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Forcibly Displaced Siekopai People Celebrate the Return of Their Stolen Land

A new ruling marks the first time an Ecuadorian court has ordered the return of land stolen from Indigenous people.

Siekopai people take part in an assembly representing the union of families during the second binational meeting of the Siekopai Nation community in the Amazon region in Lagartococha, Peru, on January 10, 2023.

Amazon defenders this week cheered what one group called “an invaluable precedent for all Indigenous peoples fighting to recover their lands” after an Ecuadorean appeals court ruled in favor of the Siekopai Nation’s ownership claim over its ancestral homeland.

The November 24 decision by a three-judge panel of the Sucumbios Provincial Court of Justice gives Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment 45 days to hand over title to more than 104,000 acres of land along the country’s border with Peru.

“Today is a great day for our nation,” Siokepai Nation President Elias Piyahuaje said following the ruling. “Until the end of time, this land will be ours.”

The Siekopai — who call their homeland Pë’këya — were forcibly displaced from the region, one of the most biodiverse on the planet, in 1941 during the first of three border wars between Peru and Ecuador. They were then prevented from returning home as the Ecuadorean government unilaterally claimed ownership of Pë’këya.

The ruling marks the first time that an Ecuadorean court has ordered the return of land stolen from Indigenous people.

Amazon Frontlines — a San Francisco-based advocacy group that helped the Siekopai with their case — explained:

With a population of barely 800 in Ecuador and 1,200 in Peru, the Siekopai are on the brink of cultural and physical extinction. On both sides of the border, the Siekopai are currently waging legal battles to recover more than a half-million acres of land that were stolen from their ancestors. The Siekopai’s court victory recognizing Pë’këyamarks a major stepping stone in this binational struggle for the reunification of their ancestral territory. After centuries of violence, racism, and conquest by colonizing missions, rubber corporations, and governments, the court’s recognition of the Siekopai as the owners of Pë’këya is an indispensable step towards restoring justice and guaranteeing their collective survival and the continuity of their culture.

“For over 80 years, we have been fighting to get our land back,” Piyahuaje said. “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,” he added.

Amazon Frontlines attorney Maria Espinosa said that “this victory has been decades in the making, it has been a very long struggle against the government.”

“Now, finally, the Siekopai’s dream of recovering their ancestral territory has been achieved,” Espinosa added. “This groundbreaking precedent paves the way for other Indigenous communities who dream of recovering their territories within protected areas.”

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