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Oil, mega-development plans would destroy Amazon

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The Amazon rainforest, dubbed by scientists 'the lungs of the Earth' for its capacity to recycle carbon dioxide, may be close to breathing its last breaths. New, large-scale development projects, led by major international oil corporations, are intent on criss-crossing the forest in a grid-like pattern to oversee construction of a vast new network of roads throughout the principal basins of the region.

Part and parcel of the globalization thrust by mega-economic planners, the stepped-up intrusion already in the works spells the destruction of the world's most important source of biodiversity. It also signals the dispersal and potential annihilation of dozens of Native nations which make their home in the Amazon, many of which have legally demarcated lands and have pledged to oppose the emerging projects.

Experience from the 1970s and onward has shown that opening roadways into the Amazon will inevitably be followed by intense migration of new colonists. What happens then is the massive deforestation of huge areas of land, led by logging precious woods and burning trees to make pastures for cattle ranching.

The loss of the forested region's majestic biodiversity, including huge numbers of plants and insects, as well as many animals that have yet to be even identified and catalogued by science, is disastrous. Medical scientists estimate that more than half of all modern medicines are derived from plants and animals. Year by year, new cures are found and developed from the combined knowledge of Indigenous medicine people and scientific research.

New studies by Brazil's National Institute of Amazon Research and the University of Michigan estimate that if the current pace of development is sustained, just 5 percent of the original forest will survive by 2020.

Over the past twenty years, Amazonian tribes within the countries involved ? Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela ? have successfully initiated a process of land demarcation that is the first major step in the protection of their homelands. The new grid essentially requires obliteration of that process.

In a finely researched article forthcoming in Native Americas, Cornell University's American Indian Journal, author Bill Weinberg draws together various sources of information that detail the players and ultimate nature of the economic development project's massive impacts.

The Amazon is being encroached from all sides, the article reports. The five major countries cited above, fueled by loans from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have proposed an integrated grid that blocks out huge blocks of territory, assigned to specific corporations.

For example, Block 15, assigned to Occidental Petroleum covers 200,000 hectares. It overlaps with a supposedly protected national park (Yasuni), 'covers nearly all of the Limoncocha Biological Reserve and the Pa?acocha Protected Forest ... (while being) ... adjacent to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.'

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Occidental has been involved for years in a serious contention with the U'wa Indigenous people who threatened to commit mass suicide if the company's operations persist in drilling for oil on their ancestral territories. Operating in a war torn area, Occidental's oil pipelines have been constantly bombed by leftist guerrillas (110 times so far in 2001), 'spilling the equivalent of 10 Exxon Valdez disasters into the surrounding forest.'

Neighboring Ecuador, which is regularly rocked by a national Indian movement of substantial strength, just signed up to build the Heavy Crude Oilduct, a huge oil pipeline that will run from the Amazon (Oriente) over the Andes mountains, cutting through Indigenous lands as well as through the Mindo-Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve, a major high-diversity micro-region, with oil to be shipped from Pacific coast ports. For Indigenous peoples, such as the Shuar-Achuar Indigenous Federation, whose member tribes have legally demarcated lands and which opposes the project's impact on their territories, the new pipeline raises very serious concerns.

Following the thrust of Ecuador's Economic Transformation Law, imposed on the country by the International Monetary Fund, the country's control of these projects is minimal. Ecuador's actual income to its severely impoverished people from $2.4 billion worth of oil revenues in the year 2000 was less than $100 million.

Of utmost concern is the incidence of pipeline bombings in Ecuador, as the long-term war in Colombia is beginning to spill over to this Andean country as well. Arguably, the misery of the mass of people in Latin America greatly intensified as a result of globalization schemes of the past decade.

As a result, political violence is rising and so are the prospects for regional war. Indigenous people make up upward of 25 percent of Ecuador's 12.5 million people. They are the poorest of the poor yet have organized a highly effective political movement, Pachakutik (New Dawn), with alliances across the political spectrum.

As Luis Macas, a prominent Quichua leader remarked, 'Anthropologists and missionaries talked for us before; now we speak for ourselves.' While militarization of the region, partly at the request of oil companies, is growing, concern is high that if war erupts, it could be set precisely against the Indigenous population.

In Brazil, a joint commission of the Congress recently approved a measure intended to weaken restrictions on Amazon land use by ranchers, loggers and miners. The advance of Brazil as it moves into the rainforest is now coupled to the southern approach from Venezuela. The mega-development plan, Venezuela-Brazil Transmission Line, follows on the heels of the 'Advance Brazil' gas and oil pipeline network that cuts through the heart of Brazil's Amazonian geography.

There are plans that call for the dredging and enlarging of existing rivers to remake the Amazon's waterways as 'arteries of global trade.' Each of these projects touches upon, cuts through and otherwise displaces Indigenous nations. Moreover, they signal a vast and furious new chapter in the 'conquest' of the Amazon.

Says Atossa Soltani, from Amazon Watch, 'Much of the destruction is driven by our energy consumption patterns. ... The ultimate challenge is to reduce our dependence on oil ? because from the Arctic to the Amazon, it is our appetite for oil that drives the destruction of some of the last wild places, and the Indigenous peoples that live there.'