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Protecting the Amazon

For five years, EarthRights International (ERI) partnered with the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CDES), a human rights NGO based in Quito, Ecuador, in running the Amazon School for Human Rights and Environment.  Indigenous and campesino leaders from five of the Amazonian countries attended – Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.  They took an intensive survey course covering human rights law, environmental monitoring, development politics, fact-finding and documentation, advocacy, and media work on a campus in Ecuador.  Following their graduations, these leaders returned to their communities with new understandings of the realities of the Amazon region, new skills for advocacy, and a network of friends and colleagues from the region and beyond.

Due to the strong interest of our Peruvian alumni as well as our Peruvian NGO collaborators, ERI made the strategic decision in 2006 to focus the next phase of our leadership training and community organization capacity-building efforts on Peru.  In March 2007, ERI hosted training workshops for Peruvian judges and lawyers on Peruvian and international human rights law in Iquitos.  In August 2007, ERI and its partners Racimos de Ungurahui (a Lima, Peru-based human rights NGO) and the Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes River Basin (FECONACO) will give “mobile trainings” in three communities in the Corrientes River basin.  The three-day trainings will be timely, targeted opportunities to focus on: Peruvian law, international human rights law, and regional mechanisms; campaigning and advocacy; the Achuar takeover of Pluspetrol installations in October 2006 and historical accord that resulted; and the lawsuit against Occidental Petroleum.  ERI is developing a long-term, integrated education initiative in Peru to be focused on building the capacity of indigenous, campesino, and urban leaders, living in areas with extractive industries or who are threatened with such industries’ imminent arrival on their territories.  We will bring our experience with our three EarthRights Schools to address the Peruvian and regional Amazonian needs and context as we work closely with our local and regional partners and collaborators.

Several alumni from ERI’s Ecuador school came from the central and southern Ecuadorian Amazon, including Shuar and Achuar students from the Transkutuku region and Kichwa students from Sarayaku. These beautiful areas are known in the oil industry as Blocks 23 and 24.

Sarayaku FAQs: Protecting Indigenous Rights and the Environment in the Amazon

What is Sarayaku?

Sarayaku is a lively Kichwa indigenous community of about 2,000 people in the central Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. It is an historical center of shamanism and indigenous political leadership. Its lush forests are mostly intact, and the people live largely from farming, hunting and fishing. There are no roads to Sarayaku; it can be reached from the provincial capital of Puyo by three days walking or motorized canoe, or by a 45-minute bush plane ride.

What is Block 23?

The Ecuadorian Amazon is divided by the government into rectangles, or blocks, for concession to oil companies. Sarayaku’s territory makes up about 60% of Block 23. Despite this, the community was never consulted about the bidding process for the block, nor did they participate in the awarding of the concession.

What companies are involved and what is their position?

An Argentinean company called Compañia General de Combustibles (CGC) controls 50% of block 23 and is the operator fo the concession. The Houston-based Burlington Resources has the other 50%, and has recently farmed out half of its portion to the French company Perenco.

The companies claim that they have permission from most of the communities in the block, even though Sarayaku makes up some 60% of the block. Some of the “permission” has been granted by individuals not authorized to speak on behalf of the communities.

The companies are obliged by the terms of their concession with the Government of Ecuador to carry out seismic testing in Block 23. The first time they attempted to do so, in 2002, community opposition forced them to withdraw.

Why is Sarayaku opposed to oil activities in their territory?

Sarayaku’s leaders have seen the terrible cultural and environmental destruction caused by oil drilling in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. In the areas operated by Texaco, and later PetroEcuador, the contamination and deforestation is so extreme that thousands of indigenous people and peasants lost their livelihoods and health. In addition, Sarayaku has a development plan that emphasizes their own technologies, self- determination, and community management of their territories. They believe that oil development ultimately destroy their existence as a community.

What steps is Sarayaku taking?

Sarayaku is campaigning to prevent the entry of oil companies in their territories through legal, political and public awareness efforts. They requested that Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issue an Order for precautionary measures to the Government of Ecuador. The Commission issued that Order on May 5th, 2003, but the Government has not complied.

Sarayaku is also reaching out to the international community to seek allies in their fight to protect their lands and culture. As of October 2003, Sarayaku has declared a state of emergency, including the suspension of classes at the school. Many community members have gone out into the far reaches of the territory to mark the limits of their territory, and to prepare for the possible incursion of the oil companies.

What is the government's position?

On May 5th, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued an Order to the Government of Ecuador to take precautionary measures to protect the safety of Sarayaku. Instead, according to news reports, President Gutierrez has said his government will “guarantee the safety of the oil companies.” The President has also said that his government is close to reaching an agreement with Sarayaku, while in fact, his government has never even discussed the issue with community leaders.

Many indigenous leaders, who supported Gutierrez’ campaign for President, see his current pollicies as a betrayal of their support.

What does the IMF have to do with it?

The Ecuadorian government is actually obliged to open up the Amazon oil frontier under the terms of their agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The purpose of opening up more areas to drilling to be able to pay interest on Ecuador’s crushing foreign debt.

Since Ecuador’s oil boom of the 70’s, poverty and debt have actually increased. While a relatively small number of people have benefited and even gotten rich from oil exports, the indigenous people of the Amazon, where the oil comes from, have not received any benefits at all.