For the last 2 weeks of July, I had the privilege of accompanying indigenous federation presidents, Alfonso Lopez Tejada and Aurelio Chino Dahua, to Ecuador for a series of meetings having to do with oil extraction, indigenous rights and critiques of capitalism (including ‘green capitalism’). This trip was supported by funding from Alianza Arkana, Oilwatch and Acción Ecológica, (and I received additional support from the Inter-American Foundation Grassroots Development Fellowship). The two week trip was a whirlwind of activity, during which time we attended meetings in 5 provinces of the country – starting with a 2 day Oilwatch conference in Quito, then a “toxic tour” in Sucumbios, then additional Oilwatch meetings in Yasuni national park, then community meetings with indigenous leaders in Napo and Pastaza provinces, and we ended the trip by attending a workshop on ‘green capitalism’ back in Quito.
The majority of the activities were part of an Oilwatch biannual General Assembly. Oilwatch is a network of organizations that are addressing oil in their countries or regions. According to the Oilwatch website, the network, which was established in 1996, works to facilitate “the exchange of information on oil company operations in each affected country;” “to support the resistance processes of communities that do not want to see their territories affected, [and] to work for sustainability and collective rights.” As such, attending an international Oilwatch meeting provided us with the valuable opportunity to exchange experiences with activists and academics from all around Latin America, as well as with additional leaders from Africa and Asia.
Oilwatch Conference: New Global Hegemonies. Old Problems?
We began the trip by attending a conference, titled: “New Global Hegemonies. Old Problems?” The theme of oil and extraction ran throughout the conference, but speakers also focused on the broader issues of capitalism and global institutions that promote extraction and dependency in developing countries, and the “multiple crises” this system has brought about – most notably the mix of financial and economic crises (and debt crises), with ecological crises (global warming, peak oil, depletion of resources). As put by Andrés Barreda from Mexico, “environmental destruction today is converting into the primary motor for ‘development’” – and this is a problem.
These broad discussions about “hegemonies” and the need for “paradigm shifts” were made concrete through various examples of concerns with business as usual for extractive industries today. For producers (extractors) we were given examples of key actors like Canada and China – how these countries promote an investor friendly atmosphere for the extractive industry companies based in their countries but operating abroad, while simultaneously sheltering the companies from being held accountable for questionable practices (or potential human rights violations) abroad.
We also heard testimonies of impacts in zones of extraction. For example, in Nigeria, Nnimmo Bassey described how oil is “raising tensions all over” and “wherever oil is found there will be conflict” – that “any community where oil is found should prepare themselves for war” because” the discovery of oil is as good as a declaration of war.” Issues of conflict and contamination were also raised as themes of concern in various other parts of the world – with the Shwe gas project in Burma, coal in Kalimantan, oil in Ecuador and many other places.
In the face of these often tragic situations, we heard in equal measure about fossil fuel related activism and campaigns – which, according to various presenters, are very powerful because they are about the struggle for life, health and the environment, and even extend to issues of “democratic rights, globalization politics, and foreign domination” (Clement Bautista, Philippines). As noted by Pablo Fajardo, one of the lawyers defending Amazonian peoples in the Chevron Ecuador case: “how is it possible that poor people with little resources keep struggling for so long (18 years) against such a rich and powerful company?” According to him, it is possible to glean a better understanding of this tenacity when examining the motives driving the company compared to those of the people. On the one hand, “what is at play for the companies?: Their bottom line.” On the other hand, “what is at play for the communities?: Their lives and way of life”. The latter is a much stronger motivation to struggle on, and explains the prevalence of peoples campaigns.
Sucumbios Toxic Tour
In our next leg of the journey we went to Sucumbios to see with our own eyes how petroleum has stained the land and contaminated the waters, as part of a “toxic tour” organized by Oilwatch. Even though I’ve seen photos of contamination, it was nothing compared to my surprise and disgust at being able to walk right up to collection ponds for crude and its byproducts – shimmering jet black waters, often showing the reflection of the open flames from the gas flaring directly above.
When I remarked on my surprise to Aurelio Chino, the Peruvian Quechua leader from Pastaza, he remarked that he wasn’t surprised at all and that there are crude-laden pools that look “exactly the same in Pastaza.” Alfonso Lopez, the Peruvian Cocama leader from the Maranon, responded slightly differently to my remark. He shared some of my surprise – though not at the contamination itself, but rather at our ease of access to the oil facilities in Ecuador – that we could simply walk up and take photos of the facilities and oil pits. In Peru, he noted that it is much more difficult to access and take “muestras” (evidence) of contamination because the extraction sites are very well guarded (and attempts to access similar sites in Peru may lead to imprisonment, or worse).
One of the other activities of note during the toxic tour was our attendance in a community meeting in Pacayaku, organized by the “Committee of People Affected by Water Contamination.” Not surprisingly, much of the meeting had to do with concerns about water contamination, especially stemming from the widely reported on tendency for the toxic oil pits, much like the ones we had seen earlier, to be simply covered over with dirt at the end of their use, rather than being remediated.
