Indigenous leaders from Ecuador’s Amazonian lowlands are calling for the government to drop plans to auction 21 leases near the Peruvian border for oil drilling.
After a two-day meeting on February 7 and 8, the leaders delivered a statement to the Ministry of Hydrocarbons office in the town of Puyo, demanding a permanent moratorium on drilling in the region, “out of respect for our world view, our collective rights and the rights of nature.”
The leases overlap all or part of territories of the Achuar, Kichwa, Shiwiar, Shuar, Sapara, Huito and Waorani people, according to Pepe Acacho, vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE, for its Spanish initials).
The resolution opposing the auction of the oil leases was signed by leaders of those groups, as well as CONAIE and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuadorian Amazonia (CONFENAIE), an umbrella organization of lowland indigenous groups.
“We don’t agree” with the planned tender of the 21 leases, Acacho said in a telephone interview. “We have said that the oil should stay in the ground. We want the government to promote other development alternatives that respect nature and people.”
There is a long history of tension between the Ecuadorian government and indigenous groups over oil drilling in the Amazon. Residents of the northeastern region have been locked in a two-decade lawsuit over pollution caused by Texaco in the 1960s and 1970s. In the past, companies that have tried to explore several of the leases slated for auction have met strong resistance.
The leases are just south of the Ishipingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field, which overlaps the highly biodiverse Yasuní National Park and an area inhabited by the Tagaeri and Taromenane, semi-nomadic tribes that shun contact with the outside world. Under pressure from indigenous and environmental groups, President Rafael Correa agreed to prohibit drilling in that area if international donors contribute $3.6 billion over 12 years to compensate the country for lost revenue.
That agreement may be stoking pressure to open new areas for drilling in Ecuador, which receives about half its export earnings and one-third of its tax revenues from oil. In addition, the government has signed loan agreements with China, which include commitments to provide oil. Those deals amount to about 4.5 million barrels a month, according to Kevin Koenig, Ecuador program coordinator for the non-profit organization Amazon Watch.
The government originally planned to offer the leases in October 2011, but that auction was suspended. No new date has been sent, but the Ministry of Hydrocarbons recently opened an office in Puyo, in the area where the leases are located.
When the indigenous leaders visited that office, they saw a document on a computer screen that described their meeting and the people involved, Koenig said.
Acacho said government officials sometimes infiltrate their groups or pay informants. He added that the leaders were not worried that the government knew about their meeting because “we are not doing anything negative. We are not planning any illegal action.”