a different perspective on oil exploration in the Amazon, see also
Oil," by Lou Dematteis & Suzana Sawyer, In These
Times, 17 November 2003.]
Balance: Growth vs. Culture in Amazon
JUAN FORERO/ December
Ecuador As international energy companies move into the Amazon
basin to tap some of the last untouched oil and natural gas reserves,
more and more natives are fighting to keep them out. Oil workers and
contractors have been kidnapped, company officials say. Equipment
has been vandalized. Protests, injunctions and lawsuits are piling
up as Indian groups grow increasingly savvy in their cooperation with
may increasingly regard the Amazon as an engine for economic
growth, but native groups are struggling to balance development
with the desire to preserve a nearly primordial way of life."Let
the military come in, because we will defend to the last,"
said Medardo Santi, a leader of Kichwa Indians in an unspoiled
jungle region that has been mapped for oil exploration in Ecuador,
where the dispute is most contentious. "As long as we live
here, we will defend our rights." How this struggle plays
out will determine whether Amazon resources become a critical
part of Latin America's development and an important component
of the American strategy to diversify energy supplies beyond
the Middle East.
Dalton for The New York Times
America already provides more oil to the United States than the
Middle East does. Plans for new oil and gas fields are speeding
ahead, pushed by companies from as far afield as China and including
Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles, Repsol-YPF of Spain, EnCana
of Canada and Petrobras of Brazil. Governments are increasingly
trying to lure investors and identify potential reserves along 1,000
miles of forests and Andean foothills, from Colombia to Bolivia.
In Peru, one of the largest energy projects in Latin America is
under way, a development that could cost $3.6 billion and include
nearly 800 miles of pipeline and coastal plants to ship butane,
propane and liquefied natural gas to California by 2007. In Brazil,
the government plans a multibillion-dollar development that includes
a $1 billion project to pipe gas through part of the rain forest.
Oil companies are taking the first steps to explore in the Beni
and Pando Departments of the Bolivian Amazon.
Colombia, grappling with relentless guerrilla violence, has mapped
out potentially oil-rich Amazonian blocks for prospecting.But in
no country is Amazon oil exploration as potentially lucrative as
in Ecuador, a country the size of Nevada that has, for better or
worse, hitched the fortunes of its 13 million people to oil.The
country's 4.6 billion barrels of proven reserves are among the largest
in Latin America. Oil already accounts for nearly half its exports.
With the recent completion of a $1.3 billion, 300-mile pipeline
by a foreign consortium, the government deepened its commitment
to eventually doubling production, to 850,000 barrels a day. If
development in the jungle moves unhindered, the Ecuadorean Amazon
could yield as much as 26 billion barrels in oil reserves, enough
to rival Mexico and Nigeria, according to a hopeful 1999 study by
the Ministry of Energy and Mines. "This basin has a lot of
opportunities," said one foreign oil executive, who spoke on
condition of anonymity for fear of igniting controversy, "if
we can get there and work it. That's why we are hanging on."
So far, oil
executives and industry analysts say, threats from native groups
are still less likely to drive off investors than the government's
own tax increases and changes in agreements. But for the companies,
dealing with Indians has proved arduous. Some have tried to placate
tribes with everything from chain saws to outboard motors. Others
focus on building schools and clinics. Some employ experienced anthropologists
to help make deals. "When we did our seismic testing, we suffered
kidnappings, fires and robberies," said Ricardo Nicolás,
general manager here of Cia. General de Combustibles, an Argentine
company that has the contract to develop fields north of Pumpuentsa.
"It's been seven years and we haven't been able to get started;
seven years and $10 million."
growing opposition, the government of President Lucio Gutiérrez
said it was prepared to provide military protection so oil companies
could complete the needed seismic tests. "The petroleum does
not belong to them," Carlos Arboleda, Ecuador's minister of
energy and mines, said of the native groups. "The oil belongs
to the state."
disagree. Even though the Constitution does not give Indians groups
the rights to oil and gas, the reality is that unless a company
obtains their consent, exploration can be impossible. "We are
the owners of the jungle," said Antonio Wasump Samaraint, 68,
a wrinkled elder who wore the red-and-yellow feathered headband
of the Achuar. "We have always rejected the petroleum companies."Much
of the riches, Mr. Arboleda said in an interview, will come from
drilling in jungle regions, like the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini
fields in the east, that are among the most ecologically sensitive.
The government says these areas contain as much as 2 billion barrels
in heavy crude oil, which could one day mean 200,000 barrels a day
of production. "The future is in the exploitation of all those
areas," Mr. Arboleda said.
will be increasingly uncertain and conflict-ridden, many oil executives
concede, without some compromise and compensation for the Indians
who live there. Quietly, they have started prodding the
government to ensure that the $30 million or so they pay in taxes
each year to a special Amazon development fund reaches the villages.
