Ecuador's Amazon: land struggle sparks national debate. Indians, environmentalists oppose palm plantations

In the oppressive heat of midday, nothing moves on the streets of this riverbank settlement in the heart of Ecuador's Amazon rain forest. Only the shiny new bulldozer parked in front of the zinc-roofed caf'e hints at the changes occurring nearby. Inside the caf'e, the bulldozer operator says he's here to gather river rock for roads on an African palm-tree plantation -- one of two plantations that have sparked a national debate on the future of Ecuador's vast, eastern lowlands and their Amazon Indian population.

On one side of the dispute are Indian groups and environmentalists claiming the plantations threaten the Amazon's fragile ecology and displace tribes that have lived here for centuries. On the other, palm growers say they are serving the nation by generating much-needed foreign exchange. (Palm nuts are pressed to produce a red cooking oil sold on the world market.)

``African palm cultivation is clearly ethnocide,'' says Crist'obal Tapuy. Mr. Tapuy, president of the Federation of Indian Nations, says the plantations have replaced the jungle on which his people depend for food, herbal medicines, and housing. The federation claims to speak for some 90,000 Indians from six different tribes.

The Indians have had time to organize -- against palm growers, homesteaders, and oil and lumber companies -- because development has come slowly to the region. It was not until 1967 that Texaco and Gulf jointly struck oil here. Since then, the area has become Ecuador's most important source of oil, which pays for 45 percent of the national budget. ``The changes are amazing,'' says Ren'e Bucaram of Texaco, adding that the area's population has grown from 500 to 150,000.

Ecuador has had high hopes that African palm nuts would join petroleum as a major source of foreign exchange for the ailing economy. A 1984 Central Bank study predicted that exports would climb to 150,000 tons by 1992, but that looks unlikely now.

Salomon Gutt, general manager of Quito-based Palmeras del Ecuador (which owns a plantation), says bad publicity has chilled investor interest. ``It's a sin,'' said Mr. Gutt. ``A few people opposed to development have created this issue.''

Although the two palm-oil companies active in the region presently farm a total of 25,000 acres, they have plans to expand cultivation four-fold. The Central Bank study suggests that, given the region's high rainfall and rich, volcanic soil ``apt'' for producing palm nuts, that acreage could increase to 605,000 -- about 4 percent of Ecuador's Amazon region, which accounts for about half of Ecuador's total land.

Although that is a small portion of the total Amazon region, ``in relation to the amount of fertile land, it's enormous,'' says Gonzalo Oviedo of a Quito-based conservation group, Fundaci'on Natura.

Mr. Oviedo says that most of the region's soil is acidic and of little use for farming. Only 7 percent of the land has accrued topsoil washed down from volcanoes in the central sierra, he says. ``This is the only land that can be used for intensive farming, and the Indians need it to grow the foods that balance their diet.''

At the Palmeras del Ecuador plantation near Shushifundi, two hours southeast of Aguarico, 450,000 young palm trees fill the landscape in symmetrical rows. The plantation uses only 400 workers, most of them independent contractors not formally employed by the firm and thus not protected by Ecuador's stringent labor laws. Though labor disputes have shaken the other palm company, Palmoriente, unions have not yet challenged Palmeras, says plantation manager Andr`e Berthaud.

Most of the regular workers come from Ecuador's Pacific Coast. None are Amazon Indians, because the Indians prefer a nomadic lifestyle, Mr. Berthaud says. No Indians were living on the land when it was sold for palm growing, he adds, although there was evidence that they had lived there in the past.

Bordering the palm plantation, a community of 100 Shuar Indian families lives on 22,000 acres of jungle. The government gave them title to the land in 1971 after settlers took over their native land in the south, says Benjamin Tsahunda, former president of the Shuar assembly.

The government encourages settlers to move from densely populated areas into the sparsely inhabited Amazon by giving them title to 125 acres. With 8 million inhabitants, Ecuador has a population density of 81 people per square mile, South America's highest.

The Shuar community in Shushifundi is still not secure against invasion, according to Mr. Tsahunda. Last August, 70 settlers moved onto the Indians' land, and two of the invaders died in the confrontation.

Tsahunda opposes violent means to resist settlers, but his viewpoint is not shared by many other Indians. A year ago, Indians killed three settlers in a land dispute near the town of Coca.

Crist'obal Tapuy says shootouts will continue as long as the government continues to encourage development in areas the Indians claim as their own. ``Our struggle is to get the government to recognize us as a people with a territory,'' Tapuy said. ``To have jungle is to have life.''

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