Siekopai win back ancestral territory after forcible displacement

Siekopai win back ancestral territory after forcible displacement
Quito, Ecuador.

In May 2023, three judges from the SucumbÄ«os Provincial Court in Ecuador travelled to the San Pablo de Katëtsiaya Community to hear oral testimonies from an indigenous group, the Siekopai, for a legal case regarding their forcible displacement from their ancestral territory over 80 years ago. 


In November 2023, the Provincial Court ruled that the Siekopai should regain authority and control over their ancestral homeland: Pë’ëkë’ya. 


The group has won back 42 360 hectares of their original territory, traditionally beyond 100 000 hectares, which represents a significant legal victory, not just for the Siekopai, but for other displaced indigenous groups. Despite both international law and the 1998 Ecuadorean Constitution recognising indigenous communities rights to their own land, this decision is the first to provide tangible results for the Siekopai, who have consistently mobilised legal avenues to process their demands (though historically unsuccessfully). 


The Siekopai have, for centuries, fought hard to protect their territory from various external pressures. Much alike many South American indigenous communities, they have experienced significant oppression, violence, and displacement at the hands of colonial regimes, numerous instances of industrial and extractivist exploitation, and state encroachment.


At the height of colonial expansion and settlement, throughout the 16th and 19th centuries, the Siekopai resisted various incursions from both Spanish and Portuguese imperial projects in the region. Though in the late 19th century, during the ‘rubber boom’, the group was hugely impacted by invading harvesting companies feeding new global demand for rubber. Like many of the indigenous residents of the region, the Siekopai fell victim to the accelerating establishment of rubber plantations between 1880 and 1890. Indigenous people, through various land grabs and settler violence, were drawn into debt bondage, enslavement and exploitation.


Significantly, during the Ecuador-Peru War in the 1940s, the community was forcibly displaced and split between the nations of Peru and Ecuador. Their ancestral territory became heavily militarised and the border, which traditional Siekopai territory spread across, hardened. After resolution between the nations, without consultation, the State took full ownership of the area, turning it into the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. Since, they have been fighting to regain their territory in court, despite increasing state encroachment through the Wildlife Reserve expansion, as well, as continued extractivist operations within the area they had been removed to. 


In the 1960s, after the discovery of oil reserves in and around the Aguarico River (Siekopai territory) first by US-based Texaco and later state-owned Petroecuador, much of their ancestral land was damaged by drilling and the corresponding construction of supporting infrastructure and settlement of employees. Much alike the formation of the Cuyabeno Reserve, all of this was done without free, prior and informed consent. In the process, half of local forests have been destroyed and have since been replaced by pastures and monocultures, which are a state requirement for settlers to gain land titles.

They continue to face settlement and encroachment from various sources even within the settlement that has housed them post-displacement. In 2008 and 2015, the Siekopai were forced to evict settlers who were occupying around 200 hectares of the San Pablo de Katëtsiaya Community. In 2018, the SucumbÄ«os Provincial Court ratified the “ancestral character” of their territory and “ordered the immediate eviction of the settlers”, though it was not enforced. 


Since their displacement, the Siekopai have filed a number of requests to various departments, including the environment ministry, but have not received any meaningful response to their claims. Amid continued settlement, and ongoing inaction from the state, in 2022 the Siekopai filed legal action against the government, which resulted in November’s ruling. 


With this ruling, the Siekopai are now have full authority to manage the territory and deal with the resources within their own prerogative. Though, talking to Mongabay, Justino Piaguaje has suggested that this does not absolve the Ecuadorean state of any responsibility, particularly when it comes to “monitor[ing] deforestation or river pollution in our territory”. 


Jorge Acero, a human rights lawyer who represented the community in court, also in discussion with Mongabay, has stated that this represents a watershed moment for indigenous rights in Ecuador: 


“We believe that this titling is not only beneficial for the Siekopai, but also for other peoples who are in similar conditions and still do not have titling.


“There are many communities, especially in the Amazon but also on the coast, who have this same constitutional rights and have not been able to title their territories for many years” 


It has been a decision widely celebrated, not just by the community and it’s legal team. Professor of Sociology and researcher at the University of Quito, Pablo Ortiz Tirado stressed that “after years of struggle and frustration, the Siekopai finally see a light at the end of the tunnel”. 


Importantly, this also changes the nature of sustainable land management. The establishment of state authority over vital environmental resources has consistently failed to sustain ecology integral to the regions health. Handing land back to those with ancestral links, as well as, cultural understandings of sustainability will undoubtedly allow for the area to regain its ecological diversity and health. These are critical victories for the global movement looking to combat catastrophic climate collapse.


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