The Aftermath of The Ecuadorian Earthquake

Andy Taylor

Six years after the 7.8 Earthquake on the 16th of April 2016, the human rights of those who survived remain conspicuously ignored. According to World Vision the Earthquake killed nearly 700 people and severely injured more than 6,000. Out of the 7 million people in the worst-affected provinces, 700,000 needed immediate assistance.

Damage was estimated at $2 to $3 billion, with 90 percent of infrastructure destroyed in some areas. An estimated 35,000 houses were destroyed or badly damaged, leaving more than 100,000 people in need of shelter. Water, sanitation, and healthcare facilities were also destroyed.

The Earthquake itself was international news, for a day or two, and then it was no longer the focus of the media. What then happened to those families and communities in the worst affected areas in the aftermath is largely unreported.

At the epicenter of the quake, the two main hospitals in Bahia de Caraquez & Perdenales have yet to be completed. The post-earthquake quick-fix emergency hospitals are still the only option for hundreds of thousands of people in need of medical assistance. The Government of China footed the bill to rehouse the homeless administered by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Urban Development and Housing. Today, those housing projects are inhabited & over-crowded & incomplete.

In 2017, in a 12 month aftermath report, Reliefweb celebrate the historical moment when the first family received the title deeds to their new home after months living in a refugee camp. Anny Loor described the experience she witnessed: “The emotion that I feel is indescribable. We could not expect that this would happen. It is a new hope that has been given to our communities.”

That indescribable emotion, five years after that beautiful moment, remains unfulfilled for thousands of residents of the housing projects. Their new insta-neighbourhoods are unfinished and their rights to the ownership documents of the properties they occupy are still being violated…six years on.

Anny Loor, we are told, is from the multi-agency Housing Land and Property Group, under the leadership of the Ecuadorian Red Cross.

In 2017 they were “actively influencing public policies in order to overcome issues associated to land ownership and security of tenure for people affected by the earthquake.” Presumably, they dropped that ball soon after.

Today, the thousands of homeless/rehoused in North Manabi, who have no proof that they are living in their own homes, are unrepresented in any form by any Human Rights Organisation or Government Department. And without property deeds accessing credit is impossible. 

The advocacy work undertaken by the HLP Group included the adoption of a Ministerial Agreement by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Development and Housing that included “provisions supporting owners who do not possess a formal title who are beneficiaries of earthquake reconstruction programs.”

There’s no sign of that provision today in the projects.

Two months after the Earthquake, On May 25, 2016, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoria Del Pueblo Ecuador) signed two “letters of understanding” in the city of Quito at a safe distance of hundreds of kilometres from the affected provinces. 

The first letter focused on establishing the inter-institutional cooperation framework in the context of the emergency caused by the earthquake. The letters were signed by María Clara Martín UNHCR & Ramiro Rivadeneira Silva from the Ombudsman. They promised to continue working together for the benefit of citizens. Among the actions were monitoring the camps & “collaborating and exchanging information necessary for the fulfillment of commitments and providing technical support.”

On the situation of displaced people, the Ombudsman’s Office: “reaffirmed its contribution to the protection and protection of rights through legal advice and guidance, investigations and defense actions, informal efforts and monitoring of due process.”

No sign of that monitoring is evident today in the projects. No investigations into the home ownership scams and the water exploitation scams survivors have been subjected to for years. No investigation into the reason why there are still families living in the make-shift shelters within walking distance from new houses completed in 2017, ready-to-move-in, that have never been inhabited. They belong to people who clearly do not need them.

Today, the evident inequalities remain heart-wrenching.

The UNHCR/Ombudsman seemingly didn’t batter an eyelid while the Mayor of San Vicente Canton got dangerously close to further displacing the already displaced population of Canoa with a development plan she had brewed with a North American “luxury developer” friend.

On July 13th, three months after the Earthquake, four days after a Presidential visit, Mayor Rosana Cevallos publicized a project plan for a 2,000-square-meter oceanfront boardwalk with a complex of tourist facilities and 60 retail outlets – smack bang in the centre of the area where 650 people once had homes. “We already have the approval of the president,” she announced.

These swiftly made plans were knocked up by a non-governmental organisation, Fundación Futuro, led by the former mayor of Quito, Roque Sevilla, a tourism entrepreneur and environmentalist.

Wisely, the community rejected the plan, despite living in tents under military conditions when the payment for their land plots might have been very tempting.

The reason that thousands of project dwellers do not hold their property ownership documents in at least two housing projects in the epicenter is that the projects were built on land that accidentally didn’t get purchased by the Municipal Authorities.

The project in Perdenales has been built on privately owned land, so the ownership of their properties built on top of it cannot be fulfilled. Apparantly a purchase was underway at one stage but because the land owner owed taxes and didn’t pay them the purchase could not go ahead. But the construction did go ahead. The project in Canoa (housing 500 people) has also been built on privately owned land and a remarkably similar bureaucratic glitch in the purchase process occurred there also. Come to think of it, a similar glitch was the reason for the delay in reconstructing the Bahia Hospital. In June 2020, four years after the event, the first columns of the construction were appearing. But this public hospital is being constructed on land that is not owned by the State.

The 3.8 hectares site is part of a larger lot of land of 20 hectares belonging to two companies whose assets of $7 million have been frozen by a Judge for alleged illegal collection of money.

The land has embargoes, lawsuits, creditors and problems that have been dragging on for years. But even so, it was selected as the site to build the new Miguel Hilario Alcívar Hospital in Bahia. The project began at the end of 2019 and was expected to be ready 420 days after work began. The total cost of the work will be $28 million for an 80-bed hospital to serve a population of 70,000 people that will not even have a neo-natal unit or an ICU.

