Amazon peoples fight oil companies

By Zoe Kenny

While the UN was busy promoting its latest carbon trading scams and encouraging people to attend “celebrations” for World Environment Day, the people in the town of Bagua in northern Peru were fighting a life-and-death struggle to save their environment from corporate plunder — a struggle that achieved a partial victory.

At issue was the right of the indigenous people of the area to control access to their ancestral lands and what those granted access are allowed to do there. In 2008, as a part of a package of nine laws adopted to implement the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement, the Peruvian parliament passed Legislative Decree 1090, the Forestry and Wildlife Law, and Decree 1064, to permit changes in agrarian land use without full prior consent — laws designed to disempower indigenous people and allow full-scale resource extraction without fear of future legal action.

In the last few years more than 70% of the Peru’s Amazon region has been parcelled out to oil and gas companies for exploration. In May 2007 the US-owned Occidental oil company was accused by a coalition of environmental groups of violating Peruvian and international law by dumping an estimated 9 billion barrels of toxic waste in an area of the Peruvian Amazon where it has drilled for oil for the past 32 years. Similar pollution in neighbouring Ecuador has had a devastating effect on the rainforest, and led to chronic pollution and ill-health amongst the Amerindians who live there.

However instead of acquiescing, the people of Bagua decided to fight — perhaps inspired by the general upsurge in popular struggles throughout Latin America — starting a campaign of weeks of roadblocks and sit-ins. The principal organising body for the protests was the national inter-ethnic association of Amazonian indigenous groups (AIDESEP) — a group with 300,000 members. The protests were halted only by a bloody crackdown by Peruvian police on June 5.

Police assault

A photo essay published by Survival International — Death at Devil’s Bend: an eyewitness account — shows the police moving in and breaking up a peaceful protest, using tear gas and live ammunition on unarmed protesters. Only after the police began their assault did some protesters return fire at the police. The two journalists who published the eyewitness report stated: “We saw people being shot before our eyes, and we were ourselves shot at. Whilst it is clear that policemen were sometimes targets, the overwhelming majority of the victims we saw were indigenous people, and other protesters who came out to support them.”

As well as large numbers of police on foot, the protests were also circled by police in helicopters, shooting at people below. While the government continues to claim that 24 police officers and only nine protesters died, Amnesty International reported that 22 police and 30 demonstrators were killed. The communities in the area also say that there are at least 60 indigenous people still unaccounted for. Some witnesses say they saw police dumping bodies into a nearby river.

The crackdown, which prompted widespread condemnation and plummeting voter approval of the stridently pro-US government headed by President Alan Garcia, forced the government’s hand. On June 23 the Peruvian Congress voted 82-12 to repeal Decrees 1090 and 1064. After the vote, Daysi Zapata, AIDESEP president, declared: “Today is a historic day. We are grateful that the will of the indigenous peoples has been heard and we only hope that in the future governments listen and attend to indigenous peoples, and not legislate behind their backs.”

The revolutionary socialist government of Venezuela released a statement via indigenous affairs minister Nicia Maldonado, who called the crackdown “a terrorist act against those who wish to express themselves in the Amazon jungle” and called the Peruvian government a “neoliberal and fascist government”. US President Barack Obama remained mute despite pressure to take a stand against the repression. The indigenous resistance in Peru is bad news for the US, which is increasingly losing influence in the region.

Indigenous peoples threatened

The Amazon has long been a site of struggles between corporations and governments on one side and indigenous people on the other. The Amazon rainforest covers 560 million hectares and is the largest in the world. It is also the most biodiverse rainforest, with one in 10 known species living in it. The Amazon is also one of the most culturally diverse regions of the planet, being home to at least 200 different indigenous tribes. Even today there are still tribes which have not made contact with the outside world.

For thousands of years indigenous tribes were able to subsist sustainably on the land, using practices such as shifting cultivation that allowed the rainforest to regenerate. Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, cultures and spirituality are intimately tied up with their relationship to the land. In contrast, governments and corporations see the Amazon as a great economic prize, to be exploited regardless of the damage done to the invaluable natural and cultural heritage of the region.

In an article published in Counterpunch on June 22, Laura Carlsen quoted Peruvian President Alan Garcia as writing in a Peruvian newspaper: “There are millions of hectares of timber lying idle, another millions of hectares that communities and associations have not and will not cultivate, hundreds of mineral deposits that are not dug up and millions of hectares of ocean not used for aquaculture. The rivers that run down both sides of the mountains represent a fortune that reaches the sea without producing electricity.”

