Inter-American Court Ruling in Favor of Sarayaku is a Step Forward for Indigenous Rights

Press Release
July 27, 2012

Inter-American Court Ruling in Favor of Sarayaku is a Step Forward for Indigenous Rights

Contact: Sharon Singh, ssingh@aiusa.org, 202-675-8579, @spksingh

(Washington, D.C.) -- Amnesty International today called a regional human rights court ruling in favor of the Ecuadorian Amazon's Sarayaku community a key victory for indigenous peoples.

In the early 2000s, Ecuadorian authorities permitted a foreign oil company to encroach on the Sarayaku's traditional lands without the community's consent, igniting what would be a decade-long legal battle. Lawyer Mario Melo and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) represented the community in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) case Sarayaku v. Ecuador.

The IACHR found that the Ecuadorian state violated the community's right to be consulted and that it neglected the Sarayaku's property rights and cultural identity. The ruling also named Ecuador responsible for putting the life and physical integrity of the Sarayaku at grave risk after the oil company placed more than 1,400kg of high-grade explosives on the community's territory.

"This sentence will have a far-reaching effect on countries across the region," said Fernanda Doz Costa, Amnesty International’s researcher on economic, social and cultural rights in the Americas. "It makes it crystal clear that states bear a responsibility to carry out special consultation processes before engaging in development projects that affect indigenous peoples and their rights."

The ruling establishes in detail how a consultation should be undertaken: in good faith, through culturally appropriate procedures that are aimed at reaching consent. Exploration or extraction of natural resources cannot be done at the expense of an indigenous community's means of physical or cultural survival on their own land.

The IACHR ruling comes at a key moment. Governments throughout the Americas continue to plan and construct motorways, oil pipelines, hydroelectric dams and open-pit mines both within and close to indigenous territories without obtaining the communities’ free, prior and informed consent.

Amnesty International welcomes Ecuador's acceptance of state responsibility in this case, which it acknowledged last April. According to media reports, Ecuadorian authorities have already announced that the state will comply with the IACHR ruling. The human rights organization is calling on Ecuador to comply with all IACHR orders, particularly when it solicits future bids for oil exploration.

"Consultations cannot simply consist of sharing decisions that have already been made," said Doz Costa. "Instead, Ecuador needs to make a real effort to establish an open and honest dialogue, based on mutual trust and respect and with the aim of reaching a consensus."

"The worrying practice, documented by Amnesty International in a recent report, to use any tool in the box to discourage people from voicing their disapproval of projects that will affect their environment and lands and to discredit and attack indigenous leaders, is certainly not conducive to the good faith dialogue ordered by the IACHR."

Amnesty International is urging other states in the region to take immediate and decisive action to remedy the situation of hundreds of other indigenous peoples who face problems similar to those of the Sarayaku. States must implement basic measures to avoid similar human rights violations in the future, including the development of legislation on consultation, training national officials and opening avenues for redress.

The Sarayaku and Amnesty International have co-produced the upcoming documentary Children of the Jaguar about the community's fight to defend their rights.

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.

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