Ecuador: The Waorani community and our organisations sue PetroOriental for its contribution to climate change

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The indigenous Waorani community of Miwaguno, FIDH, its Ecuadorian member organisation, Acción Ecológica, and the Union of People Affected by Texaco (UDAPT) have launched the first climate litigation against a company in Ecuador, targeting the Chinese oil company PetroOriental.

The facts

On top of housing a unique ecosystem, the Ecuadorian Amazon is home to indigenous peoples whose way of life has developed in harmony with nature. These peoples have established rights, relating particularly to territory and the maintenance of their traditional ways of life. But for several decades the Ecuadorian government has allowed oil companies to set up drilling operations in the Amazon. Since 1987, a concessions has been granted for Block 14, currently operated by PetroOriental S.A., a subsidiary of the Chinese transnational corporations China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and China Petrochemical Corporation (SINOPEC).

Oil consumption is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, as is oil extraction, which also releases greenhouse gases (GHGs). Although gas capture and recycling technologies are widely available, PetroOriental has opted instead to burn the gas off using flares located near the oil wells or to release it directly into the atmosphere in a process known as venting. The systematic, continuous – but avoidable – emission of GHGs is clearly contributing directly to climate change, whose effects are being felt globally. GHGs also irreversibly alter the ecological balance and damage the health and way of life of indigenous peoples. Furthermore, these peoples are particularly vulnerable to climate change, as their survival depends on their detailed knowledge of their environment, ensuring that their use of resources is in harmony with what nature has to offer. Disrupting the natural cycles undermines indigenous knowledge and makes traditional ways of survival impossible.

Legal action

We have filed a constitutional complaint, an instrument designed to provide emergency protection in the event that constitutional rights are violated. The lawsuit instigated by our organisations condemns the impact of gas flaring and venting that contribute to climate change, which in turn threatens the ecological balance and the rights of affected populations. Upsetting the balance of the ecosystems underpinning the livelihoods of these peoples is a violation of the rights of nature (as protected by the Ecuadorian constitution) and threatens the rights to food, health, to a safe environment and the right to live with dignity. This lawsuit is the first ever to be filed against a company in the name of climate change in Ecuador.

What we demand

The complaint demands the closure of the flares and the end of gas flaring and venting. The plaintiffs ask the companies involved to assume their share of responsibility for global warming and to repair the damage caused by the local impact of this global phenomenon. The protection of nature’s cycles and the prevention and mitigation of the effects of climate change are necessary to guarantee the constitutional rights of the affected communities and to avoid future violations in similar circumstances.

Timetable and results

The appeal was filed on 10 December 2020 and was decided at first instance on 20 April 2021. The judge found that the evidence presented was not sufficient to show that harm had been caused to the rights related to nature and the rights of indigenous peoples. Even if there was a possibility to appeal, the community was subjected to threats of reprisals and attempts of division by the company, which made the situation particularly sensitive and prevented the process from continuing.

Lessons learned

The impact, interference and role played by oil companies in the affected communities must be known. For this, it is important to know the level of vulnerability of the local population to the presence of companies in their territories. Creative solutions must be found to anticipate company pressures and this includes formalising the relationship between the community and its legal representatives to avoid any revocation of the power of attorney. At the same time, it is important to invest the time to build trust with the community to ensure strong collaboration throughout the process, especially in newly-contacted communities.

On the other hand, when working with judges and technical-scientists, the traditions, processes and experiences of the peoples must be taken into account so that the value of traditional knowledge is recognised in the courts and a cultural gap is not created. Each people understands and interprets what is happening in nature according to their own vision, which means taking the time for solid preparation of witnesses, interpreters, and a strategic selection of interpreters for the court.

The evidentiary issue of climate change is crucial. It can be very challenging to establish the causal link between the observed changes in the environment, the company’s activities and the climate change phenomenon in general. Beyond the question of evidence, both communities and judges are still unfamiliar with the concept of climate change.

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