Ecuador’s Indigenous Activists Are Under Attack. Will the Government Protect Them?

In the early morning of January 5, 2018, Patricia Gualinga heard a commotion outside her home in the Amazon town of Puyo, Ecuador. A man was yelling threats and throwing rocks at her house.

“You bitch, next time we will kill you!” she recalled him shouting, in an interview with local media.

As a leader of the Indigenous Kichwa Peoples of Sarayaku, Gualinga suspects she was targeted for campaigning against oil extraction projects that threaten the environment.

As indigenous peoples from across Ecuador commemorate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9, activists such as Gualinga will demand that President Lenín Moreno fulfills his promise to protect them and their territories. The day comes as a string of recent threats and attacks against indigenous human rights defenders, like the one against Gualinga, has highlighted the risks they face.

Elected in April 2017 after serving as Rafael Correa’s vice president for six years, Moreno sought the backing of indigenous groups during the campaign, distancing himself from President Correa, whose policies and rhetoric had strained his relationship with indigenous peoples. Upon taking office, Moreno extended an olive branch by pardoning several high profile indigenous activists who had been imprisoned for crimes allegedly committed during protests two years earlier.

When Moreno met with the leaders of the National Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador (CONAIE) a month later, it was the first time in eight years that indigenous leaders had met with the president in the presidential palace. They presented him with a document outlining their main concerns, and asked his government to protect indigenous human rights defenders.

But the honeymoon didn’t last. Indigenous activists grew unhappy with the government’s plans to attract mining investments, among other complaints, and in late 2017, CONAIE led a weeks-long march from Puyo to Quito to demand “dialogue with results”. The march culminated in a meeting with Moreno, who promised not to grant new mining concessions to companies that don’t meet their environmental obligations.

Now, indigenous human rights activists say the government has failed to investigate the attacks and threats against them in the first half of 2018.

Although the president of the Sapara nation, Nema Grefa Ushigua, reported receiving threats in April, she says the government has not provided her with protection measures such as security cameras or police protection.

“I’m not scared,” she said in a press conference at the time. “As a Sapara woman, I will keep fighting for my territory.”

And, on May 13, Salomé Aranda, the Kichwa leader of the Moretecocha community, awoke at dawn to the sound of unidentified assailants throwing rocks at her home. The authorities have not revealed whether the attack on Aranda, who has protested oil drilling in the Villano river basin, is being investigated.

Gualinga, Grefa and Aranda are members of the Amazonian Women’s Collective. They met with Moreno in March to request protective measures for female human rights defenders, many of whom have been threatened because of their opposition to extractive projects. In a tweet following that meeting, Moreno said that indigenous women’s concerns were legitimate, and that his government was committed to protecting them and their children.

Yet the attacks continued. In another incident, Yaku Pérez Guartambel, a water rights defender and president of the Confederation of the Kichwa Peoples of Ecuador and the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations, was attacked and briefly abducted while driving on May 9. Pérez says his assailants damaged his vehicle and accused him of orchestrating the recent torching of a nearby camp belonging to the Río Blanco mining project.

The following day, Pérez filed a complaint for kidnapping, torture and attempted murder at the local prosecutor’s office.

“The government is responsible for this, for insisting on moving forward with the project,” he later told the press.

A civil judge later suspended the Río Blanco project after ruling that local communities had not been previously consulted, although the government appealed. Shortly afterward, the Ministry of the Interior filed a complaint against several activists, including Pérez, accusing them of sabotage for allegedly blocking the road leading to the mining camp on May 6. They are being investigated by the local prosecutor’s office. On August 3, a provincial court rejected the appeal and confirmed the suspension of the Rio Blanco project.

This steady stream of attacks and the impunity that surrounds them highlight the dangers facing indigenous human rights defenders in Ecuador.

The Ecuadorean authorities must acknowledge the importance of the work that human rights defenders– including those dedicated to the defense of their land and the environment –carry out and guarantee their safety. As Moreno stated in the 2017 UN General Assembly: “we must not only protect but also take advantage of the traditional knowledge of the guardians of nature: the indigenous peoples, communities and nationalities”.

As for Gualinga, local authorities have denied her request to view surveillance footage that could help her identify her assailant. In July, the local prosecutor’s office closed the investigation into the attack.

“I defend human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples. My position regarding extractives, such as oil exploitation, is very clear,” Gualinga said when asked about the possible motive for the attack. “We did not expect these things to happen in this government.”

This article was originally published by Americas Quartely.