Life and Death in the Amazon

life and death in amazon

Life and Death in the Amazon

Row upon row of white square houses with green metal roofing line the Aguarico River in the model village of Playas del Cuyabeno, inaugurated by president Rafael Correa this week. The clean, geometric new settlement groups together some 400 Quichua people whose families formerly lived spread out among small Amazon farms, providing them with new housing, including plumbing, free appliances and computers, Internet, and a modern school and athletic facilities. For the government, this first of many “Millennium Communities” showcases the benefits that exploiting Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT), an oil field inside a rainforest national park, will provide. “Playas de Cuyabeno is the proof that things can be done differently, through responsible oil extraction,” thanks to oil royalties for local communities, Correa said. As Ecuadorians try to decide whether development of ITT outweighs the risks of polluting one of the world’s greatest concentrations of plant and animal life, the question of how to bridge the disadvantages in development indigenous communities suffer, too, becomes relevant to the debate. The administration’s track record with indigenous organizations remains conflictive. The weakest communities, those rainforest tribes tenuously clinging to their stone-age way of life, risk imminent extinction, despite constitutional protection on paper.

Playas de Cuyabeno bears an uncanny resemblance to German colonial towns in Togo of the late 19th century (see photos), summarized under the positivist motto of “order and progress” from the same period. A Prussian colonel of the time would feel at home behind the giant Ecuadorean flag and the architecture that appears to mimic a military base, or a mining camp. The houses mimic traditional bamboo huts, with living quarters elevated to the upper floor, however, made in cement that might well prove sweltering in the barren village, bereft of shade. Critics note the use of non-native cement however and the removal of Quichua from their traditional, dispersed way of life, much like in the colonial Spanish forced settlements called “Repúblicas de Indios.” This could make it easier for oil companies to work in the forest unencumbered by bothersome indigenous protests. Some negotiation, however, did go ahead while the state-owned company Ecuador Estratégico was building the village; a minority of the community stayed on closer to their farm plots. Unsurprisingly, according to its Web site, Ecuador Estratégico failed to carry out a tender for the $20 million project, which also includes paving, protective walls to protect the village from high water, and ramps for the residents’ canoes, their main mode of transport. Playas de Cuyabeno is five hours downstream from Lago Agrio, the principal oil town in the Sucumbíos province.

Instead, they view agriculture as an industry that concentrates wealth and abuses the rights of small native communities. At the same time, some bio-farmers complain that the government is supporting the use of genetically modified plants – even officials who previously were against it.

The improvements in services and sanitation will make a difference in the lives of the residents. Expanding the “Millennium Communities” forms part of a strategy to give people the impression that mining and oil production will provide them with real benefits. Ensuring people stay in more tightly limited communities can help slow the expansion of agriculture in sensitive forests, and keep people from living in the proximity to unhealthy oil production, avoiding the spiral of skin diseases and cancer rates that have hit some communities further west. It also makes some economic sense, as it becomes cheaper to provide rural communities with running water and electricity, but also schooling if they live more concentrated.

Joffre Poma, mayor of Lago Agrio and a member of Correa’s political vehicle, during the ITT debate in Congress this week said that “surely there will be contrarian voices saying that how can a child that previously went barefoot now have Internet.” While par for the course, this comment accurately reflects the government view of alternatives that, to its chagrin, exist in Ecuador and condition the debate on the development of poor and/or indigenous communities. Resistance to oil production has much to do with the understanding by Quichua, Waorani, and other peoples that resource extraction has largely benefitted elites in the capital, seen, particularly in the case of people who still live partially or entirely as rainforest warriors, as just as alien as foreigners with non-Ecuadorian passports. Instead, they have suffered the negative impact, a destruction of their environment and traditional way of life.

