Indigenous leader assassinated amid conflict over oil that divided community

Indigenous leader assassinated amid conflict over oil that divided community

  • In February, Eduardo Mendúa, an Indigenous leader representing opposition to oil operations in his community, was killed by hitmen after suffering from 12 gunshot wounds.
  • Mongabay looks into Eduardo Mendúa’s life and the oil conflict against the Ecuadorian state-owned oil company Petroecuador EP that divided his community and escalated into his murder.
  • David Q., a member of the community faction in favor of oil operations, has been charged with allegedly co-perpetrating the crime by transporting the assassins to the scene.
  • The incident worsens the fragile relationship between the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE) and President Guillermo Lasso, with the former accusing the government and oil company of amplifying the community conflict.

This article was published in a collaboration between Mongabay Latam and La Barra Espaciadora de Ecuador.

“We’ve been resisting oil operations in this territory since they tried to begin them six months ago,” said Ecuadorian Indigenous leader Eduardo Mendúa on January 12th, 2023. “As a national leader of CONAIE [the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador], I firmly reject these inciting acts made by the government, which is seeking confrontation and violence between our fellow Indigenous brothers. I call on the government to please stop the ongoing violence you have caused.”

Mendúa made this plea on social media networks after clashes between members of the A’i Cofán Dureno Indigenous community arose. The cause: disagreements over an expansive oil project by the state oil company Petroecuador EP, which imposed the project without their free, prior and informed consent, as required. Those in favor of the drilling, which was originally proposed seven years ago, were backed by members of the armed guard and the national police, according to news reports from the Alliance of Human Rights. Six people were injured in the confrontation and tensions continued.

More than a month after that incident on February 26th, Mendúa, who was head of international relations for CONAIE, was killed on his farm after suffering 12 gunshot wounds. His home was located in the A’i Cofán de Dureno community, in the province of Sucumbíos in northeastern Ecuador.

Mendúa’s murder took place two days after he attended a meeting of the general council of CONAIE in Quito. At the meeting, CONAIE resolved to sustain and expand their resistance efforts in rural areas of the country in response to what they see as broken promises by President Guillermo Lasso since the national strike in June 2022 over increased investment in oil and mining. Increased oil and mining projects across the country was a way the president sought to address the country’s massive debt.

Before the intrusion of oil companies, says Omairo Vargas, Mendúa’s brother, Dureno was a united community. According to Edwin Hernández, who led opposition efforts alongside Mendúa, the shift came seven years ago, when the former A’i Cofán Dureno President Silverio Criollo began negotiating the drilling of 30 Petroecuador oil wells in the community.

“They fined people who were opposed. This caused internal divisions. They did not obtain approval from the community, there was no prior consultation, there was no information,” Hernández said. “So, we set up a resistance front. Our grandparents gave us this natural world for us to take care of.”

Eduardo Mendúa was an A’i Cofán leader and head of CONAIE’s International Relations efforts. Photo taken from the Facebook account of Dirigente de Relaciones Internacionales de la Conaie.

The A’i Cofán leader who opposed extractivism

Eduardo Mendúa was thirty-nine years old and married with six children who ranged from three to 18 years-old at the time of his death. He had been a community leader since his youth. In 2010, at the age of 26, Mendúa was appointed president of the A’i Cofán community of Dureno, which has about 600 inhabitants and is located half an hour’s drive from the city Lago Agrio, considered the oil capital of Ecuador. He served two three-year terms as president of Dureno from 2010 to 2016.

“He always had an interest in social issues in his community,” said Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer for the Union of People Affected by Texaco (UDAPT), who had known Mendúa for about two decades.

In 2012, Petroecuador reopened the Dureno 1 oil well, which was closed in 1998 by the community after almost a decade of operation. The well was drilled in 1972 by Texaco at a time when the right to informed consent for inhabitants of the affected areas was not taken into account.

“In 2012, negotiations were held with the support of the entire community,” Hernández said. “[For them to reopen the one well] we negotiated $8 million dollars in compensation. But, for 30 wells, Petroecuador is offering $5 million.”

For Hernández, it is not just a question of unfair negotiation. “We have to ensure the life of the people in the territory,” he said. “We live off of hunting, fishing, gathering. If there is no long-term sustenance, the community could disappear.”

