Eduardo Mendúa, an A’i Cofán Indigenous leader, was shot dead on February 26 outside his home in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Mendúa was an outspoken opponent of oil drilling in A’i Dureno, an Indigenous A’i Cofán community located on the banks of Aguarico river in the Sucumbíos province, where Ecuador’s government authorized exploration of 30 oil wells.
Mendúa, a father of six children, helped lead the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, CONAIE), an association of representatives from all Indigenous nations. He organized a group of forest defenders in A’i Dureno that blocked roads to prevent personnel from EP PetroEcuador, Ecuador’s state-owned oil company, from entering A’i Cofán territory. Oil projects have divided the A’i Cofán, a nation of 1,200 people.
The day after Mendúa’s killing, police conducted raids, seized firearms, and took a suspect into custody, according to a statement from the Attorney General’s office. In the statement, the suspect is accused of driving the speedboat the shooters allegedly used to escaped the crime scene. He has been placed in pretrial detention for 30 days. A judge also approved the protective measures requested for Mendúa’s wife and immediate family, which prohibit the suspect from approaching them in the event he was released from custody.
Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso tweeted that the crime “would not go unpunished”. EP PetroEcuador’s Twitter account retweeted the post; the company did not respond to a request for comment for this publication.
Ecuadorian authorities should follow their initial steps with a prompt, impartial, and exhaustive investigation into Mendúa’s killing, including whether Mendúa was killed due to his work as an Indigenous and environmental defender opposing state-sanctioned oil operations. The investigation should ensure those responsible for the killing are held accountable, including those who may have masterminded it. Ecuador’s Attorney General’s office should provide timely and relevant information to Mendúa’s family.
Oil exploration and production has caused extensive damage to the Ecuadorian Amazon and its inhabitants. Of a total of 65 oil concessions, 63 overlap with Indigenous territories, according to an investigation by environmental news group, Mongabay. The government acknowledges a total of 1,202 oil spills over the past decade.
Globally, additional fossil fuel production impairs the Paris Agreement’s goal of holding global warming to 1,5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels in order to limit the harms caused by climate change. All countries, including Ecuador, should adopt robust and rights respecting climate policies, among them phasing out fossil fuels and requiring oil companies to remedy harms associated to their operations.