Oil industry power over the Waorani people’s Amazon basin manifests itself in the rampant militarization of the region and the use of threats and violence.
As late as a mere generation or so ago, the Waorani people in the Amazon basin of Ecuador had succeeded in surviving colonialism’s numerous rushes to extract natural resources. But then oil deposits were discovered on their rainforest lands, and ethnic annihilation and ecological destruction ensued. No longer free to exist as semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, they are now forced to live on contaminated land and on reserves under the military control of multinational oil companies.
It is in this context of devastating exploitation that the Swedish company Skanska operates in the Amazon basin. Skanska, one of the biggest construction companies in the world, conducts operations in cooperation with multinational oil companies in the Ecuadorian rainforest – despite local resistance, illegal conditions and the fact that its operations cause horrific ecological and cultural destruction. The Waorani people are only one of several indigenous peoples whose existence is threatened in the region in which Skanska has made itself notorious.
Traditionally, the Waorani people are rainforest nomads who live by hunting and gathering, and researchers believe they have lived in the Ecuadorian Amazon basin for tens of thousands of years. The history of their culture is difficult to document, however, since their sustainable lifestyle has not left any noticeable traces in nature. This lack of evidence of indigenous cultural history has jeopardized the land rights of indigenous groups across the globe and caused their right to exist to be questioned by political and economic players with interests in their lands. Today, the Waorani people are condemned to live on the edge of annihilation because of the consequences of oil exploitation in Ecuador.
After intense struggles to achieve political recognition as an indigenous people, in the past few years, the Waorani people have regained territorial and self-determination rights under national laws and international conventions (such as the UN Convention ILO: 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries).
However, despite this victory and the fact that their land is in the UNESCO recognized Yasuni national park, unbridled oil exploitation of their land is taking place. The oil industry’s activities in the Amazon basin are often unlawful and companies have brutally occupied the rainforest by taking advantage of wide-spread corruption and the absence of full regulatory permission. Skanska’s cooperation with the Petrobras oil company in the Yasuni national park is clear-cut example of this kind of abuse.
A low-Intensity War
To circumnavigate the indigenous people’s right to self-determination, the oil industry has resorted to strategies of a low-intensity war. Various ways of wielding power are used to frighten, divide and manipulate a local population. The exercise of oil industry power over the Waorani people’s Amazon basin manifests itself in the rampant militarization and paramilitarization of the region, manipulation of indigenous organizations, and the use of threats and violence.
Networks and organisations like Oilwatch and Acción Ecológica, which fight oil exploration in sensitive ecosystems and on indigenous land, have shown how the oil companies typically proceed to swindle indigenous peoples like the Waorani. Tribal people (with little or no prior contact with civilization) have been enticed into entering into agreements with the oil companies by signing contracts with finger imprints when they could not read, write or understand Spanish – a practice that is, of course, entirely illegal.
According to Alicia Cahuiya, former leader of Amwae, the Waorani women organization, the Waorani people have been tricked by the companies in various ways. She relates instances where the companies have given indigenous villages items such as soccer clothes and candy in return for permission to drill for oil on their land. “Companies have often bought villages off with small gifts,” says Cahuiya, “because the villagers have not understood what was going on when the company representatives came calling. Later, when people have become sick from contamination caused by the oil extraction and begun to protest, the military have rushed in to support the companies Obviously, we are afraid of their retaliation – they have established military control around the entire territory and, if anything happens, we can neither leave nor enter our villages without their approval. Even government agencies are not always allowed to pass.”
When political scientist Hanna Dahlström and I investigated the oil industry and Skanska’s operations in the Amazon basin, our picture of this type of manipulation, control and violence has been reinforced. By socializing with Skanska employees while under cover, we managed to get ourselves invited to one of Skanska’s oil fields (block 18), a site the company shares with Petrobras. We were driven to the oil field in a Skanska jeep, accompanied by regional general manager Milton Diaz and a heavily armed guard (who always joins the Skanska boss on trips to the field). Diaz explained that “the Indians can be violent at times” and that there are “rebel groups” in the area.
While in the jeep, Diaz received important calls telling him that the situation at the oil field was not good. Just when we were about to turn onto the bumpy road to the fields, we were stopped by a homemade roadblock. It was one of the days when local residents stage protests against the exploitation, which they consider immoral, illegal and destructive to their health. Diaz made call after call, explaining to us with irritation that they’ll have to call for reinforcement “to deal with the people.” We returned to Skanska’s administrative base in the oil town of Coca, several kilometres away, where we joined Skanska top brass for wine and food while we waited for news of the tense situation.
A colonially racist discourse pervades Skanska’s administrative base – or rather luxury estate – behind its walls, gates and armed guards. In the evening after our foiled trip to the oil fields, there was a poolside party for Skanska and Petrobras management. Company directors discussed “the unreasonable demands of the local population” and the high taxes companies are forced to pay in “these banana republics.” They compared the local population to developmentally disabled people and apes.
Production at oil field 18 was down for a few days, after which we heard from Diaz that the problem with local people “had been resolved,” and normal operations resumed. What we were not given any exact information about was how the situation was resolved. Later, lawyers with the Amazonian Defense Front (Frente de defensa de la Amazonia, FDA) received a steady stream of eye-witness accounts of violations of environmental and human rights laws from area residents.
An Industry of Death
Not much remains today of the Ecuadorian rainforest and the places where indigenous groups like the Waorani peoples have lived for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. According to Oilwatch, over 70% of the region is controlled by the oil industry – which includes companies like Skanska.(1) By fulfilling the technical and infrastructural needs of the oil companies in the Amazon basin, Skanska is one of the pillars of what is perhaps the most diabolically destructive industries of our time. The indigenous people who live with the effects of the industry have a single word to describe it: Death.
Manuela Omari Ima, who is the new chairperson of Waorani women’s organization, Amwae, has first hand experience in the devastating consequences of oil exploration. “The indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon have been decimated in just a few decades,” she says. “The Waorani people alone numbered around 16,000 at the end of the 1960s, when the oil exploration began. Today, there are no more than about a thousand of us left… I don’t know how much longer we can survive under the current conditions. Perhaps the industry will out-live us – judging by how it has wiped out other tribal peoples in the Amazon. Maybe the earth will have nothing left to give when the companies leave.”
Altogether, an estimated 90% of the indigenous peoples in the Amazon region of Ecuador have been wiped out over the past few decades, according to the FDA.(2) Contamination from the oil industry, forced relocations, militarized violence and civilization-borne diseases are the critical factors behind the process of extinction.
Today, there is an important resistance against oil exploration in the Ecuadorian rainforest and on indigenous territories. Together with the Waorani people and other local populations, there are networks fighting against the devastating industry in the region. Some of them are the international Oilwatch, and the Ecuadorian Accion Ecologica and FDA. However, according to Omari Ima, the existence of Waorani people and other tribal people is doomed, unless the ravaging of raw materials ceases today.
Agneta Enström is an editor and reporter at www.yelah.net. Yelah is a Swedish independent media group, uncovering activism and politics worldwide. She has recently worked in Ecuador, researching Skanska and oil exploration on indigenous land. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information:
Contact Manuela Omari Ima of the Waorani Women’s group (La Associación de Mujeres Waorani de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana, AMWAE ) at email@example.com