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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Indigenous Groups Take on Big Oil

Air Date: Week of

Multinational oil companies have left big footprints across parts of South America, and Native American peoples have often felt the brunt. The three U.S. citizens recently slain in the region were helping indigenous groups in Colombia mobilize to stop a U.S. oil company from drilling on their lands. Quil Lawrence explores oil's impact in Ecuador, where local residents are increasingly savvy in their dealings with oil giants including Occidental Petroleum and Texaco.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Investigations continue into the deaths of 3 US human-rights activists killed after being abducted in Colombia. The 3 Americans had been helping local indigenous groups campaign to stop US-based Occidental Petroleum Corporation from drilling on tribal lands. Historically, oil companies have made their business arrangements with governments, sidestepping the concerns of local indigenous groups. Ecuador is a case in point. In the 1970s oil firms drilled throughout the Ecuadorean Amazon, barely consulting with the people living there. Years later, the Indians filed lawsuits. But today, leaders of indigenous groups are striking a harder bargain from the very beginning. Quil Lawrence reports.

(Tropical birds)

LAWRENCE: San Pablo de Los Secoyas is 2 hours boat ride downriver from the nearest dirt road. This is the Ecuadorean Amazon rainforest. Floating down the Agua Rico River will eventually feed into the Napo in Peru, and then east across the continent on the Amazon River. Three hundred fifty Secoya Indians live here in the tiny village of San Pablo. The income of the entire community is about $4,000 each year. But last month, the town returned a $20,000 payment to Occidental Petroleum company.

PIAGUAGE: [Speaks in native tongue]

LAWRENCE: Colon Piaguage, a member of the community, says that the deal which Occidental had made in order to build a road into the area and start drilling for oil was reconsidered by the Secoya. And they decided to give the money back, with interest.

PIAQUAHE: [Speaks in native tongue]

TRANSLATOR: The life of our jungle doesn't compare with $20,000. Sure, $20,000 is a lot of money, but it's a philosophical idea. This is our culture, our identity. This is very serious for us.

LAWRENCE: This is the third deal which the Secoya have rejected with Occidental. Local environmentalists say the oil company has a good record within the industry. But what worries the Secoya is the close encounter with the outside world. Once the road is built, poor Ecuadoreans will colonize the newly-accessible jungle and mix with the Secoya as they never have in the past. It will also bring development, making it easier to trade with the rest of Ecuador. The Secoya have decided that they do want to make a deal with Occidental. They just want to make sure that they get plenty in return for what will be a drastic change in their way of life.

PIAQUAHE: [Speaks in native tongue]

TRANSLATOR: It could be hard, no? Some 50 colonists could move in overnight and basically invade, since we are only 300 or so people. They could begin to mix with us, marrying Secoya, and that's how we could disappear.

WOMAN: [Speaks in native tongue]

LAWRENCE: Piaguage's grandmother remembers a time when game and fish were plentiful in this region Ecuadoreans call the Oriente. But those days were gone long before the negotiations began with Occidental. The Agua Rico River is already polluted, and fish stocks are low.

(Engines running; a horn beeps; in the background of traffic sounds)

LAWRENCE: This is Lago Agrio, also in the middle of the Oriente's jungle, and this is the kind of development the Secoya fear. After oil was discovered here in the late 60s, Texaco and the Ecuadorean government pumped about 1.4 billion barrels of crude over 20 years. And, according to environmentalists, they spilled about 17 million barrels, half again as much oil as was spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster. Even though Texaco pulled out of Ecuador in 1990, the Secoya are among the plaintiffs in a huge lawsuit filed against Texaco on its home turf in New York. The Secoya say Texaco's pollution floated down the Agua Rico River, causing health problems for the Secoya as well as fish and game. The plaintiffs won a billion and a half dollars in compensation for the mess they say Texaco left them.

