Guest post by Karen Hood, a volunteer with the Rainforest Partnership
The world is watching Ecuador. Oil giant PetroAmazonas has plans to drill in the Amazon rainforest. Many rainforest residents are no doubt fearing a repeat of what happened nearly fifty years ago, when Texaco blasted through the Amazon rainforest, clearing acres of pristine forest land and began drilling for oil. The result was the most massive destruction and contamination of rainforest lands in history along with unprecedented human rights violations. It was the early sixties; and although world-wide activism was at its peak, there were no global public awareness campaigns or social media platforms to halt the determination of such a big oil company. Today, the world is different--environmentally aware and globally connected. There are multi-national commissions and environmental standards in place; yet, deliberate deforestation is still the top threat to the world’s tropical forests. And proposed drilling is a huge threat right now.
A small community in eastern Ecuador has a front row seat to the threat. Sani Isla is located on the border of two nationally protected areas, Yasuní National Park and Cuyabeno Nature Reserve. The residents of this peaceful village live much like their ancestors did, surviving largely on food and resources from the rainforest. In 2008, some of the women of Sani Isla partnered with the international non-profit Rainforest Partnership to develop a sustainable artisan crafts business to support the village economy.
Although their efforts have been successful, the lives of these villagers will change drastically if PetroAmazonas proceeds with their plans to drill in their area.
“There’s a struggle between the people wanting to extract oil and the people living there,” said Rainforest Partnership Executive Director Niyanta Spelman. In the past, she stated, major corporations have muscled their way into rainforest communities even when the law was clearly on the side of the villagers. This type of injustice has gained the attention of the international community. The Sani Isla community, for instance, has already refused corporate offers for oil drilling, but their voices are being disregarded. “These communities have titled lands, and if they don’t want oil in their communities and their respective countries give them the right to not say yes then they should have that ability,” said Spelman.
Spelman added that, “If oil should come against their wishes, then it should be with the highest levels of safety. And a lot of times that has not happened over the last decades and so you’ve had vast wastelands created out of something that had been so amazing.”
It is not likely that these rainforest communities will get a sympathetic ear from the Ecuadorian government. They, along with PetroAmazonas, are in the process of taking bids from oil companies for the sale of sixteen huge blocks of rainforest land where seven indigenous tribes currently reside. An opposition front is being spearheaded by the Confederation of Amazonian Indigenous Nationalities. Over a million people have signed a petition with the hopes of convincing President Rafael Correa to drop the project.
Spelman worries that oil companies like PetroAmazonas will try to bribe villagers or purposely create confusion and division among the community in order to execute a deal. Instead, she says, there is room for transparency and fair negotiation. “A lot of the communities are not just saying no; they are saying not here, not at the headwaters for the river, not where something is very environmentally sensitive or sacred. But these outside interests don’t care about that, and it is not okay.”
Indigenous communities are joining forces now, trying desperately to avoid the toxic waste, health concerns, and poverty that has hit other rainforest communities as a result of oil extraction. Spelman stated that the villagers are willing to risk their lives in order to keep the land because they have no where else to go. “They can’t just leave. They have to live there--and live with--whatever happens.”