Indigenous groups score gains

Lawsuits are forcing oil companies to take notice of Amazon peoples' demands.

DURING THE LAST THREE months of 1999, indigenous groups in the Ecuadorian Amazon chalked up some significant victories in their struggle to conserve the environment and receive reparation for damages caused by oil companies operating in their territories.

The first step was taken by the Amazon Defense Front, which since 1993 has been involved in a lawsuit against Texaco in a US court, demanding payment for damage resulting from the company's 20 years of drilling in the Amazon rain forest.

The class-action suit charges that Texaco dumped about 16 million gallons of crude oil and 20 billion gallons of contaminated water in the drilling area between 1964 and 1992, leading to an increase in cases of cancer, miscarriages and respiratory infections (LP, March 15, 1999).

Texaco has repeatedly denied the charges, but the company's attitude changed in mid-November, when Peter Bijur, Texaco president, sent a letter to the Amazon Defense Front proposing an out-of-court settlement with the plaintiffs. The proposed settlement would save the company about half the estimated US$1 billion demanded by the plaintiffs.

According to Luis Yanza, president of the Amazon Defense Front, Texaco changed its position "when it found itself cornered in the United States, because a publicity campaign in US media showed clearly that Texaco used cheap technology that damaged the ecosystem of northeastern Ecuador, something they wouldn't have done if they were drilling in areas where non-indigenous people lived."

With the help of other environmental groups, the Amazon Defense Front placed advertisements in some of the largest US daily newspapers.

Perhaps the most effective, however, was an ad aired on the CNN cable television network, which showed a Texaco employee spraying gasoline on a Caucasian family. "There's a company with a history of racial and ethnic discrimination - Texaco," a voice-over said. "Skin color matters to them. So Texaco would never do what you are about to see to people who look like this, but this is what Texaco did in the rain forests in Ecuador."

"The ads pressured Texaco," Yanza said, but he added that his organization is reluctant to accept the company's proposal. "An out-of-court settlement isn't as good, because we need a court to impose the indemnification and determine how it will be paid. Otherwise, with the government involved, we can be left to the mercy of the corruption that reigns in the country, and the indemnification money may not reach the affected communities."

Meanwhile, in southeastern Ecuador, the Untsuri Shuar - whose name means "people of the sacred waterfall" - squared off with another oil company, ARCO, which had received a government concession to drill in the province of Morona Santiago, in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon, without consultation of the Shuar and Achuar people who live in the area.

ARCO began by dividing the indigenous organizations, signing agreements with purported local indigenous committees that the company itself had created.

"ARCO has committed itself to working more at the local level, because the large indigenous organizations no longer represent the people," Herb Vickers, one of ARCO's top managers in Ecuador, said.

The Independent Federation of the Shuar People of Ecuador (FIPSE) and the Federation of Achuar People, which together represent about 40,000 residents of the area, sought an injunction under the 1998 constitution and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

The Shuar and Achuar groups accused ARCO of violating their right to maintain their spiritual, social and political customs, protection against unlawful entry of homes, and the right to set their own development priorities. They insisted that ARCO be required to negotiate with FIPSE and its legal representatives and prohibited from meeting with local organizations without FIPSE's approval.

The complaint was upheld by Ecuadorian courts. Civil Court Judge Mauricio Larriva of the province of Morona Santiago said ARCO's behavior violated "the disciplinary order that governs and must govern the relationship between FIPSE and its associates, which has generated discord."

The judge also ruled that the company had "violated constitutional rights and those contained in the international treaty."

FIPSE also asked that no ARCO representative be allowed to enter Shuar or Achuar territory without its permission. The judge turned down that request on the grounds that the legal delimitation of their territory has not been completed.

"The acceptance of our complaint allows us to defend our territory and negotiate, when necessary, the conditions for exploring and drilling, so what happened with Texaco doesn't happen to us," FIPSE president Tito Puenchir said.

In northeastern Ecuador, the Secoya people forced the Occidental Exploration and Production Co. (OEPC) to reach a preliminary agreement for negotiating the terms of oil exploration. Because OEPC wants to continue oil exploration in Secoya territory, a fragile ecosystem that includes the Secoyas' hunting and fishing grounds, the company and the Secoya Indigenous Organization of Ecuador (OISE) signed what they call a "code of conduct for dialogue."

The agreement is designed to ensure that both parties' rights are equally respected and that negotiations are honest and transparent. OISE is recognized as the only organization with authority to negotiate, and the agreement requires the company to provide full information about its work.

Humberto Piaguaje, OISE president, said the pressure on Texaco and ARCO has highlighted the need to respect the rights of indigenous peoples.

"It has been difficult, but now they know they must respect us and respect our territory, as required by the constitution. If they don't, they'll be taken to court, either here or elsewhere," Piaguaje said. "The main difficulty in reaching this agreement was the lack of trust, because oil companies are used to doing whatever they want, without respecting the law."

Despite the difficulties, however, the code of conduct established by OEPC and the Secoya organization paves the way for other agreements to protect the rights of indigenous groups in the face of oil drilling.

"Now we're ready to defend the forest where we hunt, the rivers where we fish and the trees that gave life to our elders and will give life to our children," Yanza said.

From Quito, Luis Angel Saavedra