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Oil and Gas Drilling on the Rise in Ecuador and Peru; Indigenous Communities Share Concerns

Tensions over oil and gas drilling on or near indigenous territories in the Amazon have flared again as Ecuador seeks bidders for oil leases and a company in Peru expands its operations into an area inhabited by nomadic groups that shun contact with the outside world.

Ecuador’s launch of an oil lease auction – known as the “11th round” – on November 29 drew protests from two of the country’s main indigenous organizations.

“Forty years of petroleum production have left nothing but poverty, environmental devastation, disease and genocide,” Humberto Cholango, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador, CONAIE), said in a statement.

Representatives of Amazonian indigenous groups demonstrated outside the hotel where the auction was being kicked off and pledged to continue their protest.

The government plans to open up 16 lots for exploration and drilling. The government is seeking bids from international companies for 13 lots, while the other three are to be operated by the state-run oil company. President Rafael Correa said that between $5 million and $15 million per lot would be used to provide services to indigenous communities living near the drilling operations.

But Kevin Koenig of the non-profit advocacy organization Amazon Watch questioned whether the 2 billion barrels of oil estimated to be in the lots justify the possible harm to indigenous communities and damage to the environment.

“To open up 10 million acres for such low estimates of crude makes little economic sense,” he said.

Oil exports represent about half all export earnings for Ecuador, which produces about 500,700 barrels a day.

Several of the areas being auctioned are near the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) lot, which overlaps Yasuní National Park and contains a large deposit that the government has pledged not to develop if the international community compensates it with $3.6 billion – half the amount it would lose in revenue – over the next 12 years.

So far, the country has collected $115 million. If the goal is not reached, Correa has said the country will drill for oil there, although it might try to reach the deposit from platforms outside the park.

“We want the oil left underground,” said Manuela Ima, president of the Association of Waorani Women of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Asociación de Mujeres Waorani de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana, AMWAE).

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The Waorani and other groups around Yasuní, an area rich in biological diversity, want the government to guarantee prior consultation of indigenous communities and allow them to reject oil drilling or other development plans, she said on November 29 at a conference in Lima, Peru, on oil and gas development in the Amazon.

Ima said she also worried about the impact of oil operations on the semi-nomadic Tagaeri and Taromenane people who inhabit the ITT area. Similar concerns have been raised in Peru, where the consortium operating the Camisea gas field in the southern part of the country is expanding into the Kugapakori-Nahua Reserve, which was set aside for nomadic groups.

Some of those groups have now formed settlements and are seeking title to their land, while others continue to shun contact with the outside world.

When Camisea was being developed, environmentalists and indigenous organizations lobbied international lenders to prohibit further drilling in the reserve, but Iván Lanegra, the Ministry of Culture’s vice minister for intercultural affairs, said the prohibition only applies to new projects, and the consortium can continue its plans to drill additional wells in the part of its lot that overlaps the reserve.

Peru aims to open up other parts of the Amazon to oil and gas drilling, but plans for an auction of lots are on hold as the country grapples with the implications of new legislation requiring prior consultation of indigenous groups about development plans affecting their territories.

Officials announced that the first consultation would involve Achuar communities in the northern Amazon, where an oil lease is up for renewal, but the communities have said they want pollution from past operations cleaned up before any consultation is scheduled.

The expansion of oil and gas operations in the Amazon has highlighted differences of opinion among indigenous organizations. Indigenous leaders affiliated with the Inter-Ethnic Association for Development of Peruvian Amazon (Asociación Interétnica para el Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, AIDESEP) have criticized the association’s president, Alberto Pizango, for signing a cooperation agreement with the Brazilian oil company PetroBras.

Some organizations are seeking other ways to reduce the impacts of oil and gas operations. The Ecuador-based Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica, COICA) is supporting a scheme promoted by a group called Equitable Origin, which would certify oil companies based on their social and environmental practices.

Jhon Wajai of COICA said the proposal would empower indigenous communities living in areas where companies are already operating by enabling them to insist on better practices. COICA hopes the plan will “influence (companies) so they improve their practices in Latin America and in the world,” Wajai said at the Lima conference.

Koenig, however, remains unconvinced.

“These indigenous lands are roadless, pristine tracts of rainforest,” he said of the lots being auctioned in Ecuador. “Opening them up to seismic testing, drilling, roads and pipelines will be devastating and threatens the lives, land, and culture of seven indigenous nationalities.”