Peruvian Leaders Travel to Ecuador to Discuss Oil, Development, and Capitalism – Part 2

Rukullakta (Napo Province) – Contrasting Opinions about the Promise and Peril of Oil Extraction

In our fourth leg of our journey we went to meet with Kichwa communities in the Napo province (the meeting was held in the town of Rukullakta).  As a pueblo composed of 17 communities they had released a position in March 2010 that they were opposed to oil exploration in their territories by the Canadian company Ivanhoe.  Despite this history of opposing oil exploration, the currents were changing in several of the communities, and we had heard that 5 communities were leaning toward changing their positions to be in favor of negotiating with the company now that the concession was transitioning from exploration to extraction.

In our meeting with the communities, the company-friendly position was prevalent, at least among several men that spoke up frequently and loudly.  According to them, the company had promised to use top of the line, cutting-edge technology for extraction (“HTL” technology, which stands for “heavy to light,” referring to the transition process of converting heavy crude to a lighter version) – they seemed to believe the company line, which in a nutshell is that there will be minimal impacts and lots of benefits from oil extraction.

Alf_in_Rukullakta_lrIn the face of these high hopes having to do with oil extraction, the two indigenous federation presidents from Peru and the Cree indigenous leader from Canada gave more sobering accounts of failed company promises and negative impacts from oil in their communities.  For example, Aurelio Chino noted that while oil companies “se habla bien bonito en el taller” (while they speak very nicely in the meetings with the communities), in the end they “mata tierra” – kill the earth.  Similarly, Alfonso Lopez noted that “when companies come – they say all the best. Then they do the opposite” – that they’ll come with their techno-talk about things like “pentolita” (a type of special dynamite), which is difficult to understand about, yet “what we do know is that after 40 years, we are not better off” – “we need respect, brothers.  We all have the rights to life, and to drink clean water” – you should “do what you think will be for the best to defend your lives and those of your children.”

In regards to the issue of technology, the Canadian leader, George Poitras, noted that very top notch technology is needed to extract the heavy crude from the tar sands in his communities, but that when companies talk of the “best technology” they are frequently referring to “the best available technology economically achievable” – i.e., the best technology the company is willing to pay for rather than the best technology actually available, which makes a huge difference.  He also noted that while operations have been going on for over 40 years, this does not indicate that they are using technology from 40 years ago – they are a first world country using advanced technology, and still the “water is polluted, people are dying from rare cancers and the fish are sick, yet when we raise concerns we are criminalized.”

At the close of the meeting, the Ecuadorian NGO representative from Acción Ecológica appealed to the group to “consider for a moment the interests that motivate the companies, and the interests that motivate Aurelio, Alfonso and George” – who should be trusted?  It remains to be seen what the communities will decide – if promises of eden trump testimonies of hell.

New Unity in Canelos (Pastaza Province)


In the fifth leg of our journey we attended a community meeting in Canelos (Pastaza province) – which had been a site of bitterly divided communities for the previous 8 years over the issue of oil exploration, but where communities were coming together in solidarity for the first time in a long time before  our very eyes to oppose the new licitation round for oil exploration concessions.  This coming together of the Kichwa communities of Canelos, Sarayaku and Pacayacu was described by indigenous leaders and Ecuadorian NGO partners as being very significant.  Unfortunately, it was harder for me to understand the content of the declarations of their positions and solidarity during the meeting since the majority of the meeting was carried out in Quechua.

For the parts of the meeting that I could follow, many people expressed very strong concerns about the next phase of oil exploration and extraction, and a willingness to resist this form of “development,” while promoting alternate indigenous visions of “sumak kausay” (“buen vivir;” living well), as articulated for example in the Sarayaku “selva viviente” (living forest) proposal (available in Spanish at:

One small but mesmerizing indigenous woman from Sarayaku, who wore bright feather earrings and had jet black hair that extended well below her waist, spoke forcefully about the need to unify and resist:  “the companies minimize our capacity for resistance, but we’ve been in resistance for 500 years and we’re still here.  They have debilitated us…[but] I trust that this will be the beginning of our unity”.

Another leader, also from Sarayaku, noted that “this is not only about resistance – it’s also about constructing solutions.”  That solutions don’t come from outside – from the government or other countries, but rather need to be based in their own culture and knowledge-system (“nuestro destino es en nuestros conocimientos;” our destiny stems from our knowledge-systems).  This leader also noted that they will only win if they are united.

Marlon Santi, the former president of the national indigenous organization for Ecuador (CONAIE) also attended the meeting, and suggested that the core problem (“el problema del fondo”) is not with the communities (that this or that community is for or against oil), but rather “the problem, at its core, is the ‘Plan.’”  The “Plan” signifies the national plan for development, which, according to him, consists of 3 priorities (“ejes”) – oil, mining and IIRSA (a regional infrastructure plan; the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America).  “When the government has these as their priorities, [it signifies that] there is no interest in indigenous rights” (“cuando hay estes ejes, no hay ningún interés en los derechos indígenas”).  In the face of these priorities he suggested that they need to have their own, alternate proposals clearly developed.

Critiques of  “Green Capitalism”

In our sixth and final leg of the journey, we returned to Quito to attend a workshop on “green capitalism.”  The primary speaker, Camila Moreno, began by providing a historical overview of capitalism and private property, emphasizing that far from being natural, the idea that land could be owned as private property and sold in the market was a “fiction of capitalism” (Marx) and was accompanied by a “brutal process” of conversion and concentration.  Building on these ideas, Ivonne Yanez, the president of the NGO Acción Ecológica and fellow organizer of the workshop, noted that while it took several centuries to naturalize the idea that land has owners, the idea of a ton of carbon as a new property form is being naturalized much more quickly.  There are already existing or proposed markets for biodiversity, carbon and water – which the speakers suggested is immoral – that these are “things that ethically and morally shouldn’t be placed in a market” (e.g., we shouldn’t be deciding what species live because of our monetary valuing of their worth based on aesthetics), and furthermore, they raised the concern that such credits essentially become polluters’ permits to continue with their harmful environmental practices.

While we only attended the first of the three day workshop, it provided a great deal of food for thought about critiques of market mechanisms for environmental services, and I’ve already been witness to indigenous leader, Alfonso Lopez, discussing and building upon critiques of “green capitalism” with other leaders and community members in his indigenous federation (the Cocama Association of Development and Conservation, San Pablo de Tipischa) during community visits in mid-August.

Closing Words

This blog is admittedly more of a tome given its length, but I’ve still only focused on a tiny selection of all that we did and discussed during our trip to Ecuador.  Like many thought-provoking experiences, it provided us with as many questions as answers – namely:  “What to do?  What to propose?  How to move past problems to propose solutions?”  These questions formed the core of a conversation that I must have had at least a dozen times with indigenous leader Alfonso Lopez over the course of the trip – with him urgently and earnestly saying “I want to make proposals too, but what to do?”

While solutions may not be easy, or easy at hand, at least our international venture ramped up the drive to seek out proposals and projects; helped us hear about the experiences of others, like those in Sarayaku, who have also been promoting alternatives to extraction-based development; and we also heard more perspectives about why projects like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) / carbon credits might actually be “false solutions.”  On the whole it was a very worthwhile and valuable trip, and I will continue to track how it influences and informs indigenous leaders here in Peru.

Deborah Rivett, Saturday, 03 September 2011