In what looks to be one of the most one sided and saddening events in the Amazon rainforest history, an indigenous community of about 400 villagers is preparing to resist the Ecuadorean army and one of the biggest oil companies in South America – to protect their homes and the rainforest they live in.
Pristine forests and oil reservoirs
The Kichwa (also known as Quechua) tribe on Sani Isla were using blowpipes to hunt just two generations ago; they live a simple, pristine life, in a territory covering 70,000 hectares of pristine rainforest. Petroamazonas – the state-backed oil company – have told them they will begin prospecting – and they will come in with the military.
Much of the rainforest, which is extremely valuable in itself, even without people inhabiting it, covers a vast oil field. Desperate, with little options, the tribe have turned to the last resort, which can never end well: fighting. The Sani Islanders say they scared but determined.
“If there is a physical fight, it is certain to end tragically,” said Patricio Jipa, the shaman and former community chief. “We may die fighting to defend the rainforest. We would prefer passive resistance, but this may not be possible. We will not start conflict, but we will try to block them and then what happens will happen.”
Illegal? Who cares?!
The Kichwa people of Sarayaku, won two major victories in 2012: in April, for the first time in their history, the government of Ecuador acknowledged responsibility for illegally licensing an oil company to do business on indigenous territory without the community’s consent; and in July the Interamerican Court of Human Rights (ICHR) ruled that the government must consult with indigenous communities prior to such enterprises and to pay for physical and ‘moral’ damages to the community.
Everything seemed to be going fine, and things seemed to finally step into a humane normality. But guess what? Even though about 90% of their popullation is against oil exploitation, a self proclamed leader of the tribe gave the company the go-ahead for the exploration – something which he can’t legally do without the consent of the population. This is what a British businesswoman, who is married to the village shaman is trying to prove.
Mari Muench, who is originally from London explained that the community repeteadly decided to reject the financial offer and oppose the oil exploitation; the financial offer included a new school, university places for village children and better healthcare, but here’s the kicker: in the new document signed by the “village leader”, all these are dropped, and the villagers are given just a meager compensation. The government is going ahead in this abusive, illegal manner, without even discussing any other options – they said that if any other opposition is posed, the military will kick in.
“It makes me feel sad and angry. Sad because we are indigenous people and not fully prepared to fight a government. And angry because we grew up to be warriors and have a spirit to defend ourselves. I wish we could use this force to fight in a new way, but our mental strength is not sufficient in this modern world. If the laws were respected we would win. But our lawyers have sent them letters and they won’t even talk to us in Quito.”
Aside from the community itself, the members of the Quechua indigenous group are custodians of swaths of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Their land is close to the Yasuni national park. A single hectare of their land contains a wider biodiversity than the entire North America!
What options are left?
To put it quite frank, none. Ecuador is subjected to little or no international pressure from this, as of course, most governments turn a blind eye towards whatever big oil companies are doing. The government seems adamant to force their way to the oil relying on an illegal, technically worthless contract. Several newspapers and agencies tried contacting Petroamazonas – nobody replied.
Did you watch Avatar? These are exactly the “heroes of humanity” that we idolize in fantasy; we project them as heroes, but as soon as real life kicks in, the reality becomes too inconvenient for us to bother with. The black gold becomes much more important than life itself, and we just ignore it – and this is real life.
Meanwhile, the Kichwa are appealing for outside assistance to aid them in this legal battle and/or offer alternatives – something which seems just as hopeless as an armed conflict with the Ecuadorian military.
Read more in the Guardian, National Geographic, and if you want, you can sign a petition – though it’s all but impossible for it to actually make a difference. The petition site also features a great video.