Indigenous group ‘kidnaps’ Ecuadorian soldiers amid ongoing land dispute

A Kichwa woman clearing an area to sow corn to feed livestock near the Napo River in Orellana, Ecuador. (Credit: Tomas Munita, CIFOR/Flickr)

An indigenous group in northeast Ecuador said it has detained 11 government soldiers who were traveling through its territory in a canoe amid an ongoing dispute with the government over land rights.

The Kichwa de Sarayaku posted a statement on its website reporting the detention, saying the soldiers, who were not on duty at the time, had not asked permission to navigate the area and “were called to a dialogue to know their actions” in the Sarayaku territory. The group said the soldiers’ rights are protected.

President Rafael Correa told reporters earlier this week that the detention amounts to an illegal kidnapping.

“This is unconstitutional, it is an arbitrary detention,” Correa told reporters. “This is kidnapping because everyone who stays inside the territory without doing anything illegal respects free mobility.”

Ecuador’s defense minister also demanded the “immediate release” and in “perfect conditions” of the soldiers.

“The National Government recognizes the ancestral territories, but also recognizes the human rights of all Ecuadorians,” Defense Minister Ricardo Patiño said in a statement Tuesday.

The Sarayaku people said they acted in the context of a national emergency recently declared by Correa after members of another indigenous group attacked a Chinese mining site they said encroaches on their territory.

In the statement on its website, the Sarayaku say the emergency decree “threatens the existence, peace and liberty of indigenous peoples.”

The detention comes just weeks after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the highest human rights tribunal in the Americas, held a public hearing to examine three accusations against Ecuador in 2012 that claim the government violated the indigenous group’s rights.

These violations date back to the 1990s, when the Ecuadorian government granted land to the General Fuel Company (CGC) without consulting the area’s 1,200 inhabitants. Over the following years, the company buried 1.4 tons of explosives as part of exploration work, opened roads, deforested sacred land, and destroyed trees and plants, according to El Pais.

The case was filed in 2011 with the Inter-American Court, which ruled the following year. But the government has yet to organize the withdrawal or remove abandoned explosives in the Ecuadorian Amazon, nor has aligned domestic law with international law. The government’s failure to comply with the 2012 ruling has put Sarayaku people in danger, they said, and it prevents them from using a significant portion of their lands.

The Ecuadorian tribe’s struggle is echoed across Latin and North America, as tribes face similar issues elsewhere. In neighboring Peru, an indigenous group in the Amazon has pledged to physically block any attempt by oil companies to operate on their lands after eight oil spills from Petroperu this year alone. In Standing Rock, N.D., activists have resolutely settled in for a harsh winter to continue protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The combined efforts point to a broader trend of oil and logging industries expanding onto indigenous territories without adequate communication with the people who live there. Mining, both legal and illegal, is also taking place on 19 percent of indigenous territories in Latin America, and most of that territory is formally recognized indigenous lands.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com