In December of 2015 a member of San Jose de Wisuya’s indigenous land patrol asked community president Alonso Aguinda if he knew anything about a pipeline being built in the forest on the outskirts of their ancestral territory.

“What pipeline?” Alonso replied.

For the Siona and Kichwa living in the community of Wisuya, located on the Ecuadorian side of the Putumayo River that also serves as the border with Colombia, the indigenous land patrol serves as the eyes and ears of a territory constantly under threat.

That day, the community’s land patrol discovered plants covered in motor oil, a huge swath of freshly cleared primary forest, and a pipeline laid out on the jungle floor. One photo taken by the patrol shows Wisuya leader Darwin Rodriguez holding a flayed and discarded vine of yagé, cleared along with dozens of other sacred medicinal plants when the oil company bulldozed through the forest. The oil company’s machinery also clogged up a stream that wove around the bend to Taita Felinto Piaguaje’s ceremonial hut.

 

 

“The river spirits have run away.”

As the son of the Siona of Putumayo’s most revered late shaman, or taita, Taita Felinto has spent his life engaging with these spirits. Felinto has been drinking yagé since he was a child. The hallucinogenic brew, widely known as ayahuasca, forms the core of cultural, spiritual and political life among the Siona and Kichwa in the Ecuadorian rainforest community of San Jose de Wisuya.

No sickness of the body or spirit is treated at a hospital without first consulting with the taitas during a yagé ceremony. No major decision, such as who will be the next community president, is final until the community drinks yagé and reflects. The youth who form the indigenous land patrol partake regularly in ceremonies, receiving guidance and spiritual protection from the taitas so they can better protect their forest territory from those who wish to harm it.

The spirits that the Siona and Kichwa communicate with during yagé ceremonies live in the forest, in the rivers and streams, in the jaguar and boa. They, like the Siona, depend on the jungle to survive.

“The forest is our life! And they went and cut off a vein,” said Taita Pablo Maniguaje, another Siona shaman who lives on the other side of the Putumayo River. “The water from that stream was used by Felinto to prepare yagé — it had a spirit that’s gone now.

A month after the stream dried up, Felinto’s health began to decline sharply. He experienced muscle aches, headaches, a cough that won’t go away, and constant fatigue.

Explained Taita Pablo, “When one of our elders is weakened by the spirits, the rest of us are weakened. We have one single mind when we drink yagé together.”

 

 

Operating within conflict

The Siona’s fight for cultural and territorial survival didn’t begin with this pipeline. After withstanding Spanish conquerors, the rubber boom, and waves of missionaries the Siona’s territory for the past few decades has been at the center of a three-way armed-conflict between the guerilla movement FARC-EP, right-wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian armed forces.

Decades of violence have resulted in a dangerous absence of the Ecuadorian and Colombian state institutions in the region besides the military. The 110 Siona and Kichwa living in Wisuya and the 600 living across the river in the Colombian community of Buenavista have been the victims of gun-battles and mortar shelling; targeted killings; landmines scattered throughout their territory; forced-recruitment of their youth into armed-units for one side or the other; and forced displacement from their homes. In addition, the community of Wisuya has no formal land rights over their 7,000 acres of ancestral territory in Ecuador, which falls within an area recently declared both a national park and a national security zone (both of which prohibit private property rights). The Siona and Kichwa were not notified about these designations. All told, their heightened vulnerability makes the ongoing activity of the oil companies even more egregious and dangerous.

Yet, besieged and encroached upon from all sides, the Siona and Kichwa are taking a stand to protect their forest, their water and their culture from destruction and impunity. “In the Indigenous Rights Defenders training with the Ceibo Alliance and Amazon Frontlines, we saw what oil has done to other communities. The contamination, the internal conflicts, the loss of culture. Love and fear have led us to say ‘Stop’ here,” says Darwin Rodriguez.

