By Kevin Koenig
Long before climate scientists were warning about rising global temperatures and the new imperative to keep all fossil fuels permanently in the ground, indigenous peoples in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon were already doing it. In fact, despite all odds, they’ve been doing it for decades.
In the 1940s, Shell Oil and the Ecuadorian government had big, manifest destiny-style plans for its remote southern rainforests. They blueprinted roads, highways, and a transcontinental pipeline. Together with the church and military, they hoped to open up the rainforest, “civilize” local indigenous peoples, and establish a presence for an ongoing border war with neighboring Peru. But after a decade under siege from local indigenous peoples and a fruitless attempt to penetrate the forest by plane and mule, no oil was ever found. Shell left empty handed, leaving behind a town that still bears its name.
Oil was eventually found in 1967 by Texaco several hundred miles north along the Colombian border, in an area now known as Lago Agrio, or Sour Lake, named by the company after its famous Texas oil strike. It became ground zero for the country’s oil industry, which built hundreds of miles of pipelines and roads through the forest, littered indigenous territories with thousands of oil waste pits, and became the site of the world’s worst oil disaster at the hands of Chevron.
Today, Ecuador’s southern Amazon is still virtually intact, free of large scale oil projects and roads that have opened up most areas north of the Curaray River, including Yasuní National Park. The government and oil companies have done their best to change that situation. But the Kichwa, Achuar, Shuar, Sapara, and Shiwiar peoples – historic adversaries – joined together, combining on-the-ground resistance with advocacy and legal strategies that halted even the grandest of resource extraction plans.
On multiple occasions the Ecuadorian government sought to sell its southern Amazon off wholesale for drilling. Recent oil auctions carved concessions out of the forests of indigenous territories into twenty-one oil blocks totaling about 10 million acres. But they were tremendous failures – met by protests every place the government sought to promote them – from Quito, to Houston, to Calgary, to Paris.
Of the few blocks where contracts were actually signed, the list of companies that indigenous peoples forced to leave is impressive: Atlantic Richfield Corporation (ARCO), Chevron, Perenco, ConocoPhillips, CGC, and Burlington Resources. The area began to develop a reputation among industry and finance as an impossible place for petroleum production. Attempts to drill would only lead to paralyzed projects, shareholder protests, a date at the human rights court, and an arbitration hearing where the companies and government could slug it out over their lost investment.
Amazon Watch supported these communities over the years with on-the-ground communications equipment, including satellite phones, solar powered VHF and UHF radio systems, video cameras, and capacity-building training. In addition, we created critical advocacy spaces for indigenous leaders to directly address decision makers and brought our own pressure to bear inside corporate boardrooms, the halls of the UN, and on the streets with a bullhorn.
As a result, to date the southern Ecuadorian Amazon has been a de-facto “No Go Zone” for oil companies. The strategic combination of grassroots on-the-ground resistance, capacity building, legal action, media, and advocacy has proven an effective recipe to keep oil in the ground, primary forests intact, and indigenous rights respected.
The threats, however, are starting to mount. A recently signed contract between Chinese state-run firm Andes Petroleum and Ecuador for two oil blocks at the headwaters of the Pastaza River Basin threatens the Sapara, a small vulnerable indigenous group numbering around 500. And, as oil prices remain low, Ecuador is seeking to expand its mining industry into the Amazon. In August of this year, the Ecuadorian government forcibly evicted Shuar communities along the eastern Andean-Amazon slopes of the Transkutuku region – a unique biological hotspot – to make way for a Chinese-backed gold mine. The communities were not consulted and were given five minutes to gather their belongings before their houses were razed.
In the face of these new threats, local communities throughout the Amazon are coming forward with their own alternative proposals for protecting these areas. These proposals aren’t new, however, but rather based on the cosmovision, traditions, and practical strategies that they have been using to protect their lands for millennia. In future blogs we’ll share more about these strategies.