by Britnae Purdy
On Wednesday, the Kichwa community in Ecuador won a reprieve to stop Petroamazonas, the state-backed oil company in Ecuador, from prospecting for oil in Sani Isla. Members of the Kichwa are relieved they did not have to fight, but have vowed that they will “fight to the death” to save the rainforest.
This fight began in early 2012, when the Ecuadorian government launched the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini Initiative as an alternative to state-sponsored oil drilling in the rainforest. It was hailed as “bold” and “revolutionary” by Ecuador’s president and well-received by the United Nations. The Ecuadorian government promised to refrain from drilling in the Yasuni National Park if the international community collected half of the projected profits, an estimated US $3.6 Billion over thirteen years, that would come from developing the region. In addition to the environmental benefits, the Ecuadorian government proposed that the resulting redistribution of wealth from rich countries to Ecuadorian communities would improve countless lives.
Barely a year later, the Ecuadorian government appears to be reconsidering its pro-conservation, pro-community stance, with dire consequences for both the environment and the indigenous inhabitants of the rainforest.
State-supported oil company Petroamazonas was to begin speculation in Sani Isla’s 70,000 hectares of rainforest on January 15, 2013. Petroamazonas is in possession of a signed contract from the chief of the Kichwa tribe, giving them authority to develop the land; however, the village claims that because 80 percent of their community members are opposed to the development, the chief did not have authorization to sign the contract, making it invalid. Additionally, the original contract promised a new school, better access to healthcare, and university placement for Kichwa’s youth. These provisions have since been removed, leaving villagers with only compensation of US $40 per hectare.
Led by shaman and former chief Patricio Jipa and his wife Mari Muench, a businesswoman originally from England, the village is ready to fight if need be.
“We may die fighting to defend the rainforest,” says Jipa. “We would prefer passive resistance, but this may not be possible. We will not start conflict, but we will try to block them and then what happens will happen.”
In 2009, the Kichwa community collectively drafted, signed, and delivered a document to Petroamazonas stating that they would never hand over Sani Isla land for development. According to Jipa, while this document is still legitimate under indigenous law, the Ecuadorian government has claimed that a change in the national constitution has rendered this declaration invalid. This, along with the improperly-obtained contract from the tribe chief, indicates a lack of understanding and/or consideration for indigenous governance on the part of the Ecuadorian government.
“We often see that the companies don’t take the time to understand the governance structures within a community, and these structures are usually very complex,” explains First Peoples Worldwide managing director Neva Morrison. “They liken the community’s governance system to their dominant society’s or Western beliefs and think ‘chief’ must mean ‘decision-maker,’ which as we see in this instance, may not be the case.”
The Kichwa acknowledge that their community is in a dire economic state and would benefit greatly from increased revenue. In recent years the small community of 400 residents has shifted from traditional subsistence farming to selling cocoa crops and crafts to markets in Quito; however, these do not provide a reliable source of income. The Kichwa now point to a recent initiative, a community-built eco-lodge, as an alternative that would generate profit for the community as well as protect and foster appreciation for Sani Isla’s amazing natural resources.
Jipa admits that their fight is both daunting and dangerous.
“It makes me feel sad and angry. Sad because we are indigenous people and not fully prepared to fight a government. And angry because we grew up to be warriors and have a spirit to defend ourselves. I wish we could use this force to fight in a new way, but our mental strength is not sufficient in this modern world. If the laws were respected we would win.”
Indigenous people have the right of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) when it comes to their land. The Kichwa are fighting for that right but can and will their rights hold up against the interests of Petroamazonas and the Ecuadorian government that see billions of dollars beneath their feet?
Note: Thank you to Jonathan Watts of The Guardian (@jonathanwatts) for his reporting on the Kichwa.