PARIS – Heavily armed assailants seriously wounded two Kichwa Indians in the Ecuadorian Amazon after illegally encroaching on indigenous lands, the French non-governmental organization Paroles de Nature said.
The watchdog also denounced “an increasingly threatening (series of actions) by the Ecuadorian government and (state oil company) Petroecuador” to weaken opposition to their drilling plans in that bio-diverse region.
The goal is to resume oil production in the so-called “Block 23,” despite the staunch opposition of local inhabitants for the past quarter century, Paroles de Nature said in a press release.
But Petroecuador said in a statement that “neither the central government nor Petroecuador had absolutely anything to do with (the conflict), since the oil blocks in question are blocks that were given in concession many years ago to (Argentina’s) CGC and (U.S.-based) Burlington Resources.”
The company said the conflict involved two communities in Sarayaku and that at least three people were wounded.
It added that CGC and Burlington “could never (operate) due to the opposition of the Indians in Sarayaku; there was never oil activity in the area and there’s been no thought to taking the issue up again,” Petroecuador said.
“We regret that the (Indian) leaders want to link the government and the state oil company to a conflict that conspicuously involves the Indians in that area,” the text read.
Jose Gualinga, a Kichwa Indian representative whom Amnesty International named in 2008 as an emblematic human rights defender, told the French group in late March that the government had repeatedly announced plans to “enter Blocks 23 and 24.”
In response, some 30 Kichwa Indians in the self-governed territory of Sarayaku, in the remote eastern province of Pastaza, held a protest in March outside the offices of the Natural Non-Renewable Resources Ministry and Petroecuador in Quito to express their rejection of oil drilling on their lands.
On Friday, two Indians were wounded when the “people of Sarayaku were removing a group that was intending to illegally encroach on the territory’s sacred lands,” Gualinga said in an e-mail message.
The violent incident occurred some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the center of the village of Sarayaku, in the heart of the Amazon jungle, the Kichwa Indian leader said.
Gualinga added that the Sarayaku people suspect that the gunmen were “ex-military who were hired” to ensure access to that territory, whose subsoil has been coveted for decades by oil companies.
He also warned that “dark interests” wanted to carve up Sarayaku to pave the way for oil companies to move in to the area.
To that end, he said an “arbitrary and violent” effort has been forged to create a “supposed community called Kutukachi” within the limits of the Sarayaku territory, something that represents a “clear violation of the rights ... of the Kichwa of Sarayaku.”
Gualinga said that all efforts through legal and peaceful channels have failed and that now “actions that threaten the existence of our families have increased,” including a smear campaign launched against Sarayaku’s leaders.
The Kichwa Indian said in his message that a Sarayaku assembly has asked President Rafael Correa’s government to provide “support and solidarity” and ensure that the territory’s constitutionally protected rights are not violated, although he said that petition has thus far fallen on deaf ears.
He said the Indians had contacted the governor of Pastaza and the police to request that they forcibly remove the intruders responsible for wounding the two Indians, but “they refused to intervene.”
The government accuses the Kichwa people of “separatist” aims and of wanting to create a state within a state, but that is part of a strategy to open the way for “oil drilling and mining projects,” Gualinga told Paroles de Nature in another message on March 3.
Correa, a left-leaning U.S.-trained economist, has shown a willingness to explore alternatives to oil drilling in the Amazon.
Most prominently, he has backed a proposal whereby the OPEC member would forgo extraction of oil from fields in the Yasuni National Park in the country’s easternmost corner if the international community compensates Ecuador for the projected loss of revenue.
He says his government is working on behalf of the poor and the Indians but has also accused some indigenous leaders of becoming unwitting allies of Ecuador’s right-wing opposition.
Paroles de Nature supports the peaceful Frontera de Vida (Border of Life) project, which is promoted in Sarayaku to show how Ecuador’s rich biodiversity can be leveraged to promote economic progress and should not be destroyed through oil and mining projects.
Since 2003 NGO has supported the Sarayaku people and other autonomous peoples around the world in their efforts to protect their cultural and natural heritage.