolerably outdated.  Yet most of what Barrett wrote about the long jeopardy of eastern Ecuador, and the failure of rule of law within the country to respond, remains true today.

I've not been able to find a dispassionate assessment of the November hearings, but plaintiff-friendly Amazon Frontline (AF) covered the day's events.  As AF observed, the hearing followed just days after the Glasgow climate change agreement was concluded.

Implicated collaterally in the case is the emerging legal theory, "rights of nature."  My friend and colleague Dr. Piotr Szwedo, lead editor of Law and Development and a member of the law faculty at Jagiellonian University in Poland, visited Ecuador this year and is conducting ongoing research into the legal implications of the rights of nature.

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