QUITO, ECUADOR — THE government of President Rodrigo Borja Cevallos is putting the final touches on an unprecedented plan to protect Ecuador's last expanse of tropical rain forest by officially recognizing it as the traditional territory of three Indian communities.
The three groups, the Achuar, Shiwiar, and Quechua, won President Borja's approval for communal territories after a 12-day Indian march last month, the first in Ecuador's history, from their Amazonian homeland to the capital Quito. About 2,500 men, women, and children, many of them seeing Quito for the first time, say they will camp in one of the capital's parks until the government grants them titles to millions of acres in the eastern Pastaza region.
Though the amount of land is still being negotiated, government officials say privately that the territories could comprise the 2 million hectares (5 million acres) demanded by the region's 30,000 Indians, the majority of them grouped under the Organization of Indian Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP). Most analysts agree that no matter what the final land tally, the government is in the process of setting up one of the largest single stretches of Indian territory in the hemisphere.
Officials and Indian leaders say the granting of the territories to native peoples is almost sure to slow, if not stop, destructive colonization of the Amazon region by Ecuador's mestizo population. In other regions of once- virgin rain forest, the government has all but ignored the original Indian inhabitants while promoting colonization by wood cutters, farmers, and cattle ranchers. The policy has contributed to the highest deforestation rate in South America, about 142,500 hectares (351,975 acres), or
2.4 percent of the total, each year.
"There is a mutual interest in preventing more damage and preserving the rain forest for the next generations," says government negotiator Diego Bonifaz. "The handing over of these territories to Indians supports the argument that there is not much land left in Ecuador to occupy."
But the agreement leaves another important environmental question unanswered. OPIP leaders had been demanding full autonomy in the region, including final say over whether or not petroleum development could proceed there.
Indians dropped the demand, they say, after realizing that it would have given government officials an excuse for withholding the land titles. The Indians, who have refused to leave Quito without the titles, also feared that including the complicated petroleum issue in the debate would have kept them sleeping under tents in a strange city for months. Already more than a score of campers are being attended by the Red Cross and several volunteer doctors after falling ill.
"We simply decided that the [land] titles are the only feasible objective at this point," OPIP president Alfredo Vargas says, adding that the Indians at least succeeded in convincing the government to give them communal title to traditional territories, rather than pieces of land in the names of individuals.
Mr. Bonifaz admits that the word "territory" is a new one in the official lexicon, but he stresses that it in no way signifies an end to state authority in Pastaza, especially in the area of petroleum development.
"The state is the owner of the subsoil, period," he says.
Oil industry officials and analysts, however, say they fear the government and the Indians have simply decided to postpone the inevitable conflict over new petroleum exploration and drilling, vital for maintaining the nation's proven reserves at slightly under 1.5 billion barrels.
Indeed OPIP is so serious about elaborating its own environmental program for Pastaza that it is planning to send six Indian leaders to the University of California at Berkeley in September to study land management and ecology.
"The minute we get the land, the government is going to have to begin taking our point of view into account" says Leonardo Viteri, an OPIP leader. "The battle over Pastaza's future has just begun."
Such statements cause petroleum executives and analysts to worry that they will never be welcome in Pastaza even if they promise to use the most environmentally sound drilling methods. Last month the Atlantic Richfield Company announced the discovery of 164 million barrels of oil in the region, and many analysts say the field can be exploited with minimum damage to the rain forest.
"All efforts to address environmental concerns are unlikely to convince Indians who have never seen the land as something to be developed," says Nancy Jervis, a Quito petroleum analyst. "The minute oil companies try to go into Pastaza there will be another uprising." The last national protest by Indians in June 1990 shook the country into a new awareness of the problems of native peoples, who account for about 30 percent of the total population of 10 million.
Most Ecuadorans, even those working in the petroleum sector, give the Indians credit for placing their concerns on the national agenda.
OPIP leaders are also apparently learning to listen to other points of view. When the organization began the march, leaders were demanding a moratorium on petroleum exploration and drilling in the Amazon. Now they say they would allow such activity under the strictist environmental regulations, including reducing the number of roads built through the rain forest by petroleum companies. Such roads are often used by invading colonists.
At least some Ecuadorans say the Indians' more flexible attitude represents not a clever guise to grab land, but the growing maturity of a people who will help decide the fate of Ecuador's rain forest.