By Luis Ángel Saavedra
The decisions President Rafael Correa takes with regard to oil fields located on indigenous territories demonstrate more and more the Ecuadorian government’s unwillingness to respect the constitutional guidelines that protect the rights of communities and of nature.
Correa’s decisions have even created a bitter debate within the government. On one side are officials from the ministries of Justice and the Environment that since 2008 were working on mechanisms to fulfill the precautionary measures set forth by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or IACHR, for the protection of the Tagaeri and Taromenane communities, as well as the Kichwa community of Sarayaku. On the other hand are officials from the President’s office and the Ministry of Non-renewable Resources, who revealed at the end of June new plans for oil contracts, derailing the work done by the ministries of Justice and the Environment.
The precautionary measures in favor of the Tagaeri and Taromenane, issued in 2006, are one of many the IACHR issued to protect the lives and lands of the various indigenous Ecuadoran communities, and which are contrary to government’s extractive policy.
Moreover, new oil drilling policies contradict President Correa’s previous actions, in which he defined a government policy of protection for uncontacted or voluntarily isolated peoples by creating in 2008 the Environmental and Social Remediation Plan and the Precautionary Measures Plan. These plans sought to implement the best alternative to fulfill the agreement between the government and the IAHCR, especially with respect to the lands where there was evidence of the existence of these communities, encouraging limitations on the exploitation of oil and timber.
The government decided to call for bids on June 19 for the so-called “Campo Armadillo,” in the Amazonian province of Orellana. It is categorized as a “marginal field,” which means that its petroleum production is not significant and, although it would help finance the national budget, will not yield a high income.
Nevertheless, it does have a strategic value: its proximity to the Yasuní National Park, where the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini, or ITT field is located. This is the largest oil reserve in the country and has been the subject of an international campaign that seeks compensation for not exploiting the oil, and to preserve the high level of biodiversity of this area, which is declared a protected zone.
By being close to Yasuní, Campo Armadillo could serve as infrastructural base for drilling at ITT and would facilitate the connection of the pipelines necessary to transport crude oil.
Evidence of settlements and transit of the Amazonian Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples, communities that remain in voluntary isolation, has been found in Campo Armadillo. However, Correa has been skeptical about the state’s responsibility to protect these peoples, and has made unfortunate comments about their rights, such as those said in May 2010 on one of his many Saturday radio programs.
“They don’t want Armadillo to be exploited because uncontacted groups were seen in the area. God forbid we see uncontacted people in Quito and we have to leave Quito,” the president said ironically.
The call for tenders for Campo Armadillo is practically a death sentence for the Tagaeri and Taromenane. In Ecuador the disappearance of indigenous peoples because of oil drilling activities is not new; already in the 1980s, the Tetete y Sansahuari disappeared — two communities in the Northeastern province of Sucumbíos who suffered the brunt of the activities of the US oil firm Texaco.
To prevent the disappearance of the Tagaeri and Taromenane, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, filed a lawsuit on March 29 against Correa for “genocide,” arguing that his extractive policy will result in the death of uncontacted tribes. The lawsuit filed in a court in Ecuador’s capital was rejected on the grounds that there was no sign that the government is intervening in the Armadillo field.
However, the current invitation to tender for Armadillo reinvigorates that lawsuit, which is currently with the IACHR and pending an eligibility report.
In the meantime, the compensation project for leaving oil in the ground at ITT has encountered more challenges than expected. Negotiations with countries that had expressed interest in cooperating with the consolidation of a donor basket seem to be definitively headed for failure as a result of the government’s ambiguity in its policy regarding the defense of environmental rights. This has led the government to consider oil exploitation in this field, for which it has allowed for the setup of base camps and is negotiating with local authorities the commitment to the project. For now, Correa announced that if the required compensation is not ready by end-2011, drilling could begin in at least part of the ITT field.
Sarayaku again at IACHR
IACHR has also issued precautionary measures that benefit the Kichwa community of Sarayaku in Pastaza, located in the Amazon in the southern part of the country, a community that resisted the entry of Argentinian oil firm Compañía General de Combustibles, or CGC.
In 1996, the Ecuadorian government granted a concession for Sarayaku land to CGC. The company began a seismic survey with the detonation of pentolite. More than 1,500 kg of this explosive have not yet been deactivated because neither the state nor the company have provided financial resources for these activities.
The opposition from the Sarayaku community and the precautionary measures issued by IACHR required the state, in mid-2007, to nullify the concession; nevertheless, last year the government redefined the oil blocks and again included land belonging to this indigenous community for future oil exploration tenders.
The government’s decision renewed the threat against this community, which has again reached out to IACHR; the Commission held a general audience with the community’s representatives on July 6.
The indigenous leaders told the Commission about how the struggle against the oil company prohibited them from planting and from holding their traditional celebrations from 2002 to 2006 because they were busy monitoring CGS, so that that company would not proceed with oil exploration activities.
“We stopped hunting, we stopped planting, we stopped working and went hungry to protect the land,” said Patricia Gualinga, an indigenous leader.
The strongest statement from the indigenous Sarayaku people was when its 90-year-old spiritual leader, Sabino Gualinga, declared that with the pentonite detonations conducted by CGC for seismic surveying, sacred trees had died and half of the spiritual beings in the jungle disappeared.
“We went through a lot of sadness and disgrace. In the jungle live ancestral beings, the masters of the jungle, and it is a tragedy that they disappeared, because sicknesses will come with that,” Sabino Gualinga said in his native language of kichwa.
On the state’s behalf, a representative of the national government made a weak presentation about the steps taken to protect the Sarayaku, but could not explain the new oil policy. The government based its defense on the testimony of an Evangelical indigenous man who reaffirmed his satisfaction with the progress made by the government, and the need for development.
Now IACHR must decide what measures should be taken to protect this indigenous community.