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Oil firms’ word stays on paper
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
12/10/2010
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Community members say they see little, if any compensation, for industry’s impact in their backyards.

“We thought we were doing good business with the oil companies by signing the compensation agreements, but the reality was something very different,” said Diocles Zambrano, who heads the Ángel Shingre Community Leaders Network, an umbrella group of communities affected by oil drilling in the jungle Orellana province in Ecuador.

According to a study by the Regional Human Rights Consultants Foundation released in November, only 10 percent of the social compensation agreements signed by oil companies and local communities have been honored by the former, while the latter have been forced to comply all of them, including giving up voluntarily to complaint on new impacts they might suffer.  Over the last 15 years, the companies have logged the spills as accidents or as force majeure, and do not, as a result, take responsibility.

“Every spill is caused by the company´s negligence, because they´re using obsolete infrastructure,” said Rodrigo Varela, author of the study.
  
Empty words
“At first, the agreements with the oil companies were verbal,” said Zambrano, referring to the 1980s, since communities were not even considered before then. “Our elders respected their word, but the oil companies never honored the verbal agreements. That´s why we started to demand ones in writing.”

Ángel Álvarez, on the Shushufinde Human Rights Committee, in the Sucumbíos province, says the companies would march in and say their project was “by order of the president.”

One´s word has fundamental importance in campesino and indigenous life. But it soon showed that the companies often behaved as if no agreement was made.

“I gave permission for the company to pass by one side of my farm, but they made a road through the middle and damaged everything,” said Carlos Gordillo, another member of the community leaders network. “When I went to complain, the [company] delegate recognized the damage and assured me that the company would pay me. When I went to the company for the payment, I was told we had no agreement in place.”

But putting the agreements in writing did not change things much, said Zambrano.

“The agreements are limited to establish very small amounts of investment in the communities, such as community centers, sports installations and sometimes sanitation infrastructure.”
“In no case do they commit to issues like health or education,” said Varela.

The written agreements turn out to be new traps for campesino and indigenous peoples, because they include clauses that violate their rights, or have useless compensation systems, as was the case with Italian oil company AGIP and the Waorani indigenous community in 1994.

Alexandra Almeida, a researcher at Acción Ecológica, one of the main environmental organizations in Ecuador, said that AGIP had a “written agreement with some Waoranis in which the company agreed to clear a plot of land for a soccer field and provide a whistle for a referee. In exchange, the indigenous community would give the oil company permission to enter all the Waorani land it wanted to and use whatever resources it needed.”

This included clearing forests and making roads, she added.

“This agreement, like all the others, also obligated the community to not make any sort of claim or complaint in the future for any effect the oil drilling could have had,” Almeida said. “This agreement is an example of how the companies manipulate the indigenous communities; it´s like going back to the bartering with trinkets for gold during the conquest of the Americas.”

The oil companies not only tricked people into signing illegitimate agreements, but they not even met the few obligations they assumed, which led to further conflict which, in turn, led to the signing of new agreements.

“The agreements we looked at have previous unfulfilled agreements behind them, which caused communities to take measures like blocking roads, or boycotting oil production, so the company would sign a new agreement that they would also fail to fulfill,” said Varela.

In this way, the communities learned to negotiate under pressure, but they also assumed clientelist practices, in which the oil company was seen as the only party that could possibly concede favors.
    
Government picks and chooses
The dynamic led the communities to become dependent on the oil company, since the government failed to fulfill its own role, such as social investment. The state had become the oil companies´ security agent, while the companies provided basic services.

Under Ecuador´s new constitution, in force since October 2008, oil is a national resource and the state will make the social investments, not the companies. The Secretariat of the People and Social Participation is now charged with speaking with communities to avoid such conflicts and dependency with the companies.

But this is not doing much for the old agreements between communities and the oil companies.

“Now the companies tell us to ask the government to compensate us for the damage they have caused,” said Zambrano.
The government is now seeking the communities´ approval in order to expand the oil sector but it doesn´t take into account the environmental and social impacts the industry has on the communities.

“It´s not just about getting economic compensation,” said Varela. “It´s about guaranteeing a dignified life for the communities and that includes an environmental cleanup plan, meaning emergency environmental cleanup plans should be presented to the communities, not just social investment plans for the future.”

Meanwhile, the campesino and indigenous communities in oil zones will have just that fraction of what the oil companies have promised because neither the state nor the companies want to honor the signed agreements.
—Latinamerica Press.


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Oil companies turn back on agreements with communities. (Photo: Diocles Zambrano).
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