Volatile Mix: Oil and Indians

As petroleum drilling goes deeper into the jungle, indigenous people in Ecuador push for a moratorium

STANDING in the heat and humidity of a jungle clearing at a remote drilling site, Andres Ledergerber, an ecologist for Occidental Petroleum, insists that night has turned into day.

"I speak for myself," he says. "Oil companies used to do anything they wanted in Ecuador. Now it's different."

For 20 years, oil companies slammed their way through the Ecuadorean rain forest, felling thousands of acres of trees, dynamiting the earth, spilling vast amounts of oil, destroying habitats, and fouling rivers.

Disregard for the fragile environment brought death to wildlife, impaired the health of Indians, and drove many from their bamboo homes. Hundreds of miles of roads were bulldozed through the jungle.

The damages in Ecuador's Oriente are well-documented by international organizations, particularly by the Natural Resources Defense Council in "Amazon Crude," a book published in 1991. A University of California, Berkeley, study completed in 1992 delineated the problems at Block 10 in the Oriente, a site of ARCO International.

"We are trying to be a model for oil exploration now," Mr. Ledergerber says at this Oxy drilling site near the village of Limoncocha.

But Indian leaders in the Oriente say that oil-company practices are still self-serving and expedient. They explain that centuries of repression and incursions into their rain forest, from Incas to missionaries to oil drillers, have altered their cultures and habits for the worse and introduced devastating diseases.

"The policy of the state," says Leonardo Viteri, a leader from OPIP (Organization of Indigenous People of Pastaza), "has been to destroy the rain forest and take out the natural resources. Natural balance is not important to them, but we want to develop programs that complement what the forest gives us. These programs should strengthen families and the community because of the new needs society has put on Indians."

What Indians leaders want is a moratorium on drilling, a time in which all companies would pay indemnification to Indians for damages, repair the environment, create new plans with communities, and then share 1 percent of the oil profits with indigenous groups.

"The new tactics of the oil companies are divide and conquer," says Angel Zamarenda, president of CONFENIAE (Confederation of Indian Organizations of the Ecuadorean Amazon).

"Instead of dealing with us," he says, "the oil companies send someone into the inexperienced communities to talk with leaders, make promises, and get them to sign agreements. It's easier to give money to one leader or to another than to confront an organization like us. The companies create dependence no matter what they say."

RAIN forests in Ecuador are still being cut down by oil companies and settlers at an estimated rate of 340,000 hectares a year, the second highest in Latin America. The wood is used for construction, roads, fuel, furniture, and even brooms.

At one time or another, 20 of the world's major oil companies have drilled in Ecuador's jungles. Texaco, one of the builders of the 480-kilometer Trans-Ecuadoriano pipeline, was a major presence.

Yorick Fonseca, a spokesman for Texaco - which is no longer operating in Ecuador - says, "We were part of a consortium, but always minority owners, and we believe always operated to the highest environmental standards."

The Ecuadorean government, dependant on foreign capital and technology and exercising little environmental control, has encouraged oil exploration in national parks, such as Yasuni National Park (designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO), the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, and the Limoncocha Biological Preserve.

Using the roads built by oil companies, thousands of settlers have moved into the rain forest. Denied farmland and opportunities in cities and the highlands, settlers flocked to the rain forests to establish small farms, cattle ranches, and plantations. The colonized land was the territory of Indian tribes.

At Maxus Ecuador Inc., a subsidiary of Maxus Energy Corporation in Dallas, Texas, Rossana Faiesta is the director of community relations. Maxus is building a controversial 150-kilometer road and underground pipeline passing through the Yasuni Park and territories of Huaorani and Quichua Indians. The company is negotiating with each village.

"I started in 1990 making an [analysis] of each community," Mrs. Faiesta says, "to look for agreements, how the company can help Indians and minimize the impact on their lives. It's not like companies used to do. We are asking for permission and showing respect for their cultures."

Maxus has provided funds to build classrooms in several communities (using Indian labor); paid for bilingual materials (co-written by community members); held teaching workshops; provided high school scholarships; and paid the air fares of teachers to stay in communities.

"Yes, we are taking the oil," Faiesta says, "but we leave something, too." In addition to the education programs, she cites health programs started in the communities to control malaria and parasites, and to provide dental care.

"Maxus makes agreements," says Carmelina Porrate, secretary of women at CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous People in Ecuador), "and offers outboard motors, a canoe, two schools. These are things that will break and won't last. The agreements should be signed with the leaders of CONAIE so that the Indians have better terms."

As the construction of the road and pipeline pushes through the jungle, Maxus claims the road width is narrower than in the past. Synthetic materials cover the road base rather than wood, thereby reducing deforestation. Clustered well sites will reduce secondary roads, and archaeologists and biologists precede the bulldozers to protect any new species or historical sites. Also, Maxus says that military checkpoints will stop new settlers.

DESPITE repeated requests by this reporter to visit the construction area, Maxus refused access. A spokeswoman said people need "inoculation against malaria and cholera a week before a visit." When I explained that I had just spent a week in the jungle and was willing to sign a liability waiver, Maxus offered a video of the construction.

At Occidental's site near Limoncocha, Ledergerber points to safety features. A cement dike circles the 4.5 hectares area (about 10 acres) to stop spills or overflows of dirty water produced during drilling.

"The site was supposed to be 10 hectares," he says, pointing to the green jungle that surrounds the site, "but we moved to this site so we don't disturb virgin jungle. We are doing [horizontal] drilling here."

Waste pits near the rig are lined with plastic to contain the toxic soups generated during drilling. Pumps send the liquids deep into the earth. In the past, waste sites were glop-filled holes polluting forests and rivers.

"The few trees we've taken down here are processed into chips and used on the roads," he says, mentioning another criticized practice - cutting trees for roadbeds.

All day, trucks travel the road between Shushufindi and Limoncocha. White dust billows up despite water trucks that spray the road to ease the respiratory problems of Indians nearby. In the past, roads were drenched in oil to cut the dust, but the oil ran into rivers.

"We can't live without oil," Lederberger says, "and there are ways of getting it with low impact. We'll probably have an alternative someday, but it's the oil age now."

Most Indian leaders don't disagree, but they point to a disparity between intent and practice.

"I told the president of Maxus," says Mr. Zamarenda of CONFENIAE, "to drink from a river where 600 pounds of chemicals recently fell in the water. He wouldn't like it. We will fight this kind of pollution in our lives."

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