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Ecuadorian government sued over road that threatens the Yasuní park and indigenous peoples in isolation

Published on October 19, 2021

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Representatives of various social and environmental organizations filed a lawsuit for precautionary measures against the Ecuadorian State over a road that crosses the Yasuní park a few meters from the buffer strip of the intangible zone of indigenous peoples in isolation.

The Yasuní National Park, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, is the largest continental protected area in the country and an important hotspot or point of high concentration of biodiversity worldwide. However, in 2013, the National Assembly declared the park an area of ​​national interest and authorized then-President Rafael Correa to exploit oil in its interior. The Yasuní also contains the Intangible Zone that seeks the protection of the indigenous Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples in voluntary isolation, whose buffer zone was expanded in 2019.

The problem is that by June 2020, satellite images detected the opening of an oil route in the Yasuní that was rapidly heading towards the Intangible Zone and was already 4.7 km long. The intention was to connect several platforms of the controversial block 43 (Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini) better known as ITT.

By August 31, 2021, the Andean Amazon Monitoring Project (MAAP), an initiative of Amazon Conservation (ACCA), reported that the highway had expanded by approximately another 2 km – that is, it was already almost 7 km – and was now only 10.5 km from the Intangible Zone and 0.5 km from its buffer zone.

A couple of weeks ago, the Alliance for Human Rights of Ecuador – a group in which 15 social, environmental, and human rights organizations participate – filed a demand for precautionary measures against the Ecuadorian State, arguing “the imminent violation of the rights of peoples in isolation and of nature, for the construction of a road that crosses the Yasuní in block 43.”

Urgent precautionary measures

Sylvia Bonilla, a lawyer for the Alliance for Human Rights in Ecuador, comments that Petroecuador, the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE) and the Human Rights Secretariat were sued for being in charge of protecting peoples in isolation.

“The precautionary measures demand that the construction of the highway be ordered to stop immediately because its arrival in the buffer zone of the Intangible Zone is imminent,” says Bonilla.

In addition, the lawyer highlights an issue that is fundamental for the plaintiffs. According to it, the environmental license approved in 2019 by the MAATE granted the possibility of construction only up to the Ishpingo B oil platform, which at that time was outside the buffer zone of the Intangible Zone that protects indigenous peoples in isolation. However, a year after the license was granted, after the approval of Decree 751 that modifies the limits of the Intangible Zone, suddenly the Ishpingo B platform and the Ishpingo A platform were located within the mentioned buffer zone.

What are the implications of this? According to the lawyer, it was decided to move the location of the platforms without permission and that they also continued with the construction of the road without having a license for that new location.

“The Ishpingo A and B platforms are already within this area, that means that they have moved arbitrarily, without an environmental license and without permits to build platforms or roads within the area, and there is even an exploration oil well that is plotted. [by the former Petroamazonas, now absorbed by Petroecuador] within the intangible zone of the Tagaeri and Taromenane,” affirms the lawyer.

The decree 751 approved in May 2019 to comply with the decision of the referendum of 2018, in which Ecuadorians voted to increase the untouchable zone in the Parque Nacional Yasuní by at the least 50,000 hectares, was then used by the Ecuadorian government to reduce protection to the area and allow drilling platforms and hydrocarbon production within the buffer zone.

Shortly after the decree of former President Lenín Moreno was issued, he was sued by the Collective of Anthropologists of Ecuador, whose case has been stalled in the Constitutional Court for more than two years.

Nathalia Bonilla, a member of the group, comments that by removing the protection of the buffer zone, the life of the indigenous population is violated and endangered.

“The flora and game animals that the indigenous people depend on are affected. If there are construction activities, there is a greater likelihood of encounters between uncontacted Indians and workers. In addition to the imminent risk of contagion with COVID-19, which would be fatal for the Tagaeri and Taromenane.”

The doubts increase because, despite the fact that the Petroamazonas map shows the Ishpingo A and B platforms within the buffer zone, in the official response of the MAATE, the entity insisted that a road is not being built but rather the “ecological access” of these two platforms that have license number 032. “The Ishpingo B platform is located 127 meters from the buffer zone of the ZITT [Tagaeri-Taromenane Intangible Zone] and more than 10 kilometers from the ZITT, for this reason does not affect the buffer zone, much less the intangible zone where the populations in isolation are found.”

In addition, the MAATE says that in block 43 (ITT) it has special considerations in its Environmental Management Plan and monitoring is carried out periodically. “In the case of the construction of ecological accesses, these have environmental safeguards. Initially, routes and a biotic assessment are carried out in which Sensitive Biological Areas (ABS) are registered […] Once these ABS are determined, microvariations are made to the initial layout of the ecological accesses to protect them.”

However, Pedro Bermeo, Yasunidos spokesman, says that the peoples in voluntary isolation never cross a highway, “it is known that they surround it completely. This road is very dangerous because it goes to the only area defined to protect them, which does not necessarily cover the entire territory where they move.”

A report on monitoring the progress of road infrastructure in block 43 (ITT), prepared on September 20, 2021, by Carlos Mazabanda, field coordinator in Ecuador of the Amazon Watch organization, mentions that according to the infrastructure plans prepared by Petroamazonas, plans to advance with the construction of the road to the limit of the Intangible Zone, for which a distance of 14 kilometers must be covered. “Making a projection based on the average construction time, we have to advance these 14 kilometers it would take 43.75 days”.

The lawyer Sylvia Bonilla says that in the lawsuit that they have just filed, where they request precautionary measures, they ask that through the Secretariat of Human Rights and the MAATE a follow-up be carried out of “these arbitrary and unconstitutional actions of the oil industry that threaten the life of the populations that inhabit this area and nature.”

The impacts on indigenous peoples in isolation

Manuel Bayón, geographer and founding member of the Critical Geography collective, says that they have made many complaints about the Ishpingo B field. According to him, all the environmental impact studies of the former Petroamazonas indicate that its minimum noise impact ranges are 300 meters, but these consider only the machinery and not the energy and fuel generators that were not foreseen in the initial plans.

Noise is a great threat to the isolated as they move through pristine areas and flee at any sign of intervention.

“Noise is one of the things that most affects isolated peoples because it has implications for hunting and their well-being in space,” says Bayón.

“More than isolated indigenous people, we say that they are cornered indigenous people,” says Pedro Bermeo de Yasunidos, referring to the fact that they are surrounded by oil blocks and loggers in the south of their territory.

The concern about what happens to indigenous peoples in isolation comes not only from Ecuadorian civil organizations, but also from international entities such as the United Nations.

“The Tagaeri Taromenane Intangible Zone (ZITT) does not include the full extent of their ancestral lands […] Even more worrying is the fact that the State is granting extractive licenses that affect said ancestral lands. According to the information received, the extension of the Yasuní National Park has been considered a positive development, the result of the popular consultation in 2018, but the decision to proceed with oil exploitation in the buffer area may produce serious and unpredictable impacts on the indigenous peoples in isolation and in initial contact with the area,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz in 2019, the then United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

For now, social and environmental organizations hope that justice will rule on the precautionary measures requested and that the Constitutional Court, after more than two years, will give its verdict on the controversial executive decree of May 2019 where, according to experts such as Carlos Mazabanda, the expansion of the Intangible Zone to protect the indigenous people in isolation took place towards the northwest and not towards the east, where there were more conflicts and more fear due to the pressures facing the indigenous territory, mainly due to oil activities and, where it was used to remove environmental protections from the buffer zone.

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