Oil, ecotourism and indigenous communities


AUSTIN, Texas – Oil pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon has caused significant damage to indigenous communities, polluting water and food sources. Oil operations have also led to deforestation and colonization in indigenous territory. Yet with few options, indigenous communities must choose to sell their land or fend off oil goliaths through small-scale industries like ecotourism.

Indigenous groups of the Ecuadorian Amazon

The Amazon – the largest rainforest on Earth – covers more than a billion acres, covering eight South American countries and French Guiana. It contains a tenth of the world’s species as well as some 400 native tribes, of which about sixty choose to remain isolated. However, many have had contact with the outside world, using guns to hunt and accessing Western medicine and education.

About a quarter of Ecuador’s 1.1 million indigenous people live in the Amazon, representing 10 indigenous nationalities, including the Cofán, Siona, Secoya and Waorani. Ecuador has taken progressive steps to protect indigenous rights, but inequalities remain. According to the World Bank, indigenous households in Ecuador are 16% more likely to live in extreme poverty than non-indigenous households. While the Ecuadorian constitution grants land ownership to indigenous groups, energy resources like oil belong to the state.

The search for black gold

In Ecuador, companies began to search for oil in the early 20th century, but the peak of oil extraction began in the 1970s. Texaco Petroleum Co., based in the United States, now known as Chevron , arrived in Ecuador in the 1960s and remained its main oil company until the early 1990s.

A team of lawyers sued Chevron in 1993 for irresponsible waste management, affecting 30,000 Ecuadorians. The lawsuit accused Chevron of storing 18.5 billion gallons of sewage in unpaved pits. He also claimed that Chevron had spilled 16 million gallons of oil into the air. In the wake of this scandal, Chevron closed more than 200 oil wells and built schools and medical facilities in the area. The complainants argued, however, that this was insufficient. They claimed that the oil spills had caused lasting environmental damage and damage to human health, including skin conditions and cancer.

An Ecuadorian court ruled in 2011 that Chevron should pay $ 9.5 billion in damages. Three years later, Chevron appealed to a US federal court, which found the verdict to be fraudulent. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague also ruled in favor of Chevron, which argued it had never owned any assets in Ecuador, and signed an agreement with the country in the late 1990s l ‘exempt from any other liability there.

Almost 30 years later, Chevron still denies responsibility and has paid nothing for the initial decision.

Ecuador’s oil production today

Ecuador is still heavily dependent on oil extraction to repay its debts to China as well as for state revenues. Yet while oil is ubiquitous, Michael Cepek – an anthropologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of “Life in Oil” – believes that oil companies are now using better practices than Chevron. He says the Borgen project companies are more cautious about responsible waste management and use safety valves along pipelines.

Still, he doesn’t rule out the fact that damaging spills are inevitable in an earthquake-prone country like Ecuador. “Until you totally rebuild the Trans-Ecuadorian pipeline or do something to make the pipelines impervious to seismic activity, you will only have oil spills,” he said.

According to rights organization Amazon Frontlines, there are now more than 950 oil wells in the Amazon where – between 2005 and 2015 – there were nearly 1,170 oil spills in Ecuador alone. As recently as April 2020, broken pipelines from Ecuador’s Petroecuador and privately-owned OPC Consortium spilled more than 15,000 gallons of oil. The spill affected more than 100,000 people, including more than 100 indigenous communities. The two oil companies say they cleaned up the spills. However, recent tests reveal that heavy metals are still present in rivers.

The ITT initiative: a call to save the rainforest or a cynical criticism?

The then Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, established an international trust fund in 2007 as part of his Yasuni-ITT initiative. The goal was to increase half the value of the oil reserves – some 3.6 billion dollars – of the Yasuní park in Ecuador by 2023. If the initiative reaches its objective thanks to international donations, the 796 million barrels of oil would remain underground. The plan ultimately failed, increasing less than half of 1% of its goal six years after the initiative began.

Ecuador’s foreign debts continued to lurk, and Correa ended the initiative in 2013, allowing oil companies to drill.

Cepek doubts Correa ever expected the international community to save Yasuní. He thinks the initiative has served as a lesson to developed hypocritical nations. “He put it to the ball on their knees, saying, ‘(If) you don’t want us to do this kind of extractivism… put your money where your mouth is,’ Cepek said, adding that a lot of Others sincerely believed the plan would work and were devastated by its failure.

Stuck between a road and a pipeline

Indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon often find themselves in a difficult position. They can make a deal with companies to sell their land for oil, or risk losing everything anyway.

For 20 years, Cepek has conducted research in a community of Cofán in Dureno. For many indigenous communities, working with oil companies equates to money for necessities like health care. “Poverty is so extreme,” Cepek said, “it’s hard to say ‘no’ when you have no other means of making money.”

Ecotourism in Ecuador: Sani Lodge

The community of Sani Isla consists of around 600 Kichwa from the Ecuadorian provinces of Napo and Pastaza. The Sani community built Sani Lodge for guests in 1999 when, according to Javier Hualinga – a Sani Lodge guide at the time – the community was resisting two threatening proposals. One was to build a road through their community. The other was to allow Occidental Petroleum Corp. to run a pipeline instead. In the end, Occidental won, Hualinga told Project Borgen, and the Sani community felt powerless because Ecuadorian law declared that these energy resources belonged to the government.

The Sani community built Sani Lodge to create jobs and consolidate greater power against encroachment by oil companies. One of the main goals of Sani Lodge today, Hualinga said, is to conserve the land. Sani Lodge “is a perfect excuse to fight the oil companies,” he said, “and has become our armor or our shield.” At the Sani Lodge, guests can take personalized tours through the Amazon, led by community guides. Guests also have the opportunity to visit Kichwa houses, eat traditional meals, and learn about Kichwa customs.

Sani Lodge is the only indigenous owned and operated ecolodge in Ecuador, according to its website. All profits from the lodge remain with the community, says Hualinga. The money is used for expenses such as health care, education and the preservation of Kichwa culture. Sani Lodge is also a partner in the Sani Warmi project, which supports indigenous women in small businesses.

The instability of “sustainable tourism”

While Sani Lodge has provided the Sani community with a degree of self-reliance, it has not made life easy for its Kichwa residents. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sani Lodge was struggling financially. With increasing pressure from the oil companies, the community disagrees as to whether they should maintain their ecolodge or allow oil.

The global pandemic has added to the lodge’s financial challenges, Hualinga said. Sani Lodge closed for months. While Sani can normally accommodate 20 people, it is currently only half-capacity.

Last year’s oil spill, which hit the Napo River, also made it difficult for the community to operate its lodge – to the point where Hualinga says reopening feels like starting over ‘from scratch’ .

Light at the end of the pipeline

At the Sani Lodge, guests can observe hundreds of species of birds, as well as spider monkeys, giant otters, and occasionally jaguars. On his guided hikes, Hualinga says he allows visitors to form their own opinions on what they see. Yet he hopes their immersion will have an impact on their understanding of the Amazon and the indigenous communities that inhabit it.

The lodge has the potential to “show (the guests) how important (it) is to protect the Amazon,” he said, “which is not only home to the diversity of flora and fauna, but also the diversity of … culture and their ability to live with it.

– Annie Prafcke
Photo: Pexels


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