“Oil pollutes our rivers and causes climate change, and now it is bringing more diseases to our territory,” Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo said.
The Waorani indigenous community in Ecuador's Amazon filed legal action against the state for failing to act and establish a concerted emergency response to fight the spread of the coronavirus within Indigenous communities, representatives of the first nation informed Thursday at a press conference.
"Despite our continued warnings regarding the risks that we face (...), oil companies' operations, and the legal and illegal logging of our forests has continued, putting our people and relatives in voluntary isolation at imminent risk of physical and cultural extermination," they said in a press statement, as the main factor of contagion comes from timber and oil companies.
"How is it possible that during a global pandemic that threatens people's lives, the government continues to extract oil from indigenous territories, thus exposing us to the coronavirus? It is clear that they care more about money than our lives," President of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador-Pastaza (CONCONAWEP) Nemonte Nenquimo said at the briefing.
"The first Waorani communities infected with coronavirus are located along the oil roads," she explained.
"Oil pollutes our rivers and causes climate change, and now it is bringing more diseases to our territory."
The legal action was filed in the capital, Quito, according to human rights lawyer Maria Espinosa. It consists of demanding precautionary measures and is mainly directed at Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno and Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner, among other public figures.
In the lawsuit, the Waorani demand urgent actions to be taken in coordination with the other involved instances, including the provincial authorities and the presidents of the communities to protect lives in a way adapted to the measures already taken by the communities.
Waorani people did not just sit back, waiting for the government to do something. They have implemented their measures, and are willing to show authorities the correct ways to intervene in the territories, Espinosa said.
Gilberto Nenquimo, President of the Waorani Nation of (NAWE), says he alerted authorities a month ago on what was symptoms associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, but "they did not pay attention" he said, denouncing the government for its historical and continuous neglect of Indigenous people.
"The government has abandoned us and is not actively coordinating with our indigenous leaders. The virus is already invading our territory, it is an emergency that requires immediate action, but instead, the government's attention is turned towards the big cities. They have left indigenous communities in the forest to fend for themselves in this pandemic," Nenquimo said.
The leader added that his community only received support from NGOs. They intervened in the territories to test people with symptoms when -according to the country's constitution-this responsibility lies with the state.
Indigenous nations and communities in the Ecuadorean Amazon all share the same reality. Seventy-three confirmed COVID-19 cases had been recorded in at least five first nations, according to the director of communications for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) in Ecuador, Andres Tapia, who regretted that suspect cases are still rising. At the same time, there are no tests available nor medical attention.
The Waorani currently number around 5,000 in three provinces of the Amazon. They are the most recently contacted of all Ecuadorean indigenous peoples, first reached by a missionary group from the United States in the 1960s.
Since then, their territories have been significantly reduced, and their remaining lands impacted by logging, oil extraction, and colonist settlement, among other issues, according to NGO Amazon Frontlines.
Last year, they won a landmark legal battle to protect over half a million acres of land from exploitation by big oil companies. While this was a significant victory, the fight to protect these vital ecosystems is far from over, and the Waorani continue to resist and fight for their rights and lands every day.