Indigenous Organizers Halted Plans for Oil Drilling in the Amazon

Sustained demonstrations in Ecuador got the government to back down—at least for now.

Kimberley Brown March 13, 2019

(Kimberley Brown)

PUYO, ECUADOR — Rosa Elvi­ra Chu­ji Gualin­gai, 50, came to the city to pres­sure the gov­ern­ment. Watch­ing the traf­fic out­side her office win­dow, she says, I can’t get used to this lifestyle.” The indige­nous activist, leader of the Shi­wiar com­mu­ni­ty of Kur­intsa, was raised deep in the Ama­zon rain­for­est, sur­round­ed by tow­er­ing cei­bo and palm trees. With no roads, the only way to trav­el is up to six days by boat or to char­ter a plane. With lit­tle elec­tric­i­ty and no plumb­ing, the Shi­wiar bathe in the near­by rivers and live main­ly by hunt­ing and fish­ing. But this way of life is under threat, as the Ecuado­ri­an gov­ern­ment sells rain­for­est land to oil companies.

The country’s well orga­nized indige­nous move­ment, how­ev­er, has a his­to­ry of giant slay­ing — it held demon­stra­tions that helped over­throw pres­i­dents in 2000 and 2005. To pro­tect the Ama­zon from the lat­est round of oil devel­op­ment, indige­nous groups held ral­lies, closed down high­ways and marched for over two weeks from the rain­for­est to Quito, the cap­i­tal. After months of protest, the gov­ern­ment scaled back its plans — at least temporarily.

Ecuador’s par­tial­ly nation­al­ized oil indus­try has long helped the gov­ern­ment pay for social pro­grams and pover­ty relief. But with a glob­al drop in oil prices, Ecuador’s much-need­ed oil rev­enue plum­met­ed from 12.1 to 5.4 per­cent of GDP between 2013 and 2016. The cen­ter-left Pres­i­dent Lenin Moreno, elect­ed in 2017, launched an ambi­tious cam­paign to recov­er lost income by expand­ing oil pro­duc­tion in the Ama­zon. This includ­ed auc­tion­ing 16 blocks, each up to 2,000 square kilo­me­ters, of the South­east oil fields, which encom­pass Kur­intsa. It also includ­ed the devel­op­ment of oil fields in Yasuni Nation­al Park, one of the most bio­di­verse regions of the plan­et and home to two uncon­tact­ed indige­nous communities.

Indige­nous groups reject­ed these plans, say­ing that leaks and waste have con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed the soil and water in oth­er regions of the Ama­zon, dis­plac­ing indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties who could no longer live off the land.

Envi­ron­men­tal­ists also argue roads built to enable oil pro­duc­tion will increase defor­esta­tion, invit­ing destruc­tive indus­tries deep­er into the region. A 2014 report from the World Resources Insti­tute and the Rights and Resources Ini­tia­tive found that, because many indige­nous groups live in car­bon-stor­ing forests, strength­en­ing the land and resource rights of indige­nous peo­ples” is key to fight­ing cli­mate change.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Ama­zon com­mu­ni­ties say Moreno nev­er con­sult­ed them about his plans, a vio­la­tion of Ecuador’s con­sti­tu­tion and inter­na­tion­al law. This asser­tion is backed up by Vic­to­ria Tauli-Cor­puz, UN spe­cial rap­por­teur on the rights of indige­nous peo­ples, who trav­elled to Ecuador in Novem­ber 2018.

Unless they change the path of devel­op­ment,” she says, the threat to the for­est is real­ly seri­ous.” She will deliv­er her final assess­ment and rec­om­men­da­tions by Sep­tem­ber, but the UN has no enforce­ment mechanism.

Chu­ji, soft-spo­ken, but firm, is a mem­ber of the group Mujeres Ama­zon­i­cas (Ama­zon Women), made up of indige­nous women who live in the rain­for­est. In March 2018, Chu­ji and more than 100 oth­er Ama­zon women protest­ed in front of the pres­i­den­tial palace for five days, demand­ing a meet­ing with Moreno and an imme­di­ate stop to all oil and min­ing activ­i­ties in the rainforest.

On anoth­er occa­sion, Chu­ji says, she con­front­ed the pres­i­dent her­self. He said, I’ll see what I can do,’ and I said, You will com­ply. If you don’t com­ply, we’ll be back,’” she says. And we are going back.”

In Novem­ber 2018, eight women from Mujeres Ama­zon­i­cas walked into the office of the min­istry of ener­gy and non­re­new­able nat­ur­al resources and demand­ed a meet­ing with the min­is­ter, Car­los Perez. When they were told he was out of town, they occu­pied his office for the next 30 hours, wait­ing for him to return.

In Decem­ber 2018, Perez called off plans to devel­op more oil fields in Yasuni Nation­al Park. The min­istry already had decid­ed to reduce the South­east Oil auc­tion down to two blocks, and is now debat­ing whether to can­cel it. Perez cit­ed indige­nous and envi­ron­men­tal­ist protests as a main rea­son. But he left the door open for the future, telling local media the plans were not nec­es­sar­i­ly abandoned.

Car­los Man­z­a­ban­da, the Ecuador field coor­di­na­tor for the advo­ca­cy group Ama­zon Watch, says Perez’s announce­ment should be tak­en with cau­tion.” The coun­try is deeply in debt, main­ly dri­ven by the con­tin­ued low price of oil, and has slashed social spend­ing and can­celed gaso­line sub­si­dies meant to help low-income fam­i­lies. The gov­ern­ment is doing every­thing in its pow­er not to anger peo­ple any fur­ther, says Man­z­a­ban­da, and could reverse its deci­sion when the coun­try is more stable.

Chu­ji says she’s pre­pared. I have been fight­ing since I was young,” she says, and I will die doing this, fight­ing for my kids.”

Kim­ber­ley Brown is a writer, mul­ti­me­dia jour­nal­ist and anthro­pol­o­gist cur­rent­ly based in Quito, Ecuador, cov­er­ing region­al pol­i­tics, soci­ety and envi­ron­ment, with a focus on human rights.
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