The Amazon rainforest along the borders of Ecuador and Peru is the most biodiverse region in the world, yet ever since oil was discovered in the area leading to booms in the 70s and again in the early 2000s, fossil fuel extractivism has led to serious deforestation, extreme weather patterns such as droughts and floods, soil erosion, dust storms, and mass carbon store release . The rainforest is also home to several indigenous tribes, one of which is the Sápara, whose territory is within the Yasuní National Park between the Napo and Pastaza rivers. The Yasuní National Park is also where (notably Chinese) crude oil exploitation occurs in the Ishpino-Tambococha-Tiputini [ITT] oil field. On November 28, 2013, Chinese-owned Andes Petroleum bought oil blocks 74, 79, and 83 in Sápara homelands . Ecuador at the time was in a lot of debt and financially suffering from lowering oil prices . Ecuador produces 540,000 barrels a day of crude oil, its top export. As oil prices fall, the country is seeking loans from Chinese companies to keep its economy afloat . Their contract states that profits from the project, thought to bring high oil prices, are to be split evenly between the Ecuadorian state and Andes Petroleum . Opening up such a vulnerable region to fossil fuel development has led to what is called a cultural genocide of a UNESCO Heritage of Humanity group that is already near extinction with only 560 people left [1, 3]. During this time, the government also imposed a highly controversial carbon offset project in the same area. What makes the dire situation even worse is that the government has been, often violently, repressing any civil society organizations and activists speaking out against oil expansion .The Sápara, along with their neighboring indigenous peoples, have been very against these developments in their territory from the beginning, denouncing them for violating environmental and indigenous rights. These people had been very quickly affected by the consequences of the oil extraction, which caused increased seismic disturbances and water contamination .
One of the leaders in the indigenous resistance movement against the Amazonian oil industry is Gloria Hilda Ushigua Santi, a single mother of one son (the other was murdered) without formal schooling and the leader of the Sápara women's organisation (Ashiñwaka) [2, 5]. When asked about her motivation, she said, “Our territory is our ancestral heritage that ancestors left us for human life for indigenous people. The earth is for the future of our children. I am a defender because I defend my territory, my culture, and life for every being on earth. One difference between women and men is that men sell the land faster, but women defend because we are mothers who bring children to the world” .
On the same day that Andes Petroleum bought oil rights in tribal land, November 28, 2013, Ushigua Santi led a march of more than 100 Amazonian protesters and nonprofit activist supporters to Quito, where the hydrocarbon secretary’s office was, to stop the government from negotiating the oil rights deal without Sápara consent. They interrupted a meeting between the Ecuadorian president and the oil representatives to deliver the president a petition letter against the deal . Outside, a small group of protesters wearing traditional clothing held signs saying, “Chinese firms, get off my land!” and “Don’t sacrifice the Amazon to petroleum companies!” . However, Ushigua and her supporters were openly insulted at the meeting and complaints were filed against them for crimes such as terrorism, sabotage, and obstruction of public roads even though none of those charges were true because it was a very peaceful and respectful demonstration. Since then, public officials, the national media, law enforcement officers, and even members of her own family have been threatening, intimidating, judicially harassing, and discrediting her . A two week long televised smear campaign began in December 2013, in which TV hosts mocked Ushigua’s traditional clothing as a clown costume among other racist insults . Around this time, the march participants were ordered to go to court for legal prosecution for the march events. Ushigua’s court hearing took place in January of 2014. To date, the charges against the human rights defender have not been dropped, forcing her to incur costly fees for her legal representation in what is clearly an instance of judicial harassment . As she recounts, “A lawyer, Carlos Poveda, represented me and the partners including Mercedes Margoth Escobar and Patricia Gualinga. We have to pay full for legal services but it is very difficult. We just paid a little. I do not remember exactly the price for services but legal defense costs a lot … Even now, we have no update on the file” .
In March 2014, the danger escalated when Ushigua received an email from someone claiming to be a Polish student volunteer asking to do a study of her community. Although she agreed to meet with what she thought would be four young women, six people arrived at her house and took her to the airport. She felt very wrong about the situation. They were not able to board the plane before security men began demanding identification and passports from the alleged students, who began crying and admitted that they were not actually there to study the Sápara, but were hired by the government to investigate them and cause division between community members. It is still unknown why they wanted to fly Ushigua somewhere else . A few months later, on August 16, 2015, Ushigua left her jungle home in the Sápara settlement to go to her house in Puyo with four friends, her adopted daughter, and the daughter’s baby and young child when the Puyo house was raided. Three police officers kicked down the door and attacked her with tasers, beating her badly. She was struck three times on each arm and fell down . Her adopted grandson, who was only 6 years old at the time, was crying and shouting, “Don’t kill my grandmother” . She tried to defend herself, but the police sprayed tear gas directly in her face as 18 more officers swarmed in. The fumes from the tear gas also suffocated her guests, the mother and baby, and the young boy who were nearby. The officers also destroyed her computer, fax machine, phone, entire office, and other furniture during the raid [2, 5]. Although she wanted to file a complaint to the police, she knew that the police and the court judges worked under the government which she no longer trusted, fearing more attacks . Undeterred by such violent repression, however, in October 2015, she and other female indigenous leaders testified against the government’s environmental and indigenous crimes at the 156th session of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), which was a huge step forward in bringing justice to the communities .
The more Ushigua Santi fights, the harder the government tries to crush her resilience. On June 14, 2016, community members found a secret military encampment in their land with agents contracted to stalk and assassinate Ushigua, her family members, and other members of Ashiñwaka. Following this discovery, many Sápara fleed for their lives, fearing an impending genocide and extinction . Yet not everyone could avoid tragic fates. On May 2nd, 2016, the assassins found and killed Anacleta Dahua Cují, Ushigua’s sister-in-law. Cují had been farming on Sápara land when four men raped and brutally murdered her, leaving the body in plain sight. They also attacked Ushigua’s niece on May 26th, 2016 by restraining her and interrogating her about Ushigua’s whereabouts and activities, but she escaped. Only a few days later, on May 31st, five men sat outside Ushigua’s house in Puyo throughout the night as a death threat . Yet Ushigua battled on, continuing to protest for years in alliance with other indigenous groups and outside NGOs, including protests at jungle airstrips preventing planes from getting to the remote ancestral land along with legal action against Andes Petroleum. They managed to delay the project execution all these years despite the Ecuadorian government’s huge investments in destroying the movement .
Finally, on October 10th, 2019, Ecuador's Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources issued a resolution on October 10th, 2019 granting a force majeure request by Andes Petroleum Ltd Ecuador due to the "resistance and social and political opposition" of indigenous peoples potentially affected by the project . A force majeure is an unforeseeable circumstance that prevents someone from fulfilling a contract. This was very significant because Chinese companies are Ecuador’s largest investors . The declaration was a milestone victory because it was official recognition of indigenous rights to informed consent, allowing all the tribes in the area to declare their territory free from extractivism . Any other companies interested in Amazonian oil are now receiving the message loud and clear that any extractivist attempts will result in rights violations charges, court battles, project delays, and a terrible hit to company reputation if they try to start anything in Ecuador .