Indigenous rights 'invisible' as Ecuador pushes mining, oil projects: U.N.

QUITO – Excluding indigenous Ecuadoreans from the country's development plans has made their rights "invisible", a U.N. expert said, citing a government push to approve oil and mining projects to extract resources from their territories.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, made the comments on Thursday at the end of an 11-day fact-finding mission in the country.

It was the first visit to Ecuador by the U.N. indigenous rights watchdog since 2009, and came on the 10th anniversary of the constitution – which gives indigenous people collective rights, and was one of the first to give legal rights to nature.

But since then there have been "serious violations of the constitutional provisions", she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, with the government awarding concessions for energy projects on indigenous land without consulting local people.

"So-called development projects have violated and continue to violate their fundamental rights," Tauli-Corpuz said.

At a press conference in Quito, she said she was "seriously concerned" about threats to indigenous communities posed by the possibility of new oil-drilling in Yasuni national park and new oil concessions in Sucumbios province, both of which are in the Amazon. Ecuador's pursuit of mining and oil projects without the meaningful participation of indigenous groups continued to threaten their constitutional rights

Ecuador, one of the smallest producers in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), signed contracts worth $1.6 billion in October to increase oil production and cut production tariffs at oil sites in the northeastern Amazon.

The government wants to double mining's contribution to the economy by 2021.

The constitution gives the government the right to develop energy projects regardless of whose land they are on, but requires that communities are consulted first.

The president's office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Petroamazonas, a division of the state-owned oil company Petroecuador, did not reply to requests for comment.

Since 2008, an estimated 1.8 million acres (728,000 hectares) of Ecuador's protected forests have been made available for mining exploration, according to the Rainforest Information Centre, an environmental non-profit based in Australia.

Days before Tauli-Corpuz arrived in Ecuador, indigenous groups and about 2,000 protesters marched in the capital Quito and handed the national assembly a proposed law that would ban large metal-mining projects.

The draft, a copy of which was obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, would punish government officials who authorised the exploration or extraction of metals.

"We're giving the government until the end of January (to respond to the proposal)," Yaku Perez, president of the indigenous organisation Ecuarunari, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"If at the end of January there isn't a response, dialogue will come to an end and the resistance will radicalise."

Tauli-Corpuz said the development of a new indigenous university and the appointment of indigenous leaders to political positions gave her hope that President Lenin Moreno would redress land and cultural violations committed under past administrations.

But Ecuador's pursuit of mining and oil projects without the meaningful participation of indigenous groups continued to threaten their constitutional rights, she said.

"The priority of the government still remains the same: generating income and economic growth through extractive industries," she said.

"That is really the root cause of many of the tensions that we are seeing now, but also maybe in the future."

(By Johnny Magdaleno; Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)