Amazon community ‘grants asylum’ to critics of Correa’s government

Ecuadorian journalist Fernando Villavicencio speaks to David Hill about why he has sought refuge among indigenous group Sarayaku.

Fernando Villavicencio (back, centre) with the Sarayaku community.

Something extraordinary is happening right now in a Kichwa indigenous community, Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Three men wanted by the government for slander – politician Cléver Jiménez, doctor Carlos Figueroa and journalist Fernando Villavicencio – have sought refuge there.

On 24 April, Sarayaku announced it would protect the three Ecuadorians until ‘the state guarantees their physical integrity and respects their human rights and lives’.

Their decision to extend protection to the three men entails risk. The government has mobilized helicopters and canoes of heavily armed police and is said be planning an ‘imminent attack’ called ‘Cleaning up Sarayaku’, according to Quito-based El Comercio newspaper and statements and tweets by community representatives.

In April last year, a court sentenced Jiménez and Villavicencio to 18 months in prison and Figueroa to six months for slandering Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. Grassroots groups say the charges are politically motivated. Jiménez, from the indigenist-based movement and political party Pachakutik, has been an outspoken critic of the current Ecuadorian government, while Villavicencio is a former labour union leader, author of Ecuador: Made in China, and has been a fierce critic of the present regime.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a statement in support of the three men calling for Ecuador to suspend a ruling in January 2014 that upheld the sentencing, issuing what it calls ‘precautionary measures’.

Below, Fernando Villavicencio, speaking from Sarayaku during a rare moment of internet access, gives his side of the story:

What are the charges against you?

It’s a lawsuit brought by Rafael Correa as an Ecuadorian citizen, not as president, for supposed slander after congressman Cléver Jiménez, Carlos Figueroa and I requested the public prosecutor to investigate the events of 30 September 2010 when soldiers entered the Quito Police Hospital [under siege by striking police officers] to ‘rescue’ Correa, stating that he had been kidnapped.

Correa’s double standards are quite clear: on the one hand he makes accusations against Chevron, on the other he gives them oil.

But the person who gave the order for that rescue was Correa himself, according to the report by the army. In the military operation that followed, five people – including policemen, soldiers and civilians – died. The public prosecutor rejected our request and, without researching the issue, called it malicious and baseless. It also brought a lawsuit against a congressman without removing his parliamentary immunity, which is a violation of the Constitution.

What is your response to these charges?

As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights indicated in issuing ‘precautionary measures’ [these can be requested from the State to prevent irreparable harm to people in connection with a pending petition or case], the sentence violated due process. In my particular case it went even further: it violated my right as a journalist to freedom of expression.

This is clearly a case of political persecution. The trial regarding the police uprising on 30 September is a tool to silence us and stop new condemnations being made public. It is also a response to the research I did for my book Ecuador: Made in China, which reveals that Ecuador loses two dollars on every barrel of oil it sells to China, which it does in return for the loans it receives from the China Development Bank. Moreover, I’ve revealed that the companies Taurus and Gunvor – both being investigated by the US justice system – re-sell Ecuador’s oil to refineries in the US, including Chevron-Texaco’s refinery in California. This makes Correa’s double standards quite clear: on the one hand he makes accusations against [multinational company] Chevron, on the other he gives them oil.

A little while ago you were living in Miami in the US. Why did you return to Ecuador?

Because I’m innocent. It was almost definite that I would be granted political asylum and that a humanitarian visa would be granted for my family, but once the Inter-American Commission issued ‘precautionary measures’ I decided to return to Ecuador, together with Cléver and Carlos, to face whatever destiny had in store for us. I couldn’t stay in the US as a free man while my colleagues went to prison or into hiding. I thought that Correa was going to respect the Inter-American human rights system but his dictatorial attitude has forced us to seek refuge with indigenous people in the Amazon.

Why Sarayaku?

Sarayaku is a national and international symbol. It’s a community that has provided lessons in resistance to the rest of the world. It’s the only community to have expelled two oil and gas companies from their territories – first Texaco and later CGC – and it won a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2012. I’ve been tuned into, and supported, the aspirations of the Sarayaku people since 1992. They live in true harmony with the natural world, with their own government where decisions are made by the entire community. No one takes more than is necessary from the natural world, and they offer an example of a functioning democracy and respect for life. They show that civilization is to be found in the forest, not cement.

What’s it like living in Sarayaku?

Since 24 April when the 7th Sarayaku Congress – the entire community – decided to accept and protect us, the government launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation against the leaders, inhabitants and us. Since then, the community has been completely mobilized. Work tools, hunting rifles, spears, blow-guns, bows, machetes and knives have all been transformed into instruments to defend Sarayaku territory. For the Kichwa here, an attack against one person is considered an attack against everyone. If someone is threatening their ancestral territory – 135,000 hectares – it is considered an attack against their home. School has been suspended and the community’s own security force, called WIO, which means ‘ant’, keeps watch on the river and at strategic sites in the forests 24 hours a day. No one from outside can enter without permission from the Sarayaku Governing Council.

Sarayaku has provided lessons in resistance to the rest of the world

After Correa announced he would use all available resources to enter Sarayaku and capture us, police and military helicopters have landed at the mouth of the River Bobonaza. Since then the three of us requested the leaders pull us out of the community’s main centre to avoid any encounters which could have fatal consequences. Now we’re moving around between different settlements in the forest, and every now and again we have access to Sarayaku’s only internet point, like now.

Our lives have changed completely. Here we sleep in hammocks or makeshift tents, it rains constantly, and there are mosquitoes, snakes, and primary and secondary forests. Solar panels provide energy. The language spoken is Kichwa, but community members also speak and understand Spanish.

How do you hope this situation can be resolved?

We hope that the government heeds the ‘precautionary measures’ granted by the Inter-American Commission. These are binding, not optional. Ecuador has respected these measures several times before. If that doesn’t happen this time, we will approach other international bodies.

What can the international community do?

Pressure the Ecuadorian government to comply with the Inter-American Commission’s ruling. The people of Sarayaku have decided to protect us because they consider us persecuted for political reasons, but now a military and police assault is being prepared which could lead to clashes with terrible consequences. Those responsible for what happens now in Sarayaku – which has announced it will not permit any soldiers or police to cross into its land – are president Rafael Correa and those implementing the prison sentences which the Inter-Commission has requested to be suspended.