ORELLANA PROVINCE, Ecuador – Elders of an indigenous group in Ecuador’s northeastern Amazon region filed on Thursday an unprecedented lawsuit against Chinese-owned oil company PetroOriental, saying its operations had contributed to climate change and affected that community’s way of life.
It marks the first time a so-called protective action lawsuit has been filed that draws a direct link between the activities of oil companies in Ecuador and climate change.
The plaintiffs say other companies are also responsible for climate change, but decided to take legal action exclusively against PetroOriental, which is developing Block 14 in the Yasuni National Park and Biosphere Reserve, an area the Huaorani indigenous people claim as their ancestral territory.
“The (Huaorani’s) Miwaguno community is filing this lawsuit in our capacity as victims, because our way of life has been forever altered. Our very subsistence is threatened as a result of climate change,” reads a summary of the legal complaint filed on Thursday at a court in the eastern province of Orellana.
According to the lawsuit, the dispute centers on the burning of associated petroleum gas (a form of natural gas found with petroleum deposits) in so-called “mecheros,” or furnaces, a process that emits carbon dioxide – the primary greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere.
“These emissions have altered the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere, causing climate change globally,” it added.
The legal action is focused on the climate change allegedly produced by the mecheros at oil developments, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, Pablo Fajardo, told EFE.
In that regard, the role of the community elders is crucial because they can attest to the environmental change that has occurred over the past few decades as a result of the burning of associated petroleum gas.
“They can testify to what life was like before the mecheros and what it’s like today. It’s not an environmental pollution issue. There’s been a structural change” that directly affects life and the rainforest, Fajardo said.
Juan Enomenga, one of the plaintiffs and leader of the Miwaguno community, outlined the case brought before that court of first instance in remarks to EFE.
“We want them to turn off the furnaces because they’re causing climate change, they’re affecting our ancestral territories,” he said.
The Huaorani elder says community members are only able to harvest half of what they plant on their chacras (small rural farms) and that their water now is so dirty it is only drinkable after being boiled.
“The wind carries (the gas) all the way here and pollutes the water that we’re drinking, because we don’t have potable water here. The smell also is taking the animals far away,” Enomenga said.
A fellow community member, Huaorani female warrior Juana Baihua, said the constant burning of the associated petroleum gas was not only triggering climate change but causing people to suffer from headaches, stomach pain, coughing, diarrhea and other physical ailments.
“It causes illness, harms the body. That’s why we’re suing. Some heal and some die,” she said.
While the plaintiffs’ protective action should trigger a hearing on the matter in the Orellana court within a period of eight days, their attorneys say they will take their case to the Constitutional Court in Quito if necessary.
The Huaorani, who are one of the 14 indigenous nationalities and 18 native peoples recognized in Ecuador, number fewer than 5,000 and are spread out over a vast territory that includes the northeastern provinces of Pastaza, Napo and Orellana.
Last year, they won a landmark court victory that protected more than 180,000 hectares (695 square miles) of their ancestral lands from exploitation by oil companies.
The Huaorani, who are dedicated to fishing, hunting and the gathering of fruit and medicinal plants, were completely nomadic just a half century ago and only began to settle in small, clan communities after coming into contact with evangelical missionaries from the United States.