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Date: Sat, 17 Jul 1999 13:39:46 -0500 (CDT)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: ENVIRONMENT: Ecuadorean Indigenous Group takes on US Oil Giant
Article: 70172
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.21732.19990719061545@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 394.0 **/
** Topic: ENVIRONMENT: Indigenous Group takes on US Oil Giant **
** Written 9:03 PM Jul 15, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **
Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

Indigenous Group takes on US Oil Giant

By Danielle Knight, IPS
15 July 1999

QUITO, Ecuador, July 15 (IPS) - Oil companies, pushing ever deeper into the biologically-rich Amazon rain forests in their hunt for "black gold" have been confronted by demands from an indigenous group for a code of conduct to continue their operations.

The 300 strong Secoya community wants to negotiate an agreement with the California-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. before it can continue exploring for oil in Secoya territory in north-east Ecuador.

"In the past, Occidental confused and divided us by not dealing with the Secoyas as a whole but only with the leaders of certain villages by giving them gifts," Humberto Piaguaje, the president of the Secoya Indigenous Organisation of Ecuador, known as OISE, told IPS.

"Now we want the company to negotiate only with OISE with the full approval of the assembly of the Secoya people," he said.

In 1985, California-based Occidental Petroleum signed an agreement with the government of Ecuador giving the company the right to extract oil for 20 years from an area of more than 200,000 hectares known as Block 15.

This region includes part of the protected Limoncocha Reserve and the traditional indigenous territory of the Secoya, Siona and Quichua groups. Using Occidental's own estimates of the existing reserves, the entire production of Block 15 would supply the total oil consumption in the United States for about 13 days.

In 1992 the company developed five oil fields near the town of Limoncocha and constructed a 30 kilometer pipeline to connect to the country's Transecuadorian pipeline that goes to the coastal refineries for foreign export.

Later Occidental began negotiating with individual Secoya communities to allow them to explore for oil. In exchange for chain saws, medicine chests and rain-coats, one community signed an agreement that allowed the company the right to conduct "petroleum activities" in the all indigenous territories of Block 15.

Other Secoya and Siona communities located in Block 15, however, were outraged and immediately called on Occidental to cancel the agreement. The company eventually did retract the contract but made it clear that they intended to continue to push for access to Secoya lands.

Under the new code of conduct, OISE wants to make clear who will be the exact representatives on each side with the complete agreement of all the Secoya people. As currently written, the draft agreement would prohibit the company giving gifts to indigenous communities.

"We are a small people and we are tired of arguing with Occidental," says Piaguaje. "We are worried that oil exploration will completely change our culture and that the animals and fish will leave if exploration starts in our territory."

Human rights organisations in Ecuador are closely watching the negotiations and hope it will set a precedent for other indigenous communities fighting against oil exploration on their territory.

"This is the first time in Ecuador that such negotiations are taking place on an agreement that will regulate the dialogue between an indigenous group and an oil company," said Paulina Garzon, coordinator of the Quito-based Center for Economic and Social Rights.

When asked about the current negotiations, Occidental spokesman Lawrence Meriage told IPS that the code of conduct was a matter between the indigenous people and the company.

He pointed to the efforts the company had made to reduce the number of roads, drilling pads and structures built in Block 15 in order to minimize the impact on the environment.

"We basically have set the standard for stringent environmental behavior in Latin America," Meriage said and added that the company was replanting native tree species in areas disturbed by Occidental.

Piaguaaje said, however, past experiences with pollution and health problems that followed the operations of another US oil company, Texaco, weakened his faith in Occidental's promises.

"From our experience with Texaco, there is no more trust," says Piaguaje. "We don't feel in harmony with nature like we did before oil was discovered here," said Piaguaje.

Several members of the Secoya people are plaintiffs in a class- action suit against Texaco currently in New York, which accused the company of deliberately dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste water into the environment without treatment or monitoring.

In addition to the contamination caused by oil exploration, environmentalists warn that because of the expanding petroleum frontier, Ecuador has one of the highest rates of deforestation in South America.

Between 140,000 and 340,000 hectares of rain forest were being cut each year in Ecuador, according to the Nature Foundation, Ecuador's largest environmental group which is affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund.

If the current rate of deforestation continued, environmentalists with the California-based Rainforest Action Network estimated that Ecuador's rain forests would be decimated within 15 years. (END/IPS/dk/99)


[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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