The empresa, as it’s referred to by the Siona and Kichwa, was actually two companies tasked with building the pipeline: Ecuador’s state oil company, PetroAmazonas, which already operates dozens of oil wells a few kilometers from Wisuya’s territory, and Amerisur Resources, a young UK-based firm that operates oil blocks Platanillo and Put-12 on the other side of the Putumayo River, in Colombia.

Amerisur specializes in high-risk fields that other companies have passed over. Why wouldn’t most other oil companies want the potentially rich fields along the Putumayo? Because, the Colombian armed-conflict makes business in the region both dangerous and expensive. Without a nearby pipeline on the Colombian side to transport the crude to the coast for export, Amerisur had relied on tankers that were often stolen or burned by armed-actors on the highway heading north. Financially, it makes sense to build a pipeline across the Putumayo River and send the crude to Ecuador’s refinery on the coast. Amerisur paid for and oversaw the construction of this section of the Red de Oleoductos Secundarias (RODA). It understands the investment as an economically safer long-term option for its investors. The Siona and Kichwa of Wisuya, meanwhile, are collateral damage.

The RODA pipeline in question was constructed by Amerisur to transport crude oil from the Platanillo oil field in Colombia underneath the Putumayo River to Ecuador’s coast. (Note: Map made by author. Territory of Buenavista includes both titled land and ancestral territory in process of formal legalization).

The fight against impunity

Since the signing of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization in 1989, indigenous peoples have a formally recognized right to prior consultation by the state before the implementation of any legislation, projects, works or activities that might affect their territories. In Ecuador, the same right is enshrined in Article 57 of the Constitution. That means that an oil company cannot build a pipeline on or near indigenous land without first consulting those indigenous peoples. So how is it that Alonso and the community found out about the pipeline on their territory only after it was halfway completed?

During a site-visit in 2016, an Amerisur representative said the company simply didn’t know that indigenous people lived there, despite the fact that the Siona have lived there for centuries, if not millennia. But the practice of disregarding indigenous peoples also has a long history in the Amazon. As the Ecuadorian government desperately seeks oil revenue to pay off international debt, and with the Ministry of Environment grossly underfunded, oil companies have been allowed to operate with impunity, especially in Putumayo.

A legal demand brought by Wisuya before the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment resulted in an initial finding of fault by the ministries’ provincial office. They found that, in addition to not conducting a process of prior consultation with the Siona and Kichwa, the pipeline project began construction in November of 2015 without first conducting an environmental impact statement, as required by law. In addition, the company lacked an approved environmental license until February of 2016, when construction was almost complete. When that report made its way up the chain to the Ministry of the Environment’s main offices in Quito, it was quickly vacated. Since then, the Ministry hasn’t formally addressed the most serious of the allegations against the oil companies, including their lack of an environmental license or failure to conduct prior consultation of the indigenous community of Wisuya. Instead, the ministry gave the companies a slap on the wrist and ordered a revegetation of the area.

“But the company never consulted us about what plants to use. They came in one day and planted trees that only grow on hills, but this is flat land, some of those trees we’ve never even seen around here,” says Alonso, “Six months later and most of them were dead. Making this area healthy again goes beyond planting a few trees, but they’ve never listened to us when we tell them that the healing must be spiritual.”

On August 27th of 2018, after a two-year investigation, the Defensoría del Pueblo, the state entity tasked with safeguarding human rights, determined that the Ecuadorian state, through the actions and omissions of the Ministry of the Environment, PetroAmazonas and Amerisur violated the collective rights to prior consultation, culture, and territory of Wisuya as well as the rights of nature. In the Defensoría’s resolution, they officially confirm that PetroAmazonas and Amerisur undertook the construction of the pipeline in violation of Ecuadorian environmental law, the constitution, and human rights obligations, causing cultural and environmental damages to Wisuya. The Ministry of the Environment and the Secretary of Hydrocarbons also omitted their obligation to guard, control and protect the rights of the community and nature after initially learning of Wisuya’s complaint.