The construction of the Millennium Community, a housing model promoted by former President Rafael Correa, was a key victory under Mendúa’s leadership in 2013. A total of 108 three-bedroom houses equipped with basic services (electricity, water, and sewage) were financed with royalties from natural resource exploitation. However, the wattle and daub homes were not well received by all residents, who still struggled to pay for basic services. Residents were also unhappy that the homes weren’t near the community river and that they were so close together, as reported by the magazine Plan V in May 2019.

“Perhaps at some point [A’i Cofán leaders] were wrong to bring in oil activity,” said Zenaida Yasacama, vice president of CONAIE. “But [Mendúa] said that the activity [of extractive industries in Dureno] would go no further.” In fact, during CONAIE’s general council meeting held on February 24th, just two days before his death, Mendúa wrote in the notebook of CONAIE President Leonidas Iza: “We have to pass a resolution saying no to extractivism in Indigenous territories.”

Eduardo Mendúa lideró un frente de resistencia en Dureno para evitar el avance de las obras inconsultas de Petroecuador. Foto: Tomada de la cuenta de Facebook Eduardo Mendúa.
Eduardo Mendúa led resistance efforts in Dureno to prevent the advancement of Petroecuador’s oil operations on the community without informed consent. Photo taken from Eduardo Mendúa’s Facebook account.

Dureno has a bad history of oil exploitation. The territory is within Block 57, the area most affected by oil spills in Ecuador. According to Hernández, the community’s 9,500 hectares (23,745 acres) are surrounded by about 70 wells.

“Contamination and spills are constant. All the [oil-laden] rivers cross our territories, and we have daily contamination,” he said, noting that there is distrust towards the oil companies: “If something is not written, they do not comply with it.”

A year and a half ago, in 2021, Mendúa was elected head of CONAIE’s international relations efforts. “As a grassroots leader, much of his work was focused on speaking out about the conflicts arising from extractive activities in the northeast of the country,” said Andrés Tapia, head of communications for the Confederation of Amazonian Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONFENIAE).

Tapia recalls that in the final days of his life, Mendúa had joined a strike by the Kichwa community at El Edén, located on the banks of the Napo River. The strike was in response to Petroecuador’s lack of compliance with agreements with Indigenous communities in areas where the company has active wells. “He was the visible face of this resistance,” Tapia said.

“One of the things that pains people is that they have lost a leader, a person they recognized and respected for his commitment and clarity,” adds Jorge Acero, human rights coordinator for Amazon Frontlines, an NGO that defends the rights of indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

A community divided by oil

Among Petroecuador’s current plans is the opening of a trail in a preserved area considered part of the community’s reserve. Plans included the construction of three platforms, each with 10 wells, says Alexandra Almeida, coordinator of the Petroleum Area of the organization Acción Ecológica. The opening of the road began in 2022, but Dureno’s anti-oil faction prevented the project from advancing when it sent a community guard to defend the trail entrance.

As a result, tensions over the trail rose rapidly since mid-2022, until the two sides clashed on January 12th, 2023.

La guardia indígena de la Comunidad del Milenio, parte de Dureno, evitó el avance de las obras de Petroecuador. Foto: Tomada de la cuenta de Facebook Dirigente de Relaciones Internacionales de la Conaie.
The Indigenous guard of the Millennium Community, which is part of Dureno, halted oil operations by Petroecuador. Photo taken from the Facebook account of Dirigente de Relaciones Internacionales de la Conaie.

Acero said that the governor’s office of Sucumbíos was in dialogue with Petroecuador, but the deadline to reach an agreement was the first week of March 2023.

“[Failure to reach an agreement] would have resulted in cessation of the project. If that had happened, it was rumored that Petroecuador would pursue legal proceedings against President Silverio Criollo, who would have already received money and distributed it among some families in the community,” said a lawyer for Amazon Frontlines. In other words, Criollo was under pressure to approve the 30 wells.

Mongabay Latam and La Barra Espaciadora attempted to contact Silverio Criollo via phone calls and instant messaging, but there was no response at the time of publication. Requests for information were also sent to Petroecuador and the ministry of the environment and water, which did not respond to questions about lack of free and informed consent in the A’i Cofán Dureno community.

Eduardo Mendúa’s murder gained national attention at a difficult moment of Ecuadorian politics. According to a CID Gallup poll, the administration of Guillermo Lasso has one of Latin America’s lowest approval ratings (21%), second only to those of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. In addition, CONAIE recently ended talks with government authorities that began in July 2022 and announced its intention for ongoing militia response in Indigenous territories. Meanwhile, Ecuador’s National Assembly is holding an impeachment trial against the president for crimes against the security of the state and public administration.

