In the latest incident to raise questions about the state of freedom of speech in Ecuador, Ecuadorean officials have forced an environmental NGO to close its doors after holding it responsible for acts of violence against foreign participants in a recent auction of oil contracts. The organization, the Pachamama Foundation of Ecuador, has operated in the country for 16 years and claims the closure is an arbitrary violation of the right to dissent.
Following the end of the 11th Oil-Licensing Round in Quito last week, environmental and indigenous rights protestors gathered outside the hotel where the auction took place and confronted several international participants. Among those who were swarmed by protestors were Juan Pablo Lira, Chile’s ambassador to Ecuador, and a Belarusian businessman. In his November 30 Enlace Ciudadano television address, President Rafael Correa apologized to the Chilean government for the incident, and placed partial blame on a lack of proper security. He also aired footage showing Lira being harassed by demonstrators (see the 3:18:00 mark in this video), and of the Belarussian businessman being hit with a pole before fleeing on the back of a police motorcycle. Correa claimed that the protest had been organized online by the Pachamama Foundation and other indigenous rights groups, and promised to prosecute those responsible.
In the days that followed, the Pachamama Foundation released a statement defending the protest as an exercise of its democratic right to free speech. The group also lamented that the government continued “fostering exploration and exploitation in the Amazon without having adequately implemented free, prior and informed consultation processes with indigenous nationalities,” allegedly in violation of the constitution.
On Wednesday afternoon, the full extent of the government’s response to the protest became clear. El Comercio reports that police and a number of Interior Ministry and other officials arrived at the Pachamama Foundation’s headquarters and informed the office that its operating permit had been revoked. Images posted to Twitter from the Ministry’s official account showed that two signs had been posted to the office doors, reading: “Dissolved due to deviation from statutory purposes and objectives.”
Pachamama Foundation President Belen Paez told the AFP that her organization was not responsible for any of the acts of violence, and said she was meeting with lawyers to determine a response. A statement posted to its website yesterday announced that the organization intended to challenge the closure using “all legal means.” The Pachamama Foundation will be holding a press conference later this morning to address the allegations against it.
The closure is in keeping with Correa’s notoriously combative approach to criticism of his administration. In recent years, he has famously gone so far as to pursue a multi-million dollar libel suit against two of his leading critics in the press. Although he later pardoned them the issue has haunted his administration since, and a new communications law passed in June was criticized by international press freedom advocates as an attempt to muzzle the media. The closure of the Pachamama Foundation is sure to fuel similar criticism, as well as his government’s mixed reputation on tolerating dissent.
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