In a historic decision on November 24th, 2023, an Ecuadorian appeals court delivered justice that reverberates far beyond the country's borders. The Provincial Court of Sucumbios ruled in favor of the Siekopai Nation, granting them ownership of their ancestral homeland, Pë’këya, nestled between the Amazon rainforests of Ecuador and Peru.
This groundbreaking decision not only marks a significant victory for the Siekopai but also sets a crucial precedent for Indigenous communities worldwide fighting to reclaim their lands.
Pë’këya: A biodiversity hotspot at stake
Pë’këya, a mesmerizing labyrinth of blackwater lagoons and flooded forests, serves as the heart and soul of the Siekopai Nation. This sacred territory, now spanning over 100,000 acres, is a haven for biodiversity, hosting 200 species of reptiles and amphibians, 600 types of birds, and 167 mammal species, including threatened ones like the Amazon river dolphin, giant otter, manatee, and the colossal arapaima.
The area's ecological richness is interwoven with the Siekopai's daily existence, providing resources like the guazay mangrove, used to create fishing equipment, and the gosa palm, a traditional staple of their diets.
Cultural and physical survival for the Siekopai
With a mere 800 members in Ecuador and 1,200 in Peru, the Siekopai teeter on the brink of cultural and physical extinction. For decades, they've been engaged in legal battles on both sides of the border to reclaim over half a million acres stolen from their ancestors.
The recent court victory recognizing Pë’këya represents a pivotal moment in their bi-national struggle for reunification, offering a glimmer of hope after centuries of violence, racism, and conquest.
Restoring justice after decades of mistreatment
The court's decision imposes a 45-day deadline on Ecuador's Ministry of Environment (MAATE) to confer a property title for the Siekopai's ancestral land. Additionally, public apologies are mandated for the violation of their collective territorial rights, recognized by international law and Ecuador's Constitution.
This legal mandate stems from the forced displacement of the Siekopai during the Peru-Ecuador war in the 1940s and the subsequent unilateral claim by the Ecuadorian State in 1979, designating Pë’këya as part of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve without the Siekopai's consent.
This is a historic moment for the Siekopai Nation. The land of Pë’këya has always been and will always be ours. For over 80 years, we have been fighting to get our land back. Despite all the evidence regarding our land title claim – even historians testified that our ancestors dwelled in the area since the time of conquest – the Ecuadorian government failed to uphold our land rights time and time again. We are fighting for the preservation of our culture on this planet. Without this territory, we cannot exist as Siekopai people. Today is a great day for our nation. Until the end of time, this land will be ours. — Elias Piyahuaje, Siekopai leader
An irrefutable case
The Siekopai's case, filed in September 2022, was built on a robust foundation of evidence and juridical arguments. Oral testimonies from elders and youth, amicus curiae briefs from diverse experts, artworks by Siekopai artist Jose Cesar Piaguaje, 18th-century manuscripts, colonial maps, and community-led territorial mapping all coalesced to underscore the indisputable connection between the Siekopai and Pë’këya.
A global message for Indigenous rights
Coming on the eve of the COP28 climate talks and President-elect Daniel Noboa's recent inauguration, this victory sends a powerful message to Ecuador and the world. The ruling underscores the urgency of respecting Indigenous land rights and highlights Indigenous land tenure as a pivotal climate solution.
Indigenous tenure: A powerful climate solution
This landmark decision challenges the conventional 'top-down' approach to conservation through national parks and protected areas created without the inclusion of Indigenous wisdom or consent. Indigenous peoples, as demonstrated by the Siekopai, are the best guardians of their ancestral lands, which can contain up to 80% of the world's biodiversity.
The One Earth Solutions Framework includes Indigenous tenure as part of its 76 science-based solutions to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and avert ecological disaster using currently available technology. Protecting and restoring Indigenous land tenure is critical in the global fight to protect biodiversity and stop climate change.
Paving the way for change
The Siekopai people's triumph opens avenues for other Indigenous communities seeking legal titles and control over their ancestral lands within protected areas. The Amazon rainforest, with its irreplaceable biodiversity, is once again under the stewardship of those who have safeguarded it for generations.