From the Amazon Chernobyl to Ethnocide: Big Oil and Tribes of the Ecuadorian Rainforest
Pachamama: the revered goddess and loving mother of the earth. She brings a timely reminder of our place within our surroundings and the consequences for not respecting them. She is also a unifying icon, especially for the people of the Andes region who hold an ecological ethos close to their hearts. This goes beyond mythology, with nations such as Ecuador including the rights of Pachamama within their constitution; to be defended as a human right would be. This has not been a purely symbolic gesture; it has helped to uphold previous traditions of environmental protection and stewardship that the political landscape is built upon. Beyond the symbiotic perception of humanity and environment, which is an imperative for a sustainable future; it has given more power to those protecting our fragile ecosystems against those relentlessly trying to exploit Mother Nature further.
As the recent IPCC report has comprehensively shown, we are already past the critical stage where ‘green’ issues need to be incorporated into all decision making. Halting the continuous wave of destruction to the rainforest goes hand in hand with halting the disintegration of the indigenous communities that reside within and protect the forests. The Yasuni National Park region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, in particular, is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet and inhabited by a variety of indigenous groups including the Huaorani, Shuar and Amazonian Kichwa. Some of the peoples voluntarily maintain no contact with the rest of the world, choosing to live in harmony with nature.
However, despite governmental pledges to protect the area, the ghost of economic growth has led to holistic outlooks being seen as a luxury rather than a necessity. With the large reserves of oil found beneath the forest, the heritage site is being opened up to the profit-driven petrochemical industry, taking land away from the indigenous stewarding communities. Earlier this year a grassroots group of environmentalists called Yasunidos - “Yasuni United”- handed in a close to 800,000 strong petition, surpassing the constitutional amount required, demanding the triggering of a referendum on whether to prohibit oil-drilling in the eastern corner of the park; an area known as Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT).
Disappointingly, President Correa, a self-proclaimed socialist revolutionary, questioned the validity of the petition and maintains his stance of opening the door to corporate interests as best for the people under his guardianship; brandishing the Yasunidos as ‘rock-throwers’. In May the National Election Committee invalidated much of the signatures, which was followed closely by the issuing of the first permits for oil companies to begin the drilling process within the ITT. This has ignored the indigenous peoples’ voice and rights to the land. It goes directly against the constitution, especially article 57, which recognises that “the territories of the people living in voluntary isolation are an irreducible and intangible ancestral possession and all forms of extractive activities shall be forbidden there… the violation of these rights shall constitute a crime of ethnocide.”
Correa and some of his government ministers have stated that the indigenous people in voluntary isolation have actually disappeared, taking off the table the fact that an ethnocide is imminent once the oil drilling starts. However, these ‘indigenas aislados’ tribes such as the Tagaeri and the Taronenane have been forced deeper into the forest and caught up in conflict which has seen tribes pitted against each other further as well as against foreign interference. Article 57 protects the hidden peoples and blocks their territories from incursion to guarantee their rights and survival. Not, it seems, against the Huaorani. Foreign influence has not only brought dangerous illnesses that the tribes have little immunity to, but a culture of corruption and consumption that is no longer intertwined with the forest, with reports of Huaorani tribesmen clashing with the previously isolated tribes, driven by competition.
Away from the negotiations of the core there is obviously a dis-articulation with the reality of the forest. Even if the proposed area sanctioned for drilling is supposedly only going to affect “one-thousandth” of the park, this action is selective and retroactive as Spanish and Chinese oil companies already extract tens of thousands of barrels a day in other areas of the park. This follows on from the 18 billion gallons of toxic chemicals that Chevron eventually admitted to previously dumping in the Ecuadorian Amazon in what has become known as the Amazon Chernobyl.
Environmental degradation and social marginalisation has caused Indigenous communities of various ethnicities that inhabit the Amazon region to oppose the encroachment of logging and oil companies in their territories. Oil exploitation has often been justified by a need to lift the country out of poverty. However, the reality of the situation is that Ecuador’s national debt drives the agenda at the expense of social and environmental issues. From foreign pressures as well as corporate negligence and exploitation of resources; the poor are ignored and feel the greatest impact.
August 2014 saw a Tribunal of environmental and social justice experts, marking the one year anniversary of the decision to drill the Yasuni, ruling that the government violated rights including: the rights of nature, the rights of indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation, the right to effective judicial protection and legal certainty, and the right to political participation.
More than 200 Tribal National leaders are under investigation for terrorism as a reaction to the growing popular resistance. CONAIE, an umbrella organisation representing the country’s tribes, has declared a ‘national mobilisation’ to counter the wave of projects threatening the tribal territories. As Daniel Franks of the Centre for Social Responsibility highlights; “There is a popular misconception that local communities are powerless in the face of large corporations and governments…Our findings show that community mobilization can be very effective”.
Whether this confrontation will escalate violence is another matter. With the final stage of drilling not expected to commence before 2016, the battle of the forest spears versus the corporate invaders is far from over.