Many people reported living on or near such covered pits, which they blamed for the poor water quality (that the water: “no sirve para tomar, ni banar, ni lavar”; that it isn’t clean enough to drink, nor bathe in, nor use for washing), as well as the high levels of sickness experienced in the community. In talking about sickness, one testimony was particularly heartbreaking, as a man noted that his wife died of cancer, one of his other neighbors has 9 tumors, and he also pointed out a woman in the crowded room who has had persistent skin problems.
Later, during the question and answer section of the meeting, the organizers paused the comments to bring over this same woman with skin problems to face me and show me the marks on her skin. They said: ‘Doctora – we want you to see this woman. She’s sought help for her skin problems but despite the pills and creams her problems persist.’ My cheeks turned red and I explained that I cannot help – that I’m not a medical doctor; I’m a doctoral student studying environmental issues and anthropology. The president of the committee said to me – I know that, but it is important that you see and understand the problems here. He along with other community members appealed to me and the other visitors that we: “ayudenos, apoyenos para poder seguir luchando” – that we “help them, support them, to continue fighting in their struggle” against contamination of their lands, water and bodies. That only through organization and support of allies can they seek attention from companies that “promise remediation” but don’t do it, or for a government that has a “will” [volutad] “to continue exploiting oil” (even at the cost of the health of its citizens and environment).
Oilwatch exchanges in Yasuni National Park
In the third leg of our journey we went to the Yasuni National Park, to the town of Nuevo Rocafuerte, right near the border with Peru. More than anything, this leg of the journey allowed us to connect on a personal level with the other Oilwatch members, both through hearing their individual presentations in our day long meeting of Oilwatch members and though informal conversations during meals and our boat tour of Yasuni national park.
We exchanged experiences with people from throughout Latin America (Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Guatemala), and I also helped serve as a translator for the Peruvian indigenous leaders to converse with other (English speaking) activists from around the world – from the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, East Timor, and elsewhere.
One of the more colorful members of the group was the leader of a fisherman’s association in Brazil, who spoke in Portuguese rather than Spanish but was largely understood given his tendency to act out his stories with hand motions and other gestures. These stories were often about the attempts of him and others in his association to slow or stop offshore oil activities through “monkey-wrenching” techniques, as they’re called in English, like cutting or breaking important pieces of equipment used by the company. Not surprisingly, these techniques were reacted to harshly – and while our Brazilian friend told these stories with flair and an air of adventure – it was hard not to shudder when hearing about his arrests (one time he was arrested ‘twice in one day!’), helicopters shooting live rounds at the boats of the fishermen in the waters below, and select assassinations (e.g., he showed us the picture of an organizer that was later killed with 5 shots to his head).
In other locations, reprisals against those that raised concerns with oil may not have been with bullets, but were still serious and worrisome. For example, a Cree indigenous leader from Canada, George Poitras, relayed an experience of a reprisal against a whole town for his activism against tar sand oil extraction in Alberta, Canada. According to this leader, shortly after he had done a press event in London about negative impacts from the tar sands, the CEO of a major oil company operating in that area spoke to his chief and suggested that they “silence him; fire him”. The tribal council refused, and within two weeks of their refusal, the company cancelled a contract worth millions to the community and also resulted in the loss of 65 jobs. This Canadian indigenous leader also described the pressure put on a doctor practicing in his community that had released a finding that problems with rare and aggressive cancers present in the area were potentially linked to oil. According to George, for the first time in Canadian history the government brought charges against a doctor. The charge?: “Causing undue alarm” (later, all charges were dropped, the doctor was vindicated, and returned to practice). On the whole, George suggested that “if you had any notion that Canada is a leader of human rights in our own lands, throw that notion out;” that while people in his communities may have been supportive of oil extraction at first, given the hopes for jobs and cash, that they now consider the presence of oil in their territories “as a curse to their people.”
We also heard surprising testimonies having to do with oil exploration. For example, in Argentina, oil wells that were drilled in a national park for exploration (not extraction) have continued to bubble up formation waters (laced with sulfides and heavy metals), as well as petroleum and gas, resulting in contamination that has not been addressed despite continuing calls for remediation. And in San Andres, Colombia, we heard testimony that seismic testing was begun off-shore without any consultation (‘nadia sabía’ / no one knew) and that the government is continuing to push forward with oil exploration despite concerns that a potential oil spill in the future could devastate the area – which is home to the third largest barrier reef in the world.
While these are just a few testimonies from Oilwatch members, they give a sense of the breath of our exchanges, which were meant not only to increase our knowledge about experiences with oil elsewhere in the world, but to build solidarity and support thinking on how to address these problems. As put by a Nigerian activist, “it may look like a small meeting in a small room, but we’re like Ecuador – which is a small country but with big ideas. We’re also a group with big ideas and lots of strength. We need to build close personal relationships because what makes this work strong and good is solidarity.” This same leader also noted that he had a “deep spiritual experience to be here in Yasuni, which has made him even firmer to leave the oil in the soil;” “it’s good that we came to this place to have this discussion.”
on Thursday, 01 September 2011