According to Acero, the current political context favors an investigation into Mendúa’s homicide. The government often avoids taking responsibility but has acted more swiftly in this case compared to those of other environmental defenders who were murdered. For example, authorities have made little progress investigating the killing of Shuar woman María Taant. Members of the police and the Attorney General’s office went to Mendúa’s home on the night of the murder to collect evidence and file a police report. The next morning, they carried out four raids.

El líder A’i Kofán Eduardo Mendúa junto a Leonidas Iza, presidente de la Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (Conaie). Foto: Tomada de la cuenta de Facebook Dirigente de Relaciones Internacionales de la Conaie.
A’i Cofán leader Eduardo Mendúa with Leonidas Iza, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). Photo taken from the Facebook account of Dirigente de Relaciones Internacionales de la Conaie.

‘David Q.’ (suspects in Ecuador are not named), who allegedly transported the assassins to the community by canoe, was apprehended in the early morning hours of February 27th.

“The detainee is a person from the community who is a member of Silverio’s close circle. All of Eduardo’s supporters and those from the Millennium Community are pointing to [David Q.],” said Acero, the Amazon Frontlines lawyer, who was present at the man’s arraignment on February 27th. The State Attorney General’s Office has since charged David Q., for being the alleged co-perpetrator of the crime.

“Eduardo hindered access to the wells and stood his ground in resistance, thereby preventing the [oil] company from entering. They thought that by removing him from the equation that the company would have free reign,” said Almeida, who has been involved in environmental struggles in Dureno since the 1990s. “Companies provoke conflicts with outcomes like this. It has to be investigated, but we already know what is behind it,” he said.

“According to a close relative, [Mendúa] had received threats from other leaders in the area due to internal disagreements. This was affirmed by five testimonies given to the Attorney General’s Office,” interior minister Juan Zapata said in a press conference on February 27th.

Fabiola Ortiz, esposa de Eduardo Mendúa, durante el velorio. Ortiz atestiguó sobre el ataque. Foto: Tomada de la cuenta de Twitter de la Conaie.
Fabiola Ortiz, Mendúa’s wife, witnessed the attack and shares her testimony during the wake. Photo: Taken from CONAIE’s Twitter account.

“The government wants to wash its hands of the matter by saying that it was a fight between community members,” Leonidas Iza said at a wake for Mendua on February 28th. The event was broadcast on CONAIE’s social networks. In a press conference that same day, representatives of the Indigenous organization said that “Petroecuador is responsible for the crime due to the pressure it exerted on the community.”

Acero and Almeida agree with the assertions by CONAIE and Iza.

“Business interests or pressure by the government to promote extractive projects can be seen in the internal divisions and confrontation [in the community],” Acero said. He highlights that this is not an isolated incident, as pressure from oil operations has generated conflicts and murders of other defenders, such as José Tendetza, who was killed in 2014 amidst struggles over the mega-mining project Mirador.

“[In the community,] they say: ‘if Petroecuador had not come, this would not have happened.’ The struggle is not against other Cofan [brothers], it is to avoid exploitation in the territory,” Acero said.

Almeida of Acción Ecológica recalls that, in January, Mendúa already held the state and Petroecuador responsible for the intensifying internal conflict. “In reality, the conflict was created by the intrusion of the oil company into the community,” he said.

On February 28th, CONAIE requested the revocation of the governing council presided over by Silverio Criollo, demanded that the agreements between Petroecuador and Dureno be annulled, and announced that they will attempt to bring the case before international authorities such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, in Dureno, there is pain and fear. On February 27th, Acero noticed an unusual silence in the community. He also learned that a family had fled from its home out of fear.

“We assume that we are next on the list, that they are trying to silence us so that we abandon our acts of resistance,” said Edwin Hernández. However, they plan to maintain their stance, Mendúa’s fellow leader said. “The resistance is going to become more radical.”

This article was first published here on March 3 on Mongabay Latam.

Banner image: Eduardo Mendúa (center) participates in the most recent meeting of CONAIE’s general council on February 24, 2023 in Quito. Photo taken from CONAIE’s Twitter account.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We speak with National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yuyan about the value of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in protecting the world’s biodiversity, and discuss examples of TEK from Indigenous communities he’s visited. Listen here:

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