The fate of the Amazon is the fate of our planet, so who decides?

Nemonte Nenquimo, President of the Waorani Organization of Pastaza, carries the lawsuit in her hands, as Amazon Frontlines lawyer, Maria Espinosa addresses a crowd of supporters from other indigenous nations threatened by the oil auction. Photo credit: Mitch Anderson/Amazon Frontlines

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A historic legal battle has been won for an indigenous group in Ecuador, now the war begins to protect the rest of the Amazon that humanity critically depends on

The Waorani indigenous people of Ecuador won a historic legal battle on April 26, that protects a half-million acres of the Amazon rainforest from oil drilling.

The landmark judgment recognizes indigenous peoples’ rights to prior consultation and self-determination. It also provides an invaluable legal precedent for other indigenous nations across the Amazon, in their efforts to protect this crucial biome.

The legal judgment concerned a plan by the Ecuadorian government, announced in 2012, to auction more than seven million acres of the country’s south-central Amazon forest to oil companies, and despoil a vast area of primary rainforest, home to seven indigenous nations, the Waorani among them. 

The arc of the Waorani fight to keep oil drilling off their land spanned six years of organizing, protest, alliance-building, territorial mapping and legal filings. That struggle, and its outcome, highlights the vulnerability of indigenous rainforest communities to government and industry abuse, as well as the tremendous power that indigenous nations can wield to stop the devastation of their ancestral forests, which are also carbon sinks of vital importance to us all. 

For the Waorani, the news that their rainforest homeland would be put on the auction block came suddenly, in a series of hurried and confusing government visits to their villages.  

“They came to our community in a plane and stayed for an hour,” said Memo Ahua, a Waorani elder.

“They promised hospitals, schools, housing. They used technical words we didn’t understand. They didn’t mention contamination. We signed a paper at the meeting — we thought it was an attendance sheet. They gave us bread and cola.  We didn’t understand they were planning to sell our land to the oil companies.”  

Unfortunately, the practice of relegating indigenous peoples to the sidelines in decisions that affect their forests, their cultures, and our shared climate, is the rule, not the exception.  

The Waorani have lived in the mountainous headwaters of the Upper Amazon for centuries. Their rights to their ancestral land are enshrined in the Ecuadorian Constitution and in ILO 169, a U.N. law to which Ecuador is a signatory.

But the government’s attempt to lease their land from under them illustrates a problem all too common throughout Ecuador and the wider Amazon: “rights” that exist on paper are not protected in practice. Too often, the fate of the forest is often decided by money-strapped regional governments and resource-hungry multinational companies.   

Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo, along with other indigenous leaders from the Siona and Kofan nations, stand alongside an oil pipeline in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo credit: Mitch Anderson/Amazon Frontlines

In 2018, facing the government’s renewed plans to put their territory on the auction block, the Waorani convened a series of urgent regional assemblies to develop a strategy to defend their rights.

“It will take more than our spears to defend our lands” said Memo Ahua at one of the meetings, which brought together local indigenous leaders and international NGO partners and allies. 

Indeed, it did. Six years of community-based organizing in roadless Waorani villages followed, including the creation of a sophisticated territorial map identifying more than 10,000 points of spiritual, cultural and biological importance to the Waorani – all threatened by the government’s oil drilling plans.

The biological stakes of the ruling were put under a global spotlight a week after the verdict, when the United Nations released a devastating scientific report forecasting the extinction of a million plants and animals in the coming decades. Many of these extinctions would take place in the Amazon, home to 10 percent of the planet’s species.

The Amazon rainforest also produces 20 percent of our oxygen. It sucks in and stores more carbon pollution than any other place on Earth. We cannot protect the climate or stop the extinction crisis, without protecting the Amazon rainforest.

The legal victory being celebrated by the Waorani is key to this wider effort, as it is emblematic of the indigenous rights crisis at the center of the broader environmental struggle: the people for whom the rainforest is both home and national territory are also those best positioned to safeguard the forest’s survival.

This was another point made in the U.N. extinction report, the most comprehensive analysis of the status of life on earth ever undertaken. It included detailed evidence demonstrating that lands under indigenous management fare far better than regions where native territorial rights are not respected. Across the Amazon, indigenous peoples are the ancestral owners of roughly 1.4 million square miles of primary rainforest - ten times the size of California.

Together with the recent U.N. climate report, the extinction report represents a history-defining alarm call to all of humanity that we are facing an existential threat of our own making.

The findings make clear that upholding indigenous land rights is not only the ethical thing to do, it is proven to be one of the most effective tools we have to preserve the life support systems that provide the clean water, breathable air and stable climate all of civilization depends on.  

The struggles taking place in the Amazon are of direct concern to everyone on earth. 

It is incumbent upon the populations of the industrial nations of North America, Europe and Asia to join the indigenous peoples of the Amazon as allies in their struggle; to make consumer choices that don’t accelerate the invasion and destruction of their ancestral territories; and to redeem globalization’s devastating toll on the rainforest by helping the Amazon’s oldest guardians build the capacity, networks, and resources they need to defend their rights and protect their lands in the 21st century. 

If we succeed, the benefits will be shared by all. If we fail, the urgent U.N. reports of recent months provide a depressing glimpse of the future that awaits us. 

Mitch Anderson lives in Ecuador and is the executive director of Amazon Frontlines, a U.S. NGO that works to defend indigenous rights and protect the Amazon rainforest

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