Justice Minister Ledy Zuniga to Offer Apology in Ceremony Wednesday

Justice Minister Ledy Zuniga will offer a public apology to a community from the Sarayaku indigenous group on Wednesday over the development of an oil project in their ancestral lands almost two decades ago, which an international court said was a violation of their rights.

"This is a great step forward for the indigenous peoples' battle to defend their rights and their ancestral lands," Felix Santi, the head of the Sarayaku people, said in an interview. " This day will be recorded in the memory and the history of the Kwichua people." The Kwichua community of Sarayaku is located in the Ecuadorean Amazon in Pastaza province.

The apology will be offered by Ms. Zuniga in the Kwichua language and Spanish in a public ceremony at the Sarayaku's central plaza. Three other ministers, including Environmental Minister Lorena Tapia, are expected to attend.

But observers say the apology won't do much to defuse potential conflicts between indigenous peoples and companies that want to explore for oil in the Amazon.

"New conflicts can still arise with new oil projects, especially in the southeast as under the current law the government is obliged to carry out prior consultation, but results are not binding," said Fernando Santos, a lawyer who works in the oil sector. "That means that although there may be community opposition, the government can develop projects."

In July 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Ecuador must apologize, consult, and compensate the Sarayaku community for violating their rights with the development of the Block 23 concession in Pastaza. It also said the government must accelerate the safe removal of 1.4 tons of explosives that an oil company left in their land.

In 1996, during the government of conservative President Sixto Duran Ballen, Argentina's Compania General de Combustibles obtained a license to develop Block 23. About 60% of the land belongs to the Sarayaku community and the remaining to other indigenous groups.

The court said that Ecuador didn't seek consent from the Sarayaku community in accordance with international standards.

The court said this was a violation of the Sarayaku's rights, including its cultural identity and indigenous communal property.

The community sued Ecuador's government in 2003. Last year, the Sarayaku people received compensation of $1.4 million, but the government still needed to remove the explosives left in the land.

The Sarayaku population totals about 1,200. Since the 1980s, it has publicly fought against oil activity in its territory.

"This is the first time that a Latin American state has gone to an indigenous community to offer apologies for something it did poorly," said Mario Melo, a lawyer for the Sarayaku community. "This could be an example for other communities not only in Ecuador, but the entire region."

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