(Loud motors)

LAWRENCE: Next to a mammoth pump which is sending oil out through a pipeline, Manuel Silva is looking into a pit of oil sludge the size of a backyard swimming pool. Silva is a health worker in Lago Agrio, who heads a group of plaintiffs in the case against Texaco. He says that the unlined pools, with the help of heavy Amazon rain, leached toxins into the water, which everyone in the area drinks, washes, and bathes in.

SILVA: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: There have been a series of unknown diseases, chronic skin infections. There are respiratory diseases because people are breathing the contaminated dust of the roads.

LAWRENCE: A team, including researchers from Harvard University, conducted a study here in 1993, and concluded that the oil which had been spilled, as well as the open sludge pits, were releasing many toxins, the most dangerous being polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are linked to cancer even in trace amounts. Texaco also made roads by dumping crude oil onto dirt, which the research team says also leached toxins. The most serious allegation is that the company dumped what are known in the industry as formation waters, laced with heavy metals, which come up with the crude in any drilling operation. Environmentalists say that the only safe thing to do with the water is to reinject it deep into the earth. They say that Texaco simply dumped the water, about 30 billion gallons of it over 2 decades.

(Large flare)

LAWRENCE: When oil is drilled gas is also released. If it can't be sold, it is usually burned off in a flare like this one, which sometimes shoots flames over 20 feet high against the backdrop of green. Nearby is yet another one of the sludge pits.

SILVA: [Speaks in Spanish]

LAWRENCE: Silva says that when Texaco pulled out of Ecuador it made a deal with the government and sealed off only 70 of perhaps 600 pits. Texaco says its final agreement with the Ecuadorean government included the remediation of over 200 sites, part of a $40 million clean-up program, which they said accounted for all of Texaco's environmental damage. Faye Cox is a company representative.

COX: Texaco did operate responsibly in Ecuador. We provided, at the time of operations there, the consortium provided 50% of the gross national product to Ecuador. And that's important to an emerging country. And there were, you know, schools built, hospitals built, and we feel like we did a very good job in Ecuador. We were proud of the partnership with Petro-Ecuador, and we're proud of the way we operate around the world.

LAWRENCE: Cox says that the formation waters were filtered before they were released, and that the company was in accordance with prevailing industry standards at the time. She says that Texaco followed, and sometimes surpassed, all of Ecuador's standards and regulations, and that they worked in partnership with the Ecuadorean state. The case is tied up in New York courts, but it has already had an effect in the Oriente, according to Chris Jochnick, a Quito-based lawyer with the Center for Economic and Social Rights.

JOCHNICK: One of the good things about this lawsuit, however it turns out, one of the good things has been to force people to recognize the fact that oil has serious impacts on people's health in the environment. Just 5 years ago people really did live with oil as if it was just part of nature, almost. And today, not only do they recognize that the oil is leading to a lot of their health problems, they also recognize the fact that they have legal rights, and this is not the way that things are supposed to be. That they have, in fact, under their constitution, a right to a healthy environment.


LAWRENCE: Under his tin roof in San Pablo de Las Secoyas, Colon Piaguage is one of those who has learned a lot from the Texaco case. He says that the days when indigenous groups signed over their rights for a few trinkets are over. The Secoya have given the money back to Occidental so that they won't owe the company anything when the negotiations begin again.

PIAQUAHE: [Speaks in native tongue]

TRANSLATOR: First of all, we spent a very long time thinking about this. It wasn't easy to decide to let the company into our land. We wanted to avoid great damage that could happen, great damage to our cultural identity.

LAWRENCE: The Secoya say they will eventually allow Occidental to build a road into their territory to reach the oil. But with the threat it poses to their culture, they're going to try to make sure they get plenty in return. Piaguage mentions clean water, gasoline for the community motorboat, perhaps a hospital. He's optimistic that his people can benefit from the revenue from the oil wells around them—that they can use a chainsaw, a motor boat, and even a computer, and still preserve their language, their customs, and their culture. Older members of the community are wary of the changes to come. For Living on Earth, this is Quil Lawrence in San Pablo de Los Secoyas, Ecuador.



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