Fighting Big Oil in the Amazon

The Secoya are indigenous to the Amazon rainforest. In Ecuador, they live in a rapidly changing region along the Aguarico River.

I am writing these notes on a public bus returning to Quito from Amazonia, in between mouthfuls of dust and breathtaking scenery. We have just passed the last military checkpoint that guards (in some unknown way) the entrance to the "Oriente", the Ecuadorian Amazon. Alongside the road, through the coffee fields, towns and rivers, snakes the ubiquitous Trans-Ecuador Pipeline. The main trunk of the "oleoducto" is three feet in diameter and pulses day and night with the black blood of the Amazon. With no serious environmental laws to regulate oil companies, the pipeline has brought ecological disaster, colonization, disease and social disruption to the indigenous communities it transects along its path. In addition, the Ecuadorian economy has gone from a manageable debt level of $300 million when oil was discovered in quantity to an unshakable 1$18 billion, and the quality of life for the average Ecuadorian has suffered concomitantly.

At the invitation of Elias Piaguaje of OISE (Organization of Indigenous Secoya of Ecuador) and Jim Oldham of the Secoya Survival Project at Hampshire College, I came to Ecuador to work with indigenous leaders to develop a legal and political strategy to confront Big Oil, and mitigate (if not eliminate) its impact in the land of the Secoya. We met for two days in Quito with leaders from Secoya, Siona, Shuar and Quiche peoples (cosponsored by Dean's Beans® and the Survival Project), analyzing international and Ecuadorian law, community ideas and the latest proposals from Occidental Petroleum.

Jim and I then traveled to Tierra Secoya (overnight bus, two-hour pickup truck ride to Rio Aguarico and a two-hour dugout canoe ride to San Pablo, the largest Secoya settlement). Over the next six days we met with community group up and down the river to help forge a unified strategy to confront Occidental (in its latest move, OXY bypassed OISE and negotiated with a small Secoya community for an access road, well site, and the permanent transfer of territory to PetroEcuador for a one time measly $1,200/family - the Amazonian equivalent of the sale of Manhattan Island). After long days and nights of alternatively heated and hilarious meetings, over meals of rice, beans, guanta (a large but tasty rodent) and canned tuna, washed down with mildly fermented banana chicha, the village voted to renounce the contract and rejoin the OISE efforts. We wrote formal letters of renunciation to OXY to be filed in the Ecuadorian court and started the long-term process of developing both an informed negotiating position and community-based development alternatives to Big Oil.

I'll keep you informed of our progress and welcome your input. Oh, in case you didn't know, your purchases directly support our work with indigenous peoples and other struggling communities at home and abroad.

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