The Defensoría also determined that the material and immaterial damages to Wisuya persist, and that the Ecuadorian state has the obligation to integrally repair the damages caused, which includes the recovery of the forest and waterways affected, as well as the construction of a new ceremonial house for Taita Felinto under the guidance and participation of the Siona and the taitas. The taitas say the damage is irreparable, the spirits are already gone. And while that may be true, these reparations will help the Siona and their territory begin a long process towards bringing the spirits back.

 

PHOTOS: Wisuya leaders Alonso Aguinda and Sandro Piaguaje denounced the delay and inaction by the Ecuadorian government in the face of clear violations of the law after a meeting at the Defensoría del Pueblo. Back in Wisuya, they receive spiritual protection from Siona elders.

And while the Defensoría’s decision is a landmark victory, compliance with the ruling is not compulsory. In all likelihood, the Siona will have to go to court to guarantee redress from the Ecuadorian government entities found to be at fault, which have acted with a lack of interest and good faith in this case. In a recent meeting with the Ministry of the Environment in Quito, officials tried to convince Wisuya to sit at the table and talk it out with the oil companies to come to an agreement. The Siona took insult to the mere suggestion. After the meeting, a young Siona man recounted, “Sit down with the company that is trying to destroy us? Unless they want to apologize, admit guilt, and guarantee that they will never enter our territory again what is there to talk about?”

Amerisur, in particular, has reacted to the Siona’s decision to keep their territory free of oil with hostility. Despite repeated demands for Amerisur to desist from contacting community members outside of formal community-wide assemblies, Amerisur representatives have on numerous occasions called or cornered individual leaders, asking them to sign documents or negotiate deals. Recently, 27 human rights organizations from across the globe signed a letter to the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office denouncing Amerisur for levying false criminal allegations against Amazon Frontlines lawyer and human rights defender Maria Espinosa, who provides legal counsel for the Siona’s resistance to Amerisur’s plans to begin oil exploration in their territory in Colombia.

With the fight now underway, the leaders of Wisuya feel the targets on their back. For decades, the armed conflict across the river among the FARC guerrilla movement, the paramilitaries, and the Colombian army has utilized violence for conflict resolution. In 2017 alone, over 100 community leaders were killed in Colombia, the majority related to mega projects in the extractive industries. Darwin and Alonso regularly receive death threats for their resistance to oil. Paramilitary pamphlets promising to “cleanse” the area of troublemakers appear on their doorsteps.

“Now when I have to go into town, I don’t talk with anyone,” said Alonso. “I don’t even make eye contact. I’m always alert now. Alert with fear.”

The Siona have persevered through seemingly insurmountable odds in the rainforest territories of their ancestors, and through their current legal battles on both sides of the border the Siona are raising a call against decades of abandonment by the State, against the impunity of oil companies intent on destroying their territory, and against the indifference of those of us whose habits of consumption have placed the Siona people at risk of extinction.

The fight is underway. In May of this year the Siona appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to demand immediate and integral protections from the Colombian state government, resulting in the Commission subsequently granting the Siona precautionary measures that obligate the Colombian government to take immediate action to guarantee the lives and safety of the Siona people. They have also put a temporary stop to Amerisur’s plans for wide-ranging seismic exploration within their Colombian territory, recently winning a temporary injunction on all oil exploration in over 130,000 acres of their ancestral territory. And in Ecuador they will not rest until the Ecuadorian state and Amerisur repair the damage caused by the pipeline to their land, their culture, and to the spirits that fled.

For the Siona of Putumayo, standing up in defense of their territory requires courage and it requires our solidarity. Stand with the Siona by signing and sharing our pledge.

Brian Parker

Brian ParkerDefenders Program Coordinator

When I first came to the Ecuadorian Amazon in 2009 to work on an environmental lawsuit against an oil company from my home state of California, it became clear to me that we as outside lawyers needed to understand that battles for justice are not about the law, but rather about a community or a Nation’s struggle for power. Since joining Amazon Frontlines and the Ceibo Alliance, I’ve had the privilege to participate in a number of indigenous communities’ struggle for power; listening, learning, and collaborating in any way that I can.

Share the movement!