These conflicting perspectives have set up a collision course between indigenous people and transnational corporations and national governments that are more interested in exploiting the land than protecting the rights of their people.

Chevron in court

At the same time that the Peruvian indigenous people are struggling to protect their land before the devastation begins, indigenous people in Ecuador are involved in a drawn-out struggle to achieve justice as a result of the actions of one of the largest oil companies in the world — Chevron (which operates outside the US as Caltex). According to the website chevrontoxico.com, over a period of nearly 30 years of oil extraction, which earned it more than US$30 billion in profits, Chevron caused such immense environmental and human health problems that the area has been dubbed the “Amazon Chernobyl”. Today Chevron is facing a $27 billion class action suit taken out against it by 30,000 Ecuadorians.

In 1964 Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, discovered oil in northern Ecuador, in an area inhabited by seven indigenous groups. The company used the Vacant Lands Act, which was passed in the 1960s and allowed anyone who found “vacant” or “unoccupied” land and put it into productive use to receive title. This process of corporate colonisation was exacerbated by the company’s ambitious road-construction program, which resulted in 1930 kilometres of roads being built by the time it left in 1992.

The dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants has had disastrous consequences. Of the original seven groups, two — the Tetetes and the Sansahuari — have disappeared completely. The others have undergone a process of “cultural genocide”, their traditional lifestyles and practices having virtually disappeared. Displacing traditional culture are a range of typical problems associated with resource boom towns the world over — alcohol abuse, unemployment, violence and family breakdown.

From the beginning of its operations in Ecuador, Texaco was determined to cut costs and maximise profits at the expense of the environment and human health by utilising outmoded machinery and methods. One of the major sources of contamination from its operations was its treatment of “produced water”, which is extracted along with the crude oil and contains toxic heavy metals and a high level of salt. While the industry standard in the US from as early as the 1970s was to re-inject these waste waters, Texaco simply dumped at least 68 billion litres of the toxic water into nearby rivers and streams.

While the corporation was enjoying the super-profits extracted by its negligent methods, the people in the area had no choice but to go on using the rivers and streams as they always had — for bathing, cooking, washing and drinking — thereby being exposed to dangerous levels of toxins.

Adding to the pollution was Texaco’s policy of dumping other, more viscous, by-products into hundreds of unlined earth pits, despite supposedly being required to line the pits with an impermeable layer. As a result, toxic waste has been leaching into the surrounding soil, overflowing into rivers during big rains and presenting a hazard for the people and animals that live around them.

An internal memo from a Texaco manager in 1980 clearly shows the profit rationale: “[T]he current [unlined] pits are necessary for efficient and economical operations of our drilling ... operations. The total cost of eliminating the old pits and lining new pits would be $4,197,958 ... It is recommended that the pits neither be lined or filled”. While Texaco later claimed that it remediated 37.5% of the pits in the mid-90s, these efforts were perfunctory at best, with locals reporting that the “remediated” pits had been fixed by having a layer of soil spread over the top. Texaco also engaged in gas flaring, which releases toxic chemicals into the air.

As a result of these practices, communities in the area have suffered from a range of health problems, including elevated cancer rates; it is estimated that there have been at least 1401 excess cancer deaths in the area. One woman described her situation: “We lived in a house about 20 yards from an oil well. Another Texaco oil well was upstream from where we got our drinking water, and the water was usually oily with a yellowish foam. I had 11 children. I lost Pedro when he was 19 ... He had three cancerous tumours: in his lungs, liver and his leg.”

Despite the difficulties of everyday life, the people affected by Texaco’s actions decided to fight for justice. In 1993, the Amazon Defence Coalition, composed primarily of indigenous and peasant farmers, was formed, and the first lawsuit against Texaco was filed in Lago Agrio, the town the company had established as a base for its operations in Ecuador. However it was only 15 years later, in 2008, that the court ruled that Chevron was liable for damages of between US$7-16.3 billion — this was subsequently increased to $27 billion as a result of further investigation into the health crisis.

Chevron had initially lobbied for the case to be heard in Ecuador, against the wishes of the plaintiffs, no doubt believing that a court in a poor Third World country wouldn’t dare rule against a major First World corporation. However, as the trial is not going its way, it is now seeking to discredit the case.

The trial, which is due to conclude this year, is historic because it is the first time that a US company has faced trial in a foreign court based on its environmental record. A victory in Ecuador would be a major setback for the corporate agenda and could set an example for exploited and oppressed people throughout the Third World who are fighting for their rights.