(Creative Commons/Sara y Tzunky)
Four hundred members of Ecuador’s Kichwa people have vowed to "fight to the death" before letting a state-backed oil giant invade 70,000 hectares of pristine rainforest.
For years, Ecuador’s marginalised indigenous people have faced government and corporate oppression. Now, just weeks ahead of a presidential election, this tiny community has had enough and is refusing to back down.
A fight for the land
Corporate malfeasance, oppression of local people and environmental devastation are nothing new in Ecuador. Between 1964 and 1992 Texaco, now owned by Chevron, dumped 18.5bn gallons of highly toxic waste into the country's rivers and streams while drilling for oil. They also dug over 900 open-air waste pits that continue to leak deadly chemicals into the ground. This long-term catastrophe destroyed over 1,500 sq miles of rainforest and endangered tens of thousands of lives.
For decades the impacted indigenous people of the northern region where Texaco operated have waged a legal battle demanding justice. It took years of struggle, but a $19bn penalty was finally levied against Chevron. (The oil giant has said it will continue to fight the verdict, but the tide may be turning.)
A fight to the death
The latest fight to defend human rights and the environment is between a small Kichwa village near Yasuni national park and Petroamazonas, a state-backed oil giant that has the support of the Ecuadorean army.
The Kichwa villagers of Sani Isla live in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, but Petroamazonas is determined to turn their home into an oilfield. The fight began last October when Patricio Jipa, the village shaman, and his British wife convinced their small Amazonian village to deny exploration rights to Petroamazonas.
Undeterred by the villagers' wishes, Petroamazonas sought to split the community with promises of wealth. But the majority of the villagers stood strong, recognising the irreplaceable value of their surroundings. Despite this, Petroamazonas said it would begin prospecting the land on 15 January and would bring the army with them.
Expecting the worst, Jipa spoke to the Guardian about the situation:
If there is a physical fight, it is certain to end tragically. We may die fighting to defend the rainforest. We would prefer passive resistance, but this may not be possible. We will not start conflict, but we will try to block them and then what happens will happen.
To prepare, the Kichwa allegedly gathered blowpipes, machetes, spears and guns, but Petroamazonas never showed up and has yet to make a public statement. It seems, at least for a brief moment, the Kichwa people of Sani Isla have won. Unless the politics change, though, there's little doubt Petroamazonas will be back.
A way forward?
Rafael Correa, Ecuador's current president, has worked hard to be seen as a progressive champion – but that reputation is on the brink of collapse. With elections looming in mid-February, Correa is in a delicate position, especially given Ecuador's newly-written constitution that grants fundamental rights to the environment.
Alberto Acosta, one of Correa's challengers, has been vocal about the president's alliance with the oil and mining sector, claiming he has betrayed the principles upon which he was elected. This is the perfect opportunity for Correa to show his commitment to the environment and indigenous peoples of Ecuador.
Watch more: For a better idea of exactly what's at stake, watch this stunning National Geographic video - then spread the word by signing below and sharing this story with everyone:
Sources: Guardian, BBC, Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch, Avaaz, Business Insider, Green Left, New York Times, Chicago Tribune