“Civilizing” the Ecuadorian Amazon: Colonial Corporatism

Oil fires in the Amazon

Far from the environmentally friendly company it claims to be, Swedish construction company Skanska’s cosmetic discourse on development and progress is racist and colonialist in practice.

This article is part 3 in a series by Agneta Enström (Part 1) (Part 2)


Oil fires on indigenous land in the Amazon

Swedish construction company Skanska’s extensive and environmentally destructive operations in Latin America are little known in Europe. Far from the environmentally friendly company it claims to be, the cosmetic discourse on development and progress that pervades the all-Swedish company is racist and colonialist in practice.

For slightly more than a year and a half, the Skanska base has been located outside the oil town of Coca in Ecuador’s ravaged rainforest province of Orellana. The company’s activities conducted in cooperation with the oil companies in various oil fields in the region are controlled from here. One of Skanska’s regional managers in the Amazon basin is Milton Diaz, a man with many decades of experience in the oil industry. He used to work for Skanska in his native land of Argentina, where the company’s continental headquarters are located.  

From a series of meetings and interviews with Diaz and his colleagues conducted in Ecuador (from spring 2006 on) by the political scientist Hanna Dahlström and myself, we pieced together a cohesive picture of Skanska’s leading figures. The opinions Diaz expresses represent a cultural racism, in which Ecuador’s population in general, and the indigenous peoples in particular, are described in sharply pejorative terms. “People here in the bush should be grateful to industry instead of just complaining and making unreasonable demands,” he argues. “If it weren’t for the companies, they would still be living on bananas and not know anything other than the jungle – just like apes. In spite of everything, this is an undeveloped banana republic.”

Unfortunately, Diaz’s opinions are not unusual. The racist discourse he gives voice to is in line with conventional perspectives of Northern companies in the global South on culture and development. Concepts like “blockheads,” “banana republic” and “low culture” are taken to symbolize the Others, who are the local and so-called undeveloped. “All people here think about is lazing about and seeking pleasure. No-one takes any responsibility for anything…They don’t realize that the companies have given them everything. Roads, bridges – everything we see around us,” says Milton Diaz, spreading his arms wide to indicate a vast industrial area where the rainforest once stood.

The corporate myth of sustainable development

ImageAccording to Skanska, their aim is to promote “sustainable development” by practising the most environmentally friendly of possible alternatives. However, these visions are obviously and entirely dependent on external regulation. Victor Vazquez is Skanska’s environmental manager in the same region in which Diaz works. Vazquez claims that Skanska burns toxic gases (slag products) in the open air, even though that is an extremely polluting procedure. Vazquez’s explanation of this behaviour is that the Ecuadorian state lacks the resources to execute environmental laws pertaining to such an absence of environmental consideration. “Ecuador is not that developed yet, and there is no incentive to invest in better technology. In other countries, however, such as Argentina, naturally we use the best techniques available,” he says.

According to oil workers from oil block 18, where the Swedish company works with the oil giant Petrobras, gas burning in the field is so extensive there are no living things in view. That, if anything, confirms that the environmentally friendly technology and sustainable development with which Skanska wants to be associated is nothing more than propaganda.

Another Argentinean in a management position at Skanska in the Amazon region is Oswaldo Contreras. He, too, frankly admits that oil extraction always has a number of dirty downsides. “Oil drilling can never be environmentally friendly…However, it’s one of those things you just have to live with,” he says with a shrug.

Unlike the local population, which is forced to live with the pollution, Contreras does not have to be concerned about oil in his drinking water. Nor does he have to worry about the high risk of developing any of eight oil-related forms of cancer or several other serious health problems associated with emissions from the oil industry in the Amazon region. And just like Milton Diaz, Contreras argues in terms of benefits that accrue to the population from the industry’s presence.

“Skanska,” he boasts, “has built a road for the local population in Campo Bermejo on the Columbian border. That’s the kind of thing we call social responsibility and compensation…”

Extortion and lies

According to environmental inspector Marcos Baños, head of the environmental authority in the oil town Coca and the province of Orellana, Skanska has behaved in a suspicious manner and shown a great lack of respect in the region. Baños says that company representatives have visited the authority to offer to perform “projects.” “I considered it extortion,” the environmental inspector explains. Baños relates further that Skanska is one of the most slippery companies he has to deal with in his work. And it is difficult to doubt him, since his information about Skanska undeniably complements the picture of a company that will try to fake its way around laws and regulations at any price. He is not alone in giving this picture of Skanska in the Amazon region.

Raul Vega, in the provincial environmental office in Coca, fills in the story about Skanska with more scandals. He, too, is very disappointed at Skanska’s mode of behavior in Ecuador – showing no consideration for environmental laws or people, and complete lack of respect for the country’s government agencies and its indigenous people. “Oswaldo Contreras was the first Skanska person we contacted,” Vega explains, “and he refused to give us the information we required. If they had only shown us they’d done an environmental study, we would have given them a permit… But it was not until a subsequent occasion that Skanska submitted any information. That information, however, turned out to be false. The company claimed it had conducted an environmental study, which was a complete and utter lie.”

When Business created the Earth

According to Skanska’s regional managers, it is thanks to the companies that the indigenous people finally have the opportunity to become civilized. This view is not unique to corporate leaders in developing countries, but is rather shared by neoliberal ideologues in Europe – such as Swedish Johan Norberg, whose attitude to non-industrialized cultures is equally crass and prejudiced. Norberg’s book, När människan skapade världen (“When man created the world,” Timbro: 2006) expresses a frightening lack of understanding for non-industrialized cultures whose homes are occupied by western companies like Skanska and unscrupulous oil giants. According to Norberg, globalization, the free market and industrial production are a universal recipe for happiness and welfare. Because, in Norberg’s world, human history has consistently been a “story of bottomless misery” – a perspective that is not only ignorant but also leads to lethal ethnocentrism when adopted by large companies seeking to justify their rapacious behaviour in the southern hemisphere. “In the beginning, we were all developing countries,” argues Norberg, without concerning himself about the imperialistic dominance that regularly destroys aboriginal cultures struggling desperately for survival against multinational corporations and corrupt governments.

However, Norberg’s and Skanska’s attitude is both incorrect and racist. According to the indigenous people, their culture is not under-developed and their lives were not miserable before the companies launched their “operation civilization” campaign in the jungle. On the contrary, it is the western concept of development that stands for death and destruction in the Amazon basin.

Unlike Johan Norberg, who despite his successful career as a writer can only distort perspectives, companies like Skanska unfortunately have a physical power over the cultures unlucky enough to stand in their way. And under the unequal relationships between large companies, states and civil society, particularly in the southern hemisphere, Skanska has shown itself to represent cultural and ecological regression, rather than the “social responsibility” and “sustainable development” it clams to offer the world.

Today, there is an important struggle and for the future crucial resistance against oil exploration in sensitive ecosystems and on indigenous territories. Networks fighting against the devastating industry in Latin America are the international Oilwatch, the Ecuadorian Accion Ecologica and Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia (FDA). Survival International is an other organisation working with and for tribal people all around the world.

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: nettila@hotmail.com

Oilwatch – http://www.oilwatch.org/ 

Accion Ecológica: http://accionecologica.org/webae/index.php 

Frente de defensa de la Amazonia (FDA): http://www.texacotoxico.com/ 

Survival International: http://www.survival-international.org/