NGO Acción Ecológica responds to the government’s attempt to close the organization down
Members of one of Latin America’s most well-known environmental organisations, Acción Ecológica, are fighting for their survival against a controversial attempt by Ecuador’s government to shut them down.
The move by the government came six days after violence between soldiers, police and indigenous Shuar people opposed to a Chinese-run copper development, Panantza-San Carlos, in the Cordillera del Condor region, and just two days after Acción Ecológica had called for a Truth Commission to be set up to investigate events there. The attempt to close the organisation has sparked severe criticism from UN human rights experts and outrage from numerous civil society organisations in Latin America and elsewhere.
On 20 December the Vice-Minister for Internal Security, Diego Torres Saldaña, requested the Minister of Environment, Walter Garcia Cedeño, to begin the process to “immediately dissolve” the Quito-based organisation. According to Torres Saldaña, Acción Ecológica has been using social media to express support for violence by Shuar against soldiers and police, to claim that extractive operations will negatively affect the environment, and to allege “supposed human rights violations”, including “unjustified militarisation”, against the Shuars. Such behaviour has been “repeated”, Torres Saldaña wrote, and also included mobilising the public and organising demonstrations, making it clear that the NGO “rejects any kind of natural resource exploitation.”
Torres Saldaña’s conclusion was that, by allegedly promoting and committing violence, Acción Ecológica has strayed from its legally-constituted objectives and poses a threat to national security.
The Ministry of Environment heeded Torres Saldaña’s request and gave Acción Ecológica 24 hours to respond initially and then 10 days to respond in full. In its initial response the NGO denied it has ever supported any kind of violence and described claims that it represents a serious threat to Ecuadorian society as “disproportionate.” It accepted it has denounced extractive operations on environmental and human rights grounds, as is permitted under its statutes, and carried out “different types of social mobilisations”, as in accordance with the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and Ecuador’s Constitution defending nature. It also accepted it has made allegations of human rights violations in Shuar territory, pointing out that other Ecuadorian and international organisations have done likewise.
Acción Ecológica’s initial response to the Ministry of Environment copied in various UN offices, an EU delegation, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “We’re confident that what the Ministry of the Interior has stated is an error of interpretation or based on erroneous information obtained out of context,” wrote Acción Ecológica legal representative Natalia Bonilla.
On 3 January a 27-page document authored by Torres Saldaña and three other functionaries from the Ministry of the Interior was sent to the Ministry of Environment elaborating on their allegations, providing 11 pieces of evidence for why Acción Ecológica should be shut down. These included three of the NGO’s Facebook links, four of its website links, and two police reports.
Acción Ecológica’s newly-elected president Alexandra Almeida dismisses Torres Saldaña’s allegations. “We looked over the documents that they sent and, really, it is “evidence” that has no substance,” she told the Guardian. “All this we’re including in the document that we’re going to submit on Friday 6 January.”
That document was submitted to the Ministry of Environment yesterday following a public presentation in Quito by several Acción Ecológica representatives. Gloria Chicaiza said the claim they were promoting violence was “false”, and the fact they have been making statements about human rights violations and the negative impacts of extractive operations means they are “fully complying” with their objectives.
Acción Ecológica’s Natalia Bonilla and Esperanza Martinez also spoke. Bonilla said the attempt to dissolve the organisation was far from an isolated attack, but the latest in a long “chain” of “different types of aggression” dating back 10 years, most allegedly originating from the government. In a particularly impassioned speech, Martinez told the audience the government’s accusations were “outrageous” and politically motivated, and compared its attempt to close them to trying to stop a jaguar from roaring:
You can’t prohibit a civil society organisation from expressing and organising itself, from holding protests, from filing legal complaints, if those are its objectives. . . The possibility that they may close us pains us greatly. But this isn’t just our problem, because it’s not only against us. It’s a problem that really involves everyone. . . We’ve been on this road for 30 years and we’re going to continue. If they decide to close us, no doubt about it, we will be reborn, stronger, in greater numbers. This isn’t just about defending nature or land, but the right to participate, the right to work together, the right to protest, the right to speak.
There were also contributions from constitutional lawyer Ramiro Ávila, from the Universidad Andina Simon Bolívar, and Ximena Reyes, from the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH). Ávila argued the government has “no evidence” to close Acción Ecológica and it should abandon the process to do so, saying that the NGO has suffered from “systematic persecution” and those responsible should be investigated instead. Reyes described the move to silence the NGO as part of “a regional and global phenomenon.”
Five UN human rights experts are also calling on Ecuador to backtrack closing Acción Ecológica and to reform its legislation, noting that two other organizations, Pachamama and Union Nacional de Educadores, have been shut down in recent years. The experts include the UN special rapporteurs on human rights defenders, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
“It seems Ecuador’s government is systematically dissolving organisations when they become too vocal or challenge official orthodoxy,” the UN experts claim. “This strategy to asphyxiate civil society has been implemented through two decrees – 16 and 739 – that give the authorities power to unilaterally dissolve any kind of organisation.”
Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry responded to the UN claims by accusing the experts of “flagrantly violating” norms and a UN Code of Conduct, and effectively deceiving the Ecuadorian government. It argues that the UN statement is impartial, lacks objectivity, and makes “tendentious statements that misrepresent” events in Shuar territory. It also categorically disputed the assertion it is “systematically dissolving” organisations and “asphyxiating” civil society, and that current legislation is “restrictive.” It stated:
It’s important to highlight that there are more than 70,000 social organisations in our country which are testimony to an active, participative and organised citizenry. The Ecuadorian state fully complies with its human rights commitments.
Support for Acción Ecológica has poured in from around the world. US NGO Amazon Watch calls it a “pioneering” organisation “largely responsible” for Ecuador’s modern environmental movement, having worked on issues such as extractives, climate change, deforestation, trade and GMOs.
“Many of the [current president] Correa administration’s landmark environmental initiatives actually originated with Acción Ecológica, like the 2007 Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which sought to keep close to a billion barrels of crude in the ground underneath Yasuni National Park,” Amazon Watch states. “And the groundbreaking inclusion of the Rights of Nature in the country’s 2008 Constitution would not have happened without the organisation’s work.”
Ecuador’s government, under Correa, made an earlier attempt to close Acción Ecológica in 2009, but failed to do so. “Then 1,000s of people in Ecuador and around the world spoke out against that injustice,” reads a 20 December statement from the NGO saying it is “strictly” complying with Ecuadorian law. “This time we’re receiving new demonstrations of support. We know that, with this type of protest, we’ll be able to reverse the arbitrary and illegitimate closure of Acción Ecológica.”
To the south of Panantza-San Carlos is another copper project, Mirador, also in Shuar territory. Both are run by companies reportedly controlled by two Chinese state-owned firms: the China Railway Construction Corporation and the Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group Holding Company.
Both projects have been marked by conflict. The violence in December left at least 2 soldiers injured, 5 policemen injured and one policeman dead, according to Torres Saldaña, and was followed by a government decision to militarise the region and send in tanks. In August soldiers and police forcibly evicted Shuar families, and houses and other community buildings have been destroyed. In 2014 José Tendetza Antún, a Shuar leader and leading critic of Mirador, was killed and secretly buried just days before he was due to denounce the project to the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature held in Lima.
The Guardian reported that the results of an initial autopsy on Tendetza Antún were “unclear”, and that activists linked his death to his opposition to Mirador.
Torres Saldaña did not respond to questions from the Guardian sent via email. The Ministry of Environment could not be reached for comment.