Indigenous Groups and NGOs Use Creative Approaches To Save Lands in Ecuadorian Amazon from Oil Companies

The Shuar and Achuar indigenous people are traditional enemies.  But in recent years these tribes of eastern Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, known as the “Oriente,” have joined together to protect their tribal lands from development by oil companies.  With support from the Overbrook Foundation, the San Francisco-based NGO Amazon Watch is helping the two groups in their current struggle to fend off development by Burlington Resources, an oil and gas company based in Houston, Texas.

Photo by Amazon Watch According to Kevin Koenig, Oil Campaigner at Amazon Watch, the Shuar and Achuar first confronted the ARCO Oil and Gas Company in the mid 1990s, when the company bought rights to drill for oil in two blocks of land that impinged upon tribal territory.  Located in the south-central Oriente, each block encompasses 494,000 acres (200,000 hectares) of one of the few remaining tracts of intact lowland rainforest in Ecuador, recognized as one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. It is home to an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 species of plants, accounting for 5 percent of all plant species on Earth; 600 species of fish, and 250 species of amphibians and reptiles, plus mammal species such as, manatees, pink dolphins, jaguars, and tapirs.  The Oriente is known for its spectacular bird diversity – more than 1,000 species of birds are found there.

Indigenous peoples’ battles against oil development in the Oriente have waged for decades, involving the Huaorani, the Quichua, and other groups, in addition to the Shuar and Achuar. The conflicts arise in part because the Ecuadorian government maintains all rights to subsurface minerals, even while recognizing the tribal lands. Under intense pressure by international lending institutions to pay off its astronomical external debt, the government sells the rights to large blocks of land holding oil reserves to the highest bidding companies, which also win the right to build the infrastructure needed to extract oil, such as roads and pipelines, even if they invade indigenous territories.

After seven years of steadfast resistance from the indigenous people of the Oriente, in 1999 ARCO sold the rights to one of its blocks of land to Burlington Resources, whose attempts to extract oil and build infrastructure have been similarly blocked. But the resistance hasn’t been easy, Koenig says.  With help from Amazon Watch, the Shuar and Achuar have had to come up with a variety of creative tactics, since “Burlington is a company that has no public profile,” he explains.  “It has been a challenge to figure out how to put pressure on Burlington. Our tactic in the United States has been to get the voice of the Shuar and Achuar peoples on the doorstep of the company, in the board room, and in shareholder meetings so their position is heard and respected.”

In May of 2003, Amazon Watch brought a delegation of representatives from Shuar, Achuar, and other indigenous groups to Houston where they attempted to deliver a letter and tribal resolutions that affirm their resistance to Burlington’s oil exploitation on their land.  The company refused to accept these documents.

Photo by Amazon Watch Amazon Watch’s next tactic was to bring a Shuar leader to the Burlington annual shareholder meeting in 2004, where he was able to address the company directly and make the position of his people known.  Koenig advises, “It is vitally important to bring these federation leaders from the Amazon to where the decisions are being made, to get them in front of the company and put a human face on their struggle.”

Another Amazon Watch strategy is to form relationships with Burlington’s shareholders, who generate billions of dollars for the company, to educate them about the company’s operations in Ecuador, the environmental and human rights violations involved, and the financial risks of exploitative business practices.  In the spring of 2005, Amazon Watch brought a delegation of shareholders and financial advisors to the Oriente area where Burlington planned to drill, organized several meetings and visits to Shuar and Achuar communities, orchestrated tours of the devastation caused by the oil industry in the northern Amazon, and met with the attorney general and other high ranking government officials in Quito.

Koenig recalls, “The shareholders became very concerned about the company’s operations and are now incredible advocates for the Shuar and the Achuar.  That shareholder group commands a lot of respect and attention from the company — through them, the demands of the local people have been heard.”

Burlington has had a variety of responses to this activism, notes Koenig.  Initially, the company claimed that it didn’t know of any significant opposition to their operations in Ecuador. When the Shuar and Achuar leaders came to Texas, they changed their position to say that the majority of Ecuadorians want oil extraction. Amazon Watch managed to publicly disprove these statements, and the company’s reaction indicates it is now listening.  In 2004, Burlington adopted an indigenous rights policy, which Koenig says is not ideal, but a step in the right direction.  The policy says that the company will consult with recognized tribal leadership.  Burlington has also publicly committed to proceed only with the approval of the tribal federations and not through military force.

Amazon Watch continues to strengthen the communications capacity of their Ecuadorian partners so they can document on audio and video tape both their struggles and traditions.  Funds raised by the NGO are being channeled to the communities in support of the indigenous peoples’ pursuit of their own vision for development and conservation of their lands, such as ecotourism and creating a permanently protected “No Go Zone,” an area off limits to oil, mining, and logging. Amazon Watch is also aligning with NGO partners in Ecuador to address the country’s foreign debt and look at economically viable development options for the southern Ecuadorian Amazon that might deter the government from auctioning off more pristine rainforest and indigenous territories for oil extraction.

The Interprovincial Federation of the Achuar of Ecuador is one NGO working with Amazon Watch.  The organization’s president, Milton Callera points out that the Achuar are proud of the intact forests on more than 92 percent of their 2.07 million acre (840,000 hectare) territory. “The mining and petroleum companies have negative impacts, like water contamination and cause damage to the primary forests that can result in social impacts in the future,” he says.  “We want to preserve our way of life and development.  We want –- and we already have — alternatives that do not damage the forest.”

For the past nine years, Pachamama, another local NGO, has supported 13 indigenous groups in the Amazon, helping them organize and demand their rights, while strengthening their systems of self-government.  According to Pachamama director María Belén Páez, “more nationalities are planning for their future not only for their own benefit but also to benefit all Ecuadorians.”  She says that indigenous groups remain opposed to petroleum development and want to propose their own development plans.  “People see their lands as a great source of natural resources at the global level and are looking for less destructive alternatives, like ecotourism and debt-for-nature swaps,” she explains, adding that the NGO has been able to maintain visibility through the media and has scored legal victories that protect indigenous rights.

–Melissa Krenke and Katiana Murillo

Contacts:  Kevin Koenig, Amazon Watch, 1 Haight St. Suite B, San Francisco, CA 94102, EE.UU., tel: +415/487-9600, fax: +415/487-9601,,  María Belén Páez, Executive Director, Pachamama Foundation, Ecuador,, Tel: + 0059323331348.

Read more about this project in the Eco-Index:


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