The delay with the Perdenales hospital was that the contractors robbed the funds. On further investigation, it became apparent that the government’s “Earthquake Reconstruction Committee” didn’t conduct any reference checking when appointing the contractor.

Some of the post-disaster corruptions have been exposed. Yet many more have been conspicuously unexposed. One Municipality, for example, was raided in June 2020 and hard drives and laptops were ceased. To date, there is no sign that any investigation is even being conducted. The embezzlement allegations for which the key perpetrators could face up to five years in jail have been brushed under the carpet.

One community had been subjected to a game of cat and mouse with the public water company who would turn off the tap to deny water access whereby they would have to buy water delivered in tanks from private enterprises that charged five times the price.

At the beginning of the Covid 19 lockdown the community had been denied water for intervals up to eleven days. Appeals to their local authorities were ignored. A judicial protection order was placed on the community obliging the provision of water amongst other requirements and that provision has been sketchy. Skin infections had broken out amongst the children in the project and so the Ombudsman was ordered to check the quality of the water every month – and they have never turned up to do that.

The protection order included a demand that the community are visited by a medical team as many of the children were suffering with anaemia. The medical team visit never materialized. A similar judicial protection order was granted to the entire village, and the authorities have not once complied.

European Union funded, Inredh, Human Rights & Environmental Rights Defenders, took this process thus far to stagnation with excellent legal representation for 500 people. The scale of the water “disconnection” issues affect thousands of people. Yet, Inredh have shown considerable reluctance to defend the Human Rights of other communities of post-earthquake social housing projects.

The Inredh/Canoa campaign for water rights was further publicized in a Public declaration made by Amnesty International concerned that threats, intimidations and attacks against water rights campaigners, including a woman in her 70s with moderate health problems, reported to the Prosecutor’s Office had been unprocessed. Amnesty reiterated that in a previous report about the aggressions and consequent impunity of Amazonian women defending the Ecuadorian rainforest Amnesty International had concluded:

“There is a lack of political will to seriously investigate the threats and attacks against human rights defenders. This sends a worrying message that attacks against human rights defenders will not be punished and, on the contrary, are tolerated by the authorities in the country.”

Since the Amnesty declaration the community have gone a month without water.

Alongside this intolerable systemic abuse of Human Rights Defenders in Ecuador, journalists are similarly threatened and attacked. In 2021, Freedom of Expression watchdog, Fundamedios, registered 289 complaints of aggressions against journalists. 45 percent of those aggressions were from state agents including town council officials, the National Police, The Institutions of Executive Power, public officials, The Prosecutor’s Office, the judicial system and the military. Under those conditions, people don’t even bother calling the police when a crime occurs.

César Ricaurtea, Fundamedios, describes a growing climate of insecurity and lack of protection in Ecuador with threats that come from both organised crime (particularly narco-related) and the state sectors including “judges and prosecutors, security forces, especially the Police, local Governments, Prefectures and municipalities.”

Geovanny Tipanluisa was the editor in charge of a team that traveled in March 2018 to cover a story at the border between Ecuador and Colombia, who were later kidnapped and killed by FARC dissident groups.”

Tipanluisa maintains that the State of Ecuador failed to protect the kidnapped journalists whilst blaming him for planning the trip.   “It was their responsibility, the responsibility of the National Police, the responsibility of the Armed Forces, to have taken care of the journalistic team.” Almost four years later, he believes that things have hardly changed and the threats to journalism are the same or greater.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression, Pedro Vaca, recently said that journalism in the region “is experiencing serious difficulties” and that “polarization is a toxic ingredient for guarantees for freedom of the press.”

The bottom line is that when terrorism is uninvestigated by the State authorities, understandably, the communities affected are left wondering who, on earth, is running the country.

Under these circumstances, Human Rights defense is utterly defenseless. Many activists from the Earthquake zone have understandably moved away. One defender simply does not leave his home to “avoid any hassle.” Others avoid being out in public as much as possible to avoid aggressions.

It’s a far cry from the tourist spin. In 2015, Ecuador launched an emotive campaign during the Superbowl adopting the Beatles song.“ All you need is love.” says a voice that make you weak at the knees, “All you need is Ecuador.”

During the Covid Pandemic Ecuadorian’s became aware of atrocious corruption scandals involving scarcity of public medical supplies while those very supplies were being sold on the black market. Another scandal was exposed involving an elite exclusive opportunity abusing disability cards to benefit from a discount in importing luxury cars into the country. The dark side had been spot lit.

In our village, during lockdown, there was no other option to reach the market or the hospital without using a taxi. Taxis put their prices up. Shops raised the prices of food and families were forced to take water from contaminated wells. Confined to their homes, most people had no access to any income whatsoever. Most people work on a day-pay basis and very few have contractual employment. Atrocities occurred that would turn your stomach. Raw sewage was spewing out onto the streets as a result of a collapsed sewage system. Human excrement was being pumped directly into the river. A tanker came to empty the blocked sewage and then emptied the contents onto the verge of a public highway. A contractor from the town council was sent down an access pipe to unblock the blockage without a gas mask or any safety equipment. He died from asphyxiation. Another young man was incorporated to lift his body out and also became asphyxiated and died. It was described as an accident. No investigation. Elderly people were found in their homes who had no drinking water. They were found in their beds covered in diahorrea from dehydration. 

Human Life is disposable. And the disposal of human life is affordable.

When TV presenter, Efrain Ruales was assassinated in January 2021, it later transpired that the group who executed the killing had been paid $20,000 in the contract. The killer of Human Rights activist and co-founder of the Afro Movement, Maribel Pinto in Cuenca, who stabbed her to death 113 times was paid $150 dollars for the job.