SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Indigenous tribe takes on big oil. Ecuadoran village refuses money, blocks
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Sarayacu, Ecuador -- This community of 2,000 Quichua Indians is mounting a groundbreaking and -- so far -- successful campaign to prevent oil exploitation on their ancestral lands in the southern Amazon region of Ecuador.
Unlike most other indigenous groups, Sarayacu has been able to keep an Argentine oil firm called Compania General de Combustibles, or CGC, from drilling on their land even though the company has had a government contract since 1996.
Offers of money haven't swayed them. Sarayacu leaders say CGC officials have offered them cash payments. When that didn't work, they say, the company went to the village's governing council with a proposal of $60,000, which was also rejected.
"We are fighting not only for Sarayacu, but for all Amazon communities," said Mario Santi, coordinator of the village's anti-oil campaign called Kampari, or Voice of Resistance. "Petroleum development has been a disaster in Ecuador, generating environmental, social and cultural crises, and ultimately causing the extinction of indigenous peoples. We want to maintain our way of living, free of contamination, in harmony with nature."
Santi points to a well-publicized class-action lawsuit brought by 30,000 Ecuadoran peasants and Indians in the northern Amazon region over the widespread contamination where the U.S oil company Texaco operated from 1964 to 1992. The lawsuit alleges that Texaco dumped 18 million gallons of toxic waste into hundreds of unlined open pits, estuaries and rivers, exposing residents to cancer-causing pollutants, fouling water for drinking and bathing, and causing widespread deforestation that has encroached on traditional fishing and hunting grounds.
Santi says CGC is legally required to complete an environmental impact report, which it has yet to do, and to consult with communities that would be affected by oil exploration.
Nevertheless, Minister of Energy Eduardo Lopez announced in July a total opening of the southern Amazon to oil exploitation and described organizations that oppose the policy as undesirable. He also said he preferred to come to an agreement with Sarayacu "before employing force."
Sarayacu's territory falls within the borders of Block 23, a 494,200-acre plot auctioned off to CGC for oil exploitation in 1996. Burlington Resources Ltd., a Houston-based oil company, holds a 25 percent share of the block, while Perenco, a European oil firm with headquarters in London, Paris and the Bahamas, holds a minor share.
According to Ecuador's constitution, an individual or community may hold legal title to land, but the minerals below the surface are the property of the state.
Block 23 is home to several indigenous groups. To date, five communities -- four Quichua and one Shuar -- have allowed oil drilling in exchange for $325,000, according to community leaders.
Ecuador is one of South America's poorest nations, and 50 percent of its national budget is funded by oil revenue. The government considers continued exploration and production necessary to ensure the country's well-being.
"Ecuador depends on oil, and always imposes the economy over human rights, " said Luis Yanza, president of the Amazon Defense Front, an umbrella group of local organizations formed to protect the environment in northeastern Ecuador.
Political analysts say the International Monetary Fund is now pressuring Ecuador to open up the southern Amazon region of Pastaza province to a second oil boom so the government can pay off interest on its $14 billion debt and continue receiving loans. International creditors have consistently denied Ecuador debt forgiveness because of its estimated 5 billion barrels of untapped oil reserves.
Yet despite three decades of oil development, Ecuador's national debt has expanded and poverty rates have ballooned from 47 percent of the population in 1967 to 70 percent in 2000, according to a recent U.S. State Department report. These statistics are a major reason why indigenous communities such as Sarayacu have not been won over.
"Ecuador, following in the footsteps of other oil-rich nations such as Mexico and Venezuela, has failed to manage this important resource for the long-term benefit of its people," said Peter Kornbluh, a Latin American specialist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
On a typical day, Sarayacu men fish and hunt in the jungle while women toil in the fields, gathering bananas or digging yuccas. Children sprint around a cluster of traditional wasis (huts) or swim in the brackish waters of the Bobonaza River. The primary mode of transportation is the dugout canoe.
But Sarayacu is also unusual for its organizational savvy. It has developed its own system of education, ranging from preschool to university coursework, and has developed a micro-loan program to help women begin small development projects. The community is also looking at ways to commercialize ecotourism and medicinal plants.
"We do want development," said Santi. "But we want to maintain our ecosystem and our traditions."
When CGC tried to enter their land to explore for oil at the end of 2002, Sarayacu mobilized into 25 "peace and life camps," which they strategically placed along their territorial boundaries. Painted in a traditional black dye called wituk, and armed with traditional chonta (palm wood) lances, residents formed a human wall to keep out oil workers. There were minor skirmishes -- on one occasion, four oil workers were taken hostage and lectured before being returned to their camp -- and some injuries, but nothing serious occurred.
"It's been seven years and $10 million, and we haven't been able to get started," said Ricardo Nicolas, a CGC spokesman. "We are only requesting that the security of our workers be guaranteed."
The standoff lasted for 3 1/2 months, until frustrated CGC workers left the area. In the aftermath, irate government officials warned the Quichua that the army would be sent in to escort CGC workers, although that has yet to happen.
"If, in order to provide security in accordance with the law, the presence of police or armed forces is necessary, the government will provide the necessary measures," former Minister of Energy Carlos Arboleda said at the time, adding that the government had an obligation to abide by its contract with CGC.
As a result, Sarayacu has taken its case to two international venues.
In March, Marlon Santi, Sarayacu's president and Mario's brother, argued in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., which passed the case on to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. Last month, that court ordered the Ecuadoran government to protect the Sarayacu residents from the "grave risk from oil exploration."
Meanwhile, the situation remains tense.
In April, Marlon Santi and the community's lawyer, Jose Serrano of the Quito-based Center for Economic and Social Rights, were beaten by unknown persons in Quito. The Pachamama Foundation, an Ecuadoran nongovernmental organization that has been supporting Sarayacu, received a bomb threat.
Sarayacu residents say they will form another human chain if CGC workers attempt to enter their land again, no matter if they are escorted by soldiers.
"A lot of other communities are watching Sarayacu," said Nathalie Weemaels, a German agricultural engineer who has worked with the villagers for the past decade. "If Sarayacu falls, the others will lose their hope and fall too."
Marisa Handler, Chronicle Foreign Service