The Jivaro Versus the Oil Industry

By Luc Lampriere, L'Expresse
8 August 2005

In the heart of the Ecuadorian forest, the Achuar Indians are engaged in a ferocious fight against powerful oil companies drawn by the black gold. It is a David and Goliath combat in this Latin American country riddled with corruption.

A frail guardian of his lands, enthroned on his plastic chair, wearing a red T-shirt with his first name in black letters, white jeans and blue tennis shoes, Alberto Jimpiki does not have the air of a victorious warrior despite his crown of toucan feathers. But don't talk to this old chief of the Achuar village, in the heart of the Amazon jungle, about the oil companies. "If they touch the forest, we are ready to shed our blood for it," he declares, seizing his wooden lance and trembling with sudden emotion.

Pumpuentsa, in the south of the oil concession, accessible by plane or by several days on foot and in canoe, is a village of hardliners. A small clearing in the dense forest with about 40 families in their palm huts. The men hunt birds with blowpipes and fish for catfish; the women cultivate yucca and make chicha, an alcoholic beverage made from the root. Effectively off-limits to the oil companies since the adoption in 1997 of a joint resolution with the Shuar, the other indigenous people of this region, this Achuar territory (70 km squared with approximately 3,000 inhabitants, on the border with Peru) is a colorful place, humid and noisy with the thousands of animals, just as one imagines the Amazon. Here, the day always begins at around 3.30 in the morning with the communal recounting of the night's dreams and the consumption of wayusa tea, a ritual purgative.

It is a stunning victory of these ancient peoples of the forest against the businesses to whom the Ecuadorian government a dozen years ago gave vast rights to the supposed riches underground. Thirty-five years after oil first ran from these Amazonian rigs, it's hard to see what good it has brought to the population. The elites, with the help of oil, have made Ecuador the champion of corruption in Latin America. External debt has exploded and poverty has worsened. The inability of a corrupt power structure to govern this little oil state is the backdrop against which protests recently flared in Quito, forcing the resignation of Lucio Guitierrez. The fourth Ecuadorian president to be overthrown in the streets in less than eight years, this former soldier, brought to power by a revolutionary movement of the indigenous population (about 40% of Ecuadorians), quickly dumped his Amazonian allies as he announced the country's second oil boom due to new exploitation on their lands.

Coming to Achuar territory for the first time in 1997, representatives of the US company Arco quickly realized that they were not wanted. The two oil emissaries, who arrived by boat, found themselves tied up in the middle of an airstrip, encircled by a thousand Indians armed with spears and a few rifles, their access blocked. The next Arco team wasn't even able to disembark.

The Indians are far from being naive
Linked to the French group Perenco, the American company Burlington Resources, which replaced Arco, has tried a different approach - hiring "community relations" staff from among the Shuar villagers and paying them $350 a month - without any greater success. Not only have these men [the community relations staff] been repudiated but this tactic was declared in violation of the spirit of the Ecuadorian Constitution, which now protects the right of indigenous communities to be consulted about projects affecting their territory. Forced to retreat, Burlington talks of a situation of "force majeure."

The Amazonian Indians are far from being isolated or naive. In Puyo, the last town before the rainforest, a meeting hosted by leaders of the area's indigenous federations with representatives of shareholders of the American oil companies, was constantly interrupted by the sound of the hosts' ringing cell phones. As for the oil workers who choose to forcibly enter Achuar territory, they will quickly be captured on the digital cameras donated throughout the forest by environmental organizations like Amazon Watch, a group based in San Francisco.

"This is a drama of the same order of magnitude as Chernobyl"
The reception given technicians from the Argentine oil company CGC by the Kichua community of Sarayaku in 2002, is a prime example. The episode was made into a documentary, filmed by members of the community themselves, now distributed on DVD in the U.S.! Images of real humiliation for the company, after six years of endlessly arguing, had called on the army to force their way in. Shortly after their arrival, the Argentines had to dump their luggage before fleeing shamefully, with the Ecuadorian soldiers having been obliged to lay down their arms to the women of the village, who then locked them up.

Who to listen to, who to believe? The American and European environmentalists who see in the exemplary resistance of the Indian communities, whom they fund, the defense of one of the rare islands of biodiversity on the planet? Or those who maintain that development of this little country strangled by debt depends on exploiting the sub-soil of 130,000 square kilometers of barely inhabited forest? In either case, it's of concern to the United States, the principal importer of Ecuadorian crude. To avoid the fate of his predecessor, Gutierrez, the new President, Alfredo Palacio, despite his limited room for maneuver in oil affairs, has promised to use these resources to finance social programs.

And then there's Texaco. "Petrol Peace": three syllables that, during the 1970s, summed up the drama in Ecuador. To leave Pumpuentsa for the oil cities of Nueva Loja or Coca, in the heart of the former Texaco concession, one hour by plane from the forest in the direction of the Colombian border, is to experience the extent to which one industry can shape a country - to the point of no return. From the first oil discoveries in the Amazon forest by Texaco engineers in 1967 until their departure in 1992, Texaco did it all: It found the oil reserves - perhaps the richest in Latin America, according to some sources, cut the forest, laid the roads and constructed the pipelines and towns, transforming the ancient jungle into a Latino Wild West, an overheated oven for mercenaries, soldiers in fatigues and workers in denim shirts, the uniform of tens of oil service companies that have their forward bases and their "hostess bars" here.

On the road to the Shushufindi refinery, school teacher Marcos Jimenez bathes with a flock of school kids in a river flowing under rusty oil pipelines. Behind their house lies a shining swamp of intense silvery black. In fact, it's a marsh of sludge 87 meters long by 35 meters wide, dug 18 years ago to catch waste from the nearby oil wells drilled by Texaco.

