Amazonian community launches Ecuador’s first climate lawsuit

A group of indigenous Amazonian people are taking a local arm of one of China’s biggest oil firms to court in Ecuador’s first major climate change litigation case

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Flaring natural gas Yasuní Ecuador climate change

Unwanted natural gas is burnt at an oil processing plant on the Napo River near Coca and the Yasuní National Park in Ecuador's Amazon (image: Alamy)

Leaders of the Waorani village of Miwaguno in Ecuador's Orellana province have filed a lawsuit against PetroOriental SA, a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and China Petrochemical Corporation (SINOPEC), arguing that the climate change impacts of gas flaring and venting during oil extraction are “an ongoing, persistent violation of human rights and nature”.

The case, launched in December, is also being brought by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the NGO Acción Ecológica, FIDH’s member organisation in Ecuador, and the Union of People Affected by Chevron-Texaco (UDAPT).

PetroOriental SA operates oil exploration block 14, part of which lies in Yasuní National Park, where gas byproducts are emitted and burned from chimneys. These practices, called venting and flaring, are common in the industry, but controversial because they contribute to climate change and local air pollution. The World Bank, which aims to stop gas flaring worldwide by 2030, estimates that it emits more than 400 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually.

Did you know…


PetroChina is the world's 12th largest corporate emitter of CO2 and methane

PetroChina, the listed arm of state-owned CNPC, is the 12th biggest corporate emitter of CO2 and methane in the world, according to the Climate Accountability Institute’s Carbon Majors project. About 3% of its emissions come directly from venting and flaring.

Lawyers for the Waorani said these actions are not compatible with Ecuador’s constitution, which protects the right to a healthy environment and the intrinsic rights of nature. It was the first country in the world to recognise nature’s rights.

Flaring at the site should stop completely, the Waorani said, and they should also receive funds to help them adapt to climate change.

Indigenous peoples’ lives are particularly tied to the cycles of nature and are therefore especially vulnerable to climate change, the Waorani lawyers argue. The community said it has already experienced altered rainfall patterns and flooding. “Before, the river didn’t swell so high,” said Pego Enomenga, an elder of the Miwaguno community. “It would fluctuate, but it didn’t overflow. Now, the water covers the crops, there’s so much water.”

Asked why the lawsuit focuses on flaring and not on broader emissions from oil, Ivonne Yánez, founding member of Ecuador's Acción Ecológica, said the choice was made to simplify the case: “We wanted to make this direct, easy and rapid link between oil - in this case gas burners - and climate change. If we’d set out to talk about petrochemical activity, extraction, oil, etc. it would be never-ending. It would have been much more difficult to prove.”

FIDH also plans to take legal action against PetroOriental’s sister company, Andes Petroleum Ecuador, for the same gas flaring practices.

If the PetroOriental case succeeds, said Yánez, it will be the first time climate change is directly linked to a violation of constitutional rights in Ecuador.

Although oil will run out in 10 to 15 years, no alternatives are being put forward

Esperanza Martínez of FIDH said it’s also an important lawsuit from a geopolitical perspective since attention usually centres on North American and European fossil fuel firms. SINOPEC and CNPC are, respectively, the first and third biggest oil and gas corporations in the world in terms of revenue, with a combined US$850 billion in 2019.

“This is a Chinese company that has entered into Latin America - not only Latin America but also in Africa and other territories - in a rather aggressive manner,” said Martínez. She adds that petrochemical firms from the global North put the burden of responsibility for climate change impacts at the point of consumption but they should be held responsible for the whole production cycle because of the techonology they employ.

The plaintiffs have taken heart from another recent lawsuit relating to gas flaring in the neighbouring province of Sucumbíos.

On 26 January, Sucumbíos’ provincial court ruled in favour of nine girls from the Amazon who filed an ‘action for protection’ against the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources and the Ministry of Environment and Water to uphold their rights under the Ecuadorian constitution.

The court declared that the Ecuadorean state had disregarded the girls’ right to health by not providing or promoting the use of clean technologies. A recent study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment found that crude oil production in the Amazonian territories of northern Ecuador could have seriously affected the health of local people.

In 2018, 25 young Colombians filed Latin America’s first climate lawsuit, accusing the national government of failing to rein in rampant Amazon deforestation that compromised their their right to a healthy life and environment, and to commitments made under the Paris Agreement.

Energy transition

The case could fuel the demise of gas flaring in Ecuador. But will it help with the wider energy transition?

Ecuador is a small emitter by international standards. Oil is the country’s primary energy source and around half of its greenhouse gases come from the energy sector. Hydropower, its main source of renewable electricity, only contributed around 12% in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency.

Climate change played little part in debates during recent presidential campaigns as Ecuador prepares for a run-off in April. Leftwing frontrunner Andrés Arauz has advocated emissions reductions and forest restoration, while banker Guillermo Lasso proposes to tackle air pollution with more advanced fuels and introduce to cleaner forms, environment news site Mongabay reported.

However, Verónica Arias, executive director of Coalition of Capital Cities for Climate Change, told Diálogo Chino that the subject is not being taken seriously enough at the national level.

“Although oil will run out in 10 to 15 years, no alternatives are being put forward,” said Arias, a former environment secretary for the Quito city government. “There is still talk of betting on extraction, such as oil or mining, but not seriously of a transition process towards viable alternatives for the country based on nature, eco-tourism, bioeconomy, solar energy, wind.”

Nor has there been much talk about ending oil exports, which are Ecuador’s biggest source of foreign revenue. The country has produced roughly half a million barrels of crude oil per day in recent years, although this fell considerably in 2020 due to the pandemic.

In fact, faced with high levels of sovereign debt and Chinese loans that use oil as collateral, Ecuador has vowed to expand exploration and extraction, including building a new port to export its crude. Last year, the country withdrew from the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) so it would not be tied to the bloc’s export limits.

However, pressure from international organisations might force its hand. In January, three European banks - BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse and ING - said they would stop financing oil extraction from the Ecuadorian Amazon following a damning report by Amazon Watch and Stand.Earth. Arias said actions by indigenous communities, as well as some mayors and public authorities, have helped shift the public debate on extraction in Ecuador.

Another significant legal case against a Chinese company challenged the development of a mine, while a public consultation was recently held on whether to go ahead with mining in the province of Azuay, which Arias said could affect local water sources.

Diálogo Chino contacted PetroOriental/ Andes Petroleum for interview but they said their spokesperson was unavailable for comment.