A Tiny Amazon Tribe Just Won A Landmark Case Against The Big Oil Companies

A small Indigenous tribe has won a landmark case against the Ecuadorian government that will change how much power the big oil companies have. The Waorani community, who lives in the Amazon rainforest, banded together and brought forth a case against the Ecuadorian government.

The case goes all the way back to 2012 when the Ecuador government attempted to sell off land to big oil companies. The shocking ruling saved millions of acres of land and included in a specific clause that could set a new precedent for protecting Indigenous land rights.

The Ecuador Government Was Trying To Auction Off Land To Oil Companies Back In 2012

Waorani indigenous woman holding protest sign outside the ministry of natural resources
CRISTINA VEGA/AFP/Getty Images
CRISTINA VEGA/AFP/Getty Images

The Waorani troubles began back in 2012 when the Ecuador government began to divide the southern Amazon forest into blocks. They intended to put them up for sale at an international auction for oil companies. Of those blocks, number 22 overlapped almost entirely with Waorani protected territory.

According to international law, a government has to undergo a “free, prior, and informed consent process” with the Indigenous community before they can make any changes to the land. The Waorani claimed that didn’t happen.

The Waorani Brought The Case Against The Ecuador Government

waorani indigenous man tiri nenquimo walking in ecuador
RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images

Currently, the Waorani include 2,000 total people among 16 different communities. For hundreds of years, they lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers in small settlements across one of the largest territories of the Amazon in Ecuador.

In 1958, Western missionary groups discovered the tribe and forced many families to relocate and convert to Christianity. That makes the Waorani one of the most recently contacted tribes in Ecuador. Yet, in only 60 years the Waorani have lost most of their land to oil and logging companies.

The Waorani Claimed The Government Was “Deceitful”

close up shot of Waorani indigenous people protesting outside ministry of natural resources
CRISTINA VEGA/AFP/Getty Images
CRISTINA VEGA/AFP/Getty Images

While the Waorani used to fight back with traditional spears and blowguns, for the 2012 case, they decided to adopt Western standards and sue the government. They formed the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador-Pastaza and hired lawyer Lina Maria Espinosa.

Espinosa argued that the Ecuador government was deceitful for not properly consulting with the Waorani before offering the land up to big oil companies. The Waorani claimed that a lack of translation and general lack of information was provided to the Waorani in the consultation process.

The Three-Judge Panel Ruled In The Waorani’s Favor

Waorani indigenous people sitting in courtroom raising fists
RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images

The trial went on for three days during which the Waorani presented government documents and testimonies from experts. Notably, they had more than 50 Waorani community members testify that the Ecuador government promoted the economic benefits of oil and disregarded the climate effects.

After six hours, the three-judge panel ruled in the Waorani community’s favor! They said the Waorani’s “cultural differences and communication needs” were not taken into account. Most important was the court ruling that the process violated the Waorani’s right to self-determination.

This Could Change Indigenous Rights And Help Combat Climate Change

The president of the Coodinating Council of the Waorani Nationality celebrating in court
RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images

While there were already laws about consulting with Indigenous communities before acting on the land, the court ruling notably related consultation with self-determination. That means Indigenous communities across Ecuador can now invoke the right to self-determination to save their land.

The ruling put a temporary halt to 12,500 square miles of oil drilling in the Amazon rainforest but the government has already stated they will appeal the ruling. Hopefully, the Ecuador government will learn from their mistakes and value the Indigenous land rights over the greed from big oil companies.