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Oil before people
3/22/2003
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Indigenous fight oil exploration in ancestral lands.

Land rights agreements are being torn up by local authorities and oil companies as the search for new energy sources encroaches further into virgin Amazon rainforest. The Kichwa community of Sarayacu, situated on the banks of the Bobonaza River in the Pastaza province, has pledged to impede, at all costs, the exploitation of its ancestral lands for oil.

This conflict began in 1996 when the Ecuadorian government handed over Block 23, which incorporates Sarayacu, to the General Fuel Company (CGC), an Argentinean subsidiary of the Texaco-Chevron consortium. Four years earlier, a constitutional mandate had awarded land rights to the indigenous communities living there.

The Ecuadorian Constitution secures the collective rights of indigenous peoples, including the right to "maintain the possession of ancestral community land, and to lawfully obtain its adjudication free of charge." In 1992, the Kichwas, together with the neighboring Shuar and Achuar communities, won the adjudication of 254,000 hectares of virgin forest via titles awarded by the Ecuadorian Institute of Agrarian Reform and Colonization (IERAC).

Sarayacu is the historical home of one of the largest Kichwa communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon, both in terms of population and land. It is divided into an association of six communities: Shiguakucha, Kali-Kalu, Chunta Yaku, Sarayakillu, Sarayacu Center and Teresa Mama, with a total population of about 1,500.

"This adjudication of indigenous land violated the collective rights of the people of Sarayacu because it did not stipulate whether or not the community authorized oil exploration on their land," said Patricio Benalcázar, president of INREDH, the Regional Foundation for Human Rights Assistance. INREDH, together with the Ecumenical Commission of Human Rights, Ecological Action, the Ecuadorian Peace and Justice Service, the American Friends Service Committee and the Tonantzin Institute, makes up the Ecuadorian Inter-Institutional Commission for the Defense of Sarayacu (CIEDS).

This is the latest in a series of indigenous land-related conflicts with oil companies in recent years. Texaco was sued for US$1 billion after dumping 16 million gallons of crude oil and 20,000 million gallons of contaminated water in the Amazon jungle 1964-1992 (LP, March 15, 1999). In 1999, the Achuar and Shuar people took action to prevent the US-based ARCO exploring the area without their prior consultation, and the Secoya people successfully imposed a code of conduct on the Occidental Exploration and Production Company in the same year (LP, Jan. 17, 2000).

Benalcázar explained that the Constitution includes a process known as "Previous Consultation," used in the event of resource-rich indigenous lands being declared "public utilities." The process exists to ensure that indigenous peoples are "consulted about plans to explore and exploit unrenewable energy sources on their lands that could have negative environmental or cultural effects."

"The companies think that the ‘Previous Consultation’ is limited to ‘informing the communities so that they are prepared for what happens next.’ They don’t seek the communities’ consent, and, in the best cases, offer laughable compensation packages," said Benalcázar.

In May 2000, CGC representative Ricardo Nicolás offered the Sarayacu communities $60,000 in return for permission to enter their territory. The Sarayaki general assembly decided not to accept the CGC offer or any other offer from an oil company.

CGC would not take no for an answer and contracted Daymi Service S.A. to persuade the community to accept the offer, using a team of sociologists, anthropologists and community relations builders. According to community member José Gualinga, the Daymi team’s tactics were unusual to say the least.

"They never tried to get close to the community leaders. On the contrary, they tried to divide the communities using smear campaigns and came up with an agreement signed by a series of ghost communities and associations," said Gualinga, the subject of death threats.

In August 2002, CGC formalized a "General Agreement for Seismic Exploration" of the area, signed by Daymi-selected leaders and members of outside communities, with which it began exploring Sarayacu territory.

The Sarayacu communities rejected the agreement, saying it was forged and, on Nov. 21, expelled 25 CGC workers from the area. Two days later, there was an armed confrontation between people from Sarayacu and the Canelos area, from where CGC had contracted workers.

On Nov. 25, an agreement was signed by CGC, Sarayacu communities, Pastaza authorities, the Organization of Pastaza Indigenous Peoples, the Confederation of Indigenous Amazon Nationalities of Ecuador and the police force. The agreement, which local authorities promised to honour, committed CGC "to respect Sarayacu ancestral lands." The Sarayacu communities, for their part, released three CGC workers whom they had taken hostage.

However, further confrontations took place Dec. 4 and 17, during which more CGC-contracted workers were taken hostage. As a result, Nicolás sought military protection for company workers and said CGC would "respect the 2 square kilometers of land that make up Sarayacu," referring to an area much smaller than that included in the 1992 land adjudication.

Col. Rodrigo Rivas, Commander of the 17th Pastaza Brigade, mobilized soldiers from three military bases to surround the Sarayacu area. "We must protect security of the zone," said Rivas. Meanwhile, Franco Viteri, president of the Sarayacu communities, said, "the only security protected by them is the security of the company. Sarayacu has been besieged."

CIEDS denounced the negligence of the Ecuadorian authorities, for which it is taking its case to the Inter American Court of Human Rights and the International Labor Organization where, according to Benalcázar, the communities will "seek the protection denied by our government."


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