If the Jimenez children laugh at the "stupid" birds that keep getting trapped in the oily swamp, unable to free themselves, their father gravely speaks of the baby‘s cough, his wife's stomach pains and headaches, and the festering red spots that no ointment can cure. "Nothing life threatening," he hastily adds, as if to excuse himself for bothering people about these little ailments.

The lawsuit filed against Texaco (later ChevronTexaco and now Chevron) in 1993 by the 30,000 inhabitants of the region continues in the slow and unsteady rhythm of Ecuadorian justice. "This is a historic task that is personally moving," says the judge, Efrain Novillo, standing in front of the number 67 Shushufindi oil well. Under the cloth hat that makes him look like an archeologist, he is not just beginning his labors: since the trial began 12 years ago, the American company has successfully played for time by taking numerous appeals and countering expert testimony. An uneven contest, as the annual revenue of the former Texaco is more than three times the GDP of Ecuador!

Fortunately, the plaintiffs in the Texaco suit, who have united as the Amazon Defense Front, are not alone in their battle. The colonists, former lumberjacks who arrived with the oil rush to "colonize" the area, have allied themselves with the two surviving Indian "nations" of the region (the Cofan and the Secoya), who have been reduced to a few hundred persons. And it's their American lawyers, the Philadelphia firm of Kohn, Swift & Graf, who have advanced nearly all of the litigation expenses since the start of the proceedings. A bill that probably comes to millions of dollars!

To Chevron's great displeasure, these lawyers, who specialize in class action suits with American damages and interest, have brought a proven strategy to Ecuador. It is due to their efforts that a Hawaiian court awarded $2 billion to 10,000 victims of the Marcos regime in the Philippines. They also waged battle on behalf of Holocaust victims against Swiss insurance companies. According to the law firm, the Texaco case comes under the same heading: violations of human rights that companies are required to respect, regardless of the times or national boundaries.

"Texaco's attitude in Ecuador was criminal. The pollution that they caused was intentional; coming into a captive territory in a country that didn't yet have environmental legislation, they thought that anything was permitted," asserted Steven Donziger, a robust type who graduated from Harvard. If the "blow" aimed at Texaco by the Ecuadorian plaintiffs succeeds, the lawyers will recover big time on their gamble.

On inspection, the damage seems enormous. According to the Ecuadorian government, over 20 years, the leaks of crude from the Texaco pipeline and its installations is the equivalent of a black tide of 400,000 barrels of oil! The open pits such as that on the Jimenez family land are another solid piece of the dossier. Dug by Texaco bulldozers in order to store the toxic waters emanating without end from the drilling holes during torrential rains. The accumulated toxins spilt across dozens of kilometers, polluting all the sources of drinking water of the ancient, virgin forest.

The testimony of the victims is gut wrenching. Like that of Umberto Piaguaje, leader of the Secoya Indians. "When we would see the managers from the company, they would assure us that we shouldn't worry about the appearance of the water or the colored sheen. They told us 'it's full of vitamins, don't worry, you can drink it. It's good like milk, the foam is proof.' Strange milk, to be sure. A study conducted in 1994 by American toxicologists found concentrations of noxious substances 2500 times the levels allowed in the US in the supposedly potable water. For women, to live in this area is to risk miscarriages. Rates for cancers of the throat, gall bladder, liver and skin? Between 15 and 30 times higher than in the areas outside the oil concessions!

With its army of lawyers, experts and security guards, the Americans of Chevron are putting up a fight. To silence their accusers, they produce, for example, a document signed by the Ecuadorian authorities in 1998, five years before the lawsuit began, that relieves them of liability. The document, received in exchange for remediation of about a hundred pits, was signed after payment of $40 million to PetroEcuador, a company that is badly run and totally inept in environmental matters.

Legal Entanglement and Business
"This sum was notoriously insufficient," the attorney general Jose Maria Borja insists in Quito. David Russell, an American expert on decontamination called as a witness by the plaintiffs, estimates that if PetroEcuador had truly wanted to do a clean-up it would have cost between one and five billion dollars! "This," he says, "is a drama of the same order of magnitude as Chernobyl. If nothing is done, we will continue to expose the population to the risk of chronic illnesses!" Chevron's response: "There is no irrefutable proof that oil and its derivatives are direct causes of cancer. The studies on the subject are only hypotheses and have been disproved by clear and objective facts."

Meanwhile, the legal entanglement doesn't suit other oil companies interested in Ecuador. They constantly rant, in private, about the impact on their business of the American giant's legal strategy. It's hard to imagine better arguments for those who oppose new oil projects than the facts being uncovered in the Texaco suit. "Lots of things have changed since 1992. We now extract Amazonian oil the way we do it off-shore; a platform built in the middle of the forest is like a platform in the sea. Its impact on the environment and the population is practically non-existent," claims Rene Ortiz, a former Energy minister who represents foreign oil interests in Ecuador. And he cites, as proof, the cooperation of the 3,000 Huaorani Indians who have authorized oil operations in their territory (in exchange for $1 million a year, it's true).

In the next few months, Ecuador plans to open a new concession within the confines of the Yasuni National Park, a site designated by the UN as a bio-reserve but one which also contains oil reserves estimated at 1.5 billion barrels. The fall of President Gutierrez has frozen the project. However, this is only a temporary set back. With oil at $50 a barrel, who will resist the temptation?

This article was translated from the French by Amazon Watch

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