Other communities have independently succeeded in getting electricity and running water, like the 1,200-person Quichua village of Sarayacu in Pastaza, which won a landmark case against the Ecuadorian state before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights last year for having been put under martial law as the government of Lucio Gutiérrez attempted to impose oil development on its lands. In stark contrast with Playas de Cuyabeno, it has maintained largely traditional architecture, with large, oval, and airy palm-thatched homesteads linked by footpaths under the shade of giant tropical trees. Solar panels provide power, much as they do in tiny Súraka, a Sápara community even deeper in the forest further east. There, two dozen car batteries provide backup for the six laptops on which the six-family community have access to the World Wide Web. Elsewhere in Ecuador, many other models of organization exist that provide alternatives to the development espoused by the government, which, contrary to its claims, makes communities dependent on handouts of free services. The this populist model fails to provide the biggest shortcoming of the communities, in which Playas de Cuyabeno, Sarayacu, and Súraka all have similarities: jobs that can pay for some of the goods and services their residents do need, such as expensive outboard motors and, potentially, health care. In the case of the latter communities, domestic and foreign non-governmental organizations have provided technical assistance and funding. The Osnabrück zoo supports Sarayacu with some $15,000 a year to help them switch to poultry and fish production in exchange for protection of the lowland tapir, South America’s biggest herbivore. This disgusts the administration, whose leader rails against the twin threats of transnational imperialism and “NGO-ism.” While some have issues, projects like Sarayacu show development options of their own. Additionally, NGO and religious influence serve to counter the rampant commercialism visible in Lago Agrio, Coca, Puyo, or other cement-riddled jungle towns that epitomize the problems of Amazon development.

The issue of protection becomes most urgent among those communities that have most recently become “contacted” by mainstream society and those who still tenuously remain outside, hidden in the forest. In their controversial book, Una tragedia ocultada (A Tragedy Hidden Away), Catholic missionary Miguel Ángel Cabodevilla and journalist Milagros Aguirre showcase the Ecuadorian state’s failure to protect people who essentially remain wards of the state. With their independent investigation, Cabodevilla and Aguirre reveal details of a rainforest massacre among these people that have had a little echo, thanks in large part to foot-dragging and lack of comment by officials in the judiciary and local government that, with the benefit of hindsight, looks like a cynical attempt at keeping things quiet.

Article 57 of Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution provides special protection for “uncontacted” people, identified as the Tagaeri, a breakaway group of Waorani who returned to live in the forest, and the much more distantly related Taromenani. The text considers any breach of this “ethnocide” or “genocide,” with updated laws setting six to 16-year jail terms for different crimes identified with infringement of their rights. But this remains on paper. According to Cabodevilla, the Tagaeri may well no longer exist, while the Taromenane six months ago suffered their second massacre in a decade and, too, now may well be on the brink of extinction. In public statements, authorities continue to debate whether it actually happened. But the book carefully describes evidence of the massacre, including, most damningly, photographs taken by one of the Waorani who participated in the killing of men, women, and children done to avenge the murder of Ompore, one of their own, and of Buganey, one of his wives, in March. The authors show how Ompore practically on his own bore the brunt of desperation suffered by the encroached Taromenane, while a plethora of incompetent officials failed to understand what is going on in a handful of remote communities. And two little girls kidnapped in the raid on the Taromenane continue in the hands of their captors.

Meanwhile, the Congress this week voted to develop the ITT field, where, until mid-August, officials said the heartland of the Tagaeri and Taromenane lay. Now less certain after Correa asked them to approve oil production there, the legislators left themselves a backdoor to show their sensitivity to the issue.

“In the case of sightings of uncontacted people, not only is exploration suspended, also all protocols, measures, and codes of conduct that have been established for the life and culture of the people must be adopted,” said legislator Virgilio Hernández. Conservative legislator Patricio Donoso said that considering the realities of multi-billion-dollar investments and major industrial activities tied to oil development, these promises are ridiculously impractical. Outside, several dozen protesters called the 108 pro-Correa legislators who approved the ITT development “murderers.”

Analytica Investment’s Ecuador Weekly Report

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