It seemed nothing, despite talks and protects, could stop Ecuador’s government from selling oil exploration rights in a remote corner of the Amazon rainforest to a federation of Chinese state-owned oil companies earlier this year.
Now, indigenous groups fear they could lose everything.
Andes Petroleum Ecuador — a partnership of two Chinese state-owned firms, China National Petroleum Corp. and China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. — purchased the rights to explore two oil blocks in the Amazon in January spanning 500,000 acres. The deal, worth about $80 million, has instilled fear amongst experts and activists who believe it could destroy a pristine rainforest ecosystem and threaten the livelihood of unique, endangered cultures, including two isolated indigenous tribes.
“That’s essentially the only Amazon in Ecuador that hasn’t been devastated by oil operations,” explained Adam Zuckerman, an environmental and human rights campaigner at the Oakland-based nonprofit Amazon Watch. “The whole northern Amazon has the legacy of Texaco, now owned by Chevron. Andes Petroleum, which is operating in the south, already operated in the north — and because of a legacy of contamination, and quite honestly, ethnocide in the north, the southern population sees this and says, ‘We don’t want this.’ ”
The oil blocks interfere with the homes of the indigenous group called the Sápara. Consisting of only 300 members, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] declared the group an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2001 because of their minimal size and unique language.
The blocks border Yasuní National Park as well. A 3,800-square-mile area of jungle that is home to two indigenous tribes, the nomadic Tagaeri and the Taromenane, there is worry that the project could increase both tribes’ vulnerability as a result of oil drilling and infrastructure expansion north, east, south, and west of them.
“We don’t want oil drilling in our lands,” said Manari Ushigua, who is one of the most well-known leaders of the Sápara tribe. “Our culture is at risk of disappearing; so is our language and our way of relating to the rainforest.”
For several years, Ecuador has sought to increase oil production. They’ve invited foreign companies to drill in the largely untouched area of the Amazon rainforest called the Sur Oriente, exploiting one of the most biodiverse places on Earth for profit.
With the deal signed, the Chinese oil company could completely explore the land and harvest its oil over the next four years. Not only could this devastate the environment, but also the way of living of the indigenous tribes in the Amazon.
“If they put an oil well in our land, it would be like they are destroying our laboratory, our knowledge,” Ushigua explained. He and his tribe have vowed to take the case to international court over concerns that drilling will pollute the jungle and erode what’s left of their traditional way of life. “In a polluted environment there are no answers,” Ushiguia continued. “But in the jungle you can find inner peace. And the answer to many things.”
Jorge Herrera, President of the Confederation of the Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, is also disturbed by the news. “The government is directly responsible for whatever that happens to our villages,” he said. “The project is illegitimate and illegal. It is against our villages and against nature.
“This is a government of double standards and double morality,” he said. “Consequently, we must respect the constitution. The agreement on Jan. 25 with the Chinese [consortium] Andes Petroleum is unconstitutional and illegitimate.”
But government officials disagree. The deal “sends a message that our country is building up confidence and that companies want to come and invest here despite the low international oil prices,” explained Ecuadorian Minister of Hydrocarbons Carlos Pareja, according to the state news agency.
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