The Constituent Assembly formed to discuss and draft a new Ecuadorian Constitution resolved on 14 March 2008 to grant an amnesty to 357 human rights activists who had been “criminalized for their protest and resistance actions in defence of their communities and the environment,” according to an official press release. Most of the 357 are community and peasant leaders, some of them indigenous, from communities throughout the country. The criminal charges against them stemmed from their involvement in grassroots opposition to mining, oil, hydroelectric and logging projects, as a means of protecting water supplies and the environment and defending their communal lands and collective rights. Their crime: defending life, human rights, and nature.
Local human rights organizations, such as the Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (CEDHU), have documented countless cases of the criminalization of social protest in Ecuador. CEDHU has compiled a list of over 100 cases involving a much larger number of individuals, since many of the charges are collective, encompassing entire families, groups or communities. But the dimensions of this problem are even greater, since many of these cases remain shrouded in anonymity, unknown and ignored as cases of common crime. “We celebrate this event as a victory of collective causes over the attempt to individualize the socio-environmental struggle through the prosecution of leaders and community members,” said a joint statement released by human rights organizations right after the amnesty was announced.
Among those cleared under the amnesty there are a large number of residents of the Intag valley, an area of incomparable natural wealth covered by a subtropical rainforest. The valley forms part of the Chocó bioregion, one of the most biologically diverse regions on the entire planet. The local communities face the constant threat of extermination by a transnational mining megaproject but have continued to struggle unconditionally in defence of the rainforest. As a result, many community leaders have been brought up on criminal charges, and close to 100 peasant farmers from the area have faced legal prosecution. During the course of their trials, held in local courts, evidence emerged of strategies concocted by the companies, false statements made by witnesses and irregular proceedings. In the end, all of the defendants were acquitted.
The recently announced amnesty represents a further step and is viewed as highly important by local communities. It implies the full clearance of guilt on the part of community and peasant leaders for their participation in legitimate acts of community resistance. Through the amnesty, an official body is openly and clearly acknowledging the existence of the unjust criminalization of defenders of the environment and of human rights, a phenomenon that up until now had been almost completely ignored by the general public.
The amnesty has also served to expose many of the dirty tactics to silence community resistance used by numerous companies with powerful economic interests in natural resources and raw materials. These tactics include punishing those who get in the way of environmentally destructive business projects by legally prosecuting them for common crimes established in the country’s Criminal Code. The resulting trials are typically “rigged” by buying witnesses and sometimes by bribing public officials. It is not unusual for those accused to end up behind bars. The crimes they are most frequently sentenced for include sabotage and terrorism, rebellion and attacks against public officials, aiding and abetting criminal acts, illicit association, crimes against property (such as theft) and crimes against persons (such as kidnapping), among others. “It is not possible that they can violate the rights of communities, destroy their natural heritage and evict them from their lands under the pretext of generating income for social development, from which these communities are excluded outright,” declared CEDHU.
For these reasons, this major victory in Ecuador has become a reference point and a successful precedent for other communities facing similar situations. Moreover, these are not isolated cases in Latin America.
Through this amnesty, the systematic persecution of those who oppose extractive projects that deplete natural resources, the destruction of tropical rainforests and the violation of human rights has been exposed and made visible to society and to the national and international public. Civil society organizations should follow this lead to demand that other governments adopt similar measures for victims of the criminalization of social protest in their own countries.
The significance of this amnesty transcends the borders of Ecuador, setting an important precedent for peasant struggles criminalized in the same way in other countries. Many Latin American communities and members of social or human rights organizations have suffered or are currently suffering the criminalization of acts of legitimate struggle and resistance in defence of life and nature (for an overview of the situation in December 2007 see WRM Bulletin Nº 125 at http://www.wrm.org.uy/bulletin/125/viewpoint.html). This phenomenon, relatively unknown and systematically silenced, has been exposed and brought to public attention through the amnesty granted by the Ecuadorian Constituent Assembly.
Peasant communities throughout Ecuador are celebrating this encouraging development. The amnesty is the result of determined efforts by the communities affected and human rights and environmental organizations who continue to work vigilantly to ensure that truth and justice prevail. We congratulate all of them for this new victory. The amnesty is a sign that when people fight for it, change is possible.
For more detailed information, see the website of the Ecuadorian Constituent Assembly and the statements by its president, Alberto Acosta (in Spanish) at: http://asambleaconstituyente.gov.ec/boletines/
By Guadalupe Rodríguez, Salva la Selva, www.salvalaselva.org