A new report by Ecuador’s Alliance for Human Rights examines abuses against environmental rights defenders over the past 10 years, and finds 449 defenders subjected to intimidation, threats, harassment, persecution, and assassination.
The report concludes that not only has the Ecuadoran state failed to protect rights defenders, but it has also been directly responsible for some of the abuses, like the concerning number of persecutions and prosecutions of rights defenders.
For almost five years, Andres Durazno and his niece Elizabeth would march, block roads, and confront mining authorities and police together. They were leading the fight against mining in their community of Rio Blanco in the south of Ecuador and defending the wetlands that the mine was destroying in the surrounding Andean mountains, says Elizabeth.
Andres used to tell her not to be afraid of the police who attacked them during protests. “They will not harm us, they can’t, because we are within our rights,” he would tell her, Elizabeth recounted recalled.
In 2018, the community succeeded in closing the mega mining project that had operated in their territory for 20 years. During the pandemic, their fight continued as leaders from the community regularly patrolled the mountains to evict the illegal miners who were entering the same territory. But it was Andres who went out the most, says Elizabeth, “it was always him who walked the most, wherever he had to.”
Then, in March of 2021, Andres was stabbed to death in front of his home. Elizabeth says it was an act of vengeance by mining supporters, and even though many people in the community claim to know who the killer is, the police have not made any arrests or advancements in the investigation.
Andres is just one of many environmentalists who has been targeted for his work in Ecuador, a country that has become increasingly hostile for environmental and human rights defenders, according to a new report by Ecuador’s Alliance for Human Rights, a group of local and international rights organizations.
The report shows that rights defenders — particularly those fighting against oil and mining extraction, agribusiness, and in defense of water rights — regularly face intimidation, threats, harassment, persecution and even assassinations. Focusing on just 22 emblematic cases from past 10 years, the report highlights 449 rights defenders who have been victim of such abuses. These include three assassinations — Andres Durazno and two Indigenous Shuar leaders, Freddy Taish and José Tendetza — for which no one has been brought to justice.
The report also holds the Ecuadoran state responsible, not only for failing to protect rights defenders, but also for repeatedly criminalizing them.
“We see, with a lot of concern, that they are increasing criminalization and prosecution exercises against human rights defenders, especially using criminal law,” says Maria Espinosa, senior attorney with Amazon Frontlines, one of the environmental organizations in the human rights alliance. Most of the victims of this process are opponents of extraction projects, she adds.
Indigenous Kichwa leader Patricia Gualinga has long been outspoken against oil extraction near her territory in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. In 2004, she helped file a claim against the government with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to keep drilling away from her community of Sarayaku and is also a prominent member of the anti-extractivist group Mujeres Amazonicas, or Amazon Women.
In 2018, she was attacked in her home in the Amazon city of Puyo, when someone threw rocks at her windows, yelled slander, and told her they were going to kill her. The police never caught the perpetrator or advanced in their investigation, even though there were security cameras outside the neighboring school and nearby police station.
“It affects you,” said Gualinga never travels alone anymore, as it still feels too risky. “They never found those responsible for any of the threats made against the women. I was not the only one who received threats, we’ve received several,” she added.
Risks of increasing extraction
Oil has long been the backbone of Ecuador’s economy, and the country’s budding mining industry is not far behind. Together they both account for almost 9% of the country’s GDP.
But many of these projects, as well as the country’s growing agribusiness sector, are in areas on or near Indigenous, Afro-descendent or Montubio people’s lands, often causing conflict with these populations, and making rights defenders and their territorial fights more visible.
Amazon Frontlines’ Espinosa says she’s concerned about the new conservative government of President Guillermo Lasso, who took office in May and announced plans to double the country’s oil production and increase mining to create jobs and tackle the pandemic-fueled economic crisis. In 2020, the country’s economy contracted by 9% while unemployment hit 6.6% in September, almost double what it was in December 2019.
“There is a current policy of the government of President Lasso to encourage extractive activities, so we understand that social conflicts will worsen and therefore the risk for human rights defenders will become burdensome,” Espinosa says.
The situation globally for rights defenders has also become increasingly dangerous over the years. Between 2015 and 2019, more than 1,320 rights defenders around the world were killed; more than 70% of these murders occurred in Latin America, according to a recent report by Mary Lawlor, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. The vast majority of these crimes were directed at rights defenders connected with protecting the environment, the U.N. report says.
Lawlor’s analysis shows that the deadliest country by far is Colombia, where 397 human and environmental rights workers were killed between 2015 and 2019. This was followed by Brazil and Mexico, where 174 and 151 rights defenders, respectively, were assassinated during the same period.
Although Ecuador is not among the deadliest countries for rights defenders, Espinosa says the overwhelming number of persecutions and prosecutions of rights workers by the Ecuadoran state is just as alarming.
One example is a recent lawsuit launched against Espinosa herself, along with three other attorneys and Kichwa leader Carlos Jipa, who sued the Ecuadoran government and two oil companies in 2020 to demand reparations after an oil pipeline burst and spilled more than 15,000 barrels of crude down the Coca River. The spill affected more than 27,000 people who live along the river. In September 2020, the judge ruled against Espinosa and the Kichwa communities, then filed a lawsuit against the plaintiffs and lawyers, accusing them of inciting violence against her when citizens reacted negatively to her verdict on her social media.
Espinosa says this attempt to criminalize rights defenders is a tactic to put them in a position of needing to defend themselves in front of the state, wasting time and resources. But it’s also a way to stigmatize them in the public eye, causing them to be more isolated and vulnerable.
“If they deprive you of your freedom, if they force you to defend yourself in the penal system, if your integrity and identity end up being questioned or violated, even by the state itself, for many people, that damage is irreparable,” Espinosa says.
Ecuador currently doesn’t have policies that protect rights defenders from these kinds of abuses, but it is a signatory to international agreements to protect these defenders, like the recently implemented Escazu Agreement and the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
In 2019, Ecuador created a special inter-institutional roundtable to discuss and create new policies to protect rights defenders, which is currently chaired by the country’s Ombudsman office. The Ecuador Alliance for Human Rights submitted its report to the Ombudsman and various government bodies to contribute to this discussion, but so far has not heard a response.
It’s unclear where discussions for new policies now stand, as neither the Ombudsman nor the prosecutors’ office responded to requests for interview.
As for Elizabeth Durazno, she says she’s concerned for her safety after receiving so many death threats over the years and seeing her uncle killed. But she won’t stop fighting against mining in Rio Blanco, which she calls “a paradise.”
“Neither I nor he want me to take distance from Rio Blanco. So, I leave fear behind,” Durazno says, adding “the fight goes on with more force.”