Little of that money, indigenous leaders and company officials agree,
has brought tangible benefits in the east, where tribal leaders
complain of bare-bones schools, rutted roads and rudimentary health
services. "The money goes to the big cities, to build big roads,"
said Santiago Kawarim, 36, an Achuar leader and teacher. "The
money never goes to these communities."
Here in the
softly rolling hills and lush rain forests of Pastaza Province,
in southeastern Ecuador, environmentalists are determined to head
off any exploration by making a stand at two blocks, almost a million
acres in all, that have already been mapped for drilling. The northern
one, Block 23, is to be developed by Mr. Nicolás and his
Argentine company. The southern block, No. 24, is operated by Burlington
Resources of Houston. "We believe 23 and 24 can be a kind of
Waterloo for the oil industry in the Amazon," said Kenny Bruno,
who coordinates campaigns in Ecuador and elsewhere for EarthRights
International, an American group.Three tribes hereKichwa,
Achuar and Shuar, each with a few thousand membershave become
equally adroit at making their case before government officials
in Quito or at the Organization of American States in Washington
and at shareholder meetings in Houston.
owe much of their effectiveness to American environmental groups
like Amazon Watch, the Pachamama Alliance and Earthrights International,
which help organize protests, supply airplanes and set up meetings
with American legislators. The Kichwa people of Sarayaku, the main
town in Block 23, are among the most sophisticated. Their leaders
operate a budding ecotourism business. Their Web site, http://www.sarayaku
.com, gives a play by play in their battle against oil drilling,
and a New York public relations firm has contacted the media on
the group's behalf. Though oil officials say those trappings have
corrupted indigenous leaders, tribal members say the contacts have
made them more adept at defending their territory. "They've
accused us of being terrorists and now they say we are being manipulated
by nongovernmental organizations," said Patricia Gualinga,
a Kichwa leader who frequently travels to Quito and abroad to make
her case. "They also say it is one community that is resisting.
It is not. It is an entire people."
indigenous leaders, opposition to big oil is colored by the destruction
that befell northern Ecuador and the region around Lago Agrio. There,
a Texaco subsidiary left widespread pollution, dumping waste into
waterways and leaving behind hundreds of unlined pits brimming with
toxic wastewater, a lawsuit filed in New Yorkand later in
Ecuadorhas charged. ChevronTexacoTexaco merged with
Chevron in 2001denies causing the pollution, but the case
recently went to trial in Lago Agrio. It has yet to be decided,
but the publicity has given fresh momentum to oil's opponents."
People in the south have a historic perspective of the oil industry:
what happened in the north," said Patricio Pazminio, a lawyer
with the Center for Economic and Social Rights, a group in Quito
that is helping the Indians. "
when the companies talk of extending activities into the south,
people worry." For oil company representatives like Herb Vickers,
an American who has worked on oil development in Ecuador for seven
years, such talk is frustrating. He said that when he oversaw development
of Block 10, to the north of Sarayaku, for Arco, the company employed
the most modern technology to protect the jungle. Using helicopters
to bring in equipment, a pipeline was laid without having to construct
a road, because that would have meant a corridor for colonists and
their vast clear-cutting of forests.Drilling in Block 10 is conducted
from a single site, a six-acre tract with 12 wells, instead of rigs
spread across a broad area. Special drill bits are steered to dispersed
underground reserves. Waste brought up with the oil is treated and
reinjected into the ground. "We believe, very strongly, that
exploration and production can be done in an environmentally friendly
manner," Mr. Vickers said.
people say they want improvements; the question is exactly what,
and through what means. Some changes, like clinics or schools, are
welcome. Others, like petroleum production, are often not. "The
majority of these people face an incomprehensible world," said
Teodoro Bustamante, an anthropologist and expert on indigenous groups.
"They want to selectively incorporate features from the modern
world. They want an airplane. They want a radio. They want medicines.
The problem is, it is very hard to selectively incorporate."
a Kichwa community on the Bobonaza River on the edge of Block 23,
villagers said they welcomed the oil companies because they would
bring improvements. But villagers knew little about how those improvements
would come, or in what form. All they knew was that their community
was impoverished. "We want to change, we want to develop,"
said Edwin Illanes, 29, one of the leaders. "Here, there's
no water. There is no light. We have no paved road. Nothing."
But across a swath of forest in Sarayaku, the main Kichwa town,
people were virtually united in their opposition. Villagers gathered
by the dozens in a communal meeting hall next to the soccer field
to condemn any plan for oil exploration. Members of the tribe acknowledged
their poverty. But as Ambrosia Malaver, an elderly woman who spoke
in her native tongue, put it: "We live barefoot like our ancestors,
and that's what we want."