Magazine article New Internationalist

Shell Game: Transnationals Everywhere Are Attempting to Recast Themselves as Eco-Friendly

Magazine article New Internationalist

Shell Game: Transnationals Everywhere Are Attempting to Recast Themselves as Eco-Friendly

Article excerpt

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They promised this time it would be different. 'Health, safety and environment' was their motto. A 'green' Shell. A friendly Shell. And even after losing a bid to develop the Camisea gas fields in the Peruvian Amazon, Shell claimed the experience gave them a revolutionary guide for environmental regulations and social relations that would 'transform mineral exploration in the new century'.

Not surprisingly, both indigenous communities and environmentalists are uneasy about the legacy of Shell's brave new world in the Camisea concessions of the Lower Urubamba Valley - virgin rainforest just 100 kilometres from the famed Manu National Park. Machiguenga, Nahua and Kugapakori natives still lead a semi-nomadic life in this lush and isolated region of biodiversity. Their leaders are not certain whether a transnational giant like Shell can be trusted, but at the same time they feel they have little choice.

Camisea's estimated 600 million barrels of liquid natural gas are worth billions and communities say working with foreign companies is their only chance to get money for social projects. Peru's central government has ignored native people in the Urubamba Valley for centuries - leaving them without schools, health centres or other services. But environmental groups, like the San-Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN), want gas companies out of the Amazon. They urge Peru to develop alternative energy resources instead.

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RAN claimed victory when Shell Oil and its partner Mobil Corp pulled out of Camisea in 1998 after investing $2.7 billion over two years of exploration. But the real reason the company left was because of a dispute with the Peruvian Government over gas distribution rights and tariffs. Finally last February the contract was awarded to PlusPetrol, an Argentine-led consortium with a bleak environmental record and neither the interest nor the money to invest in social or ecological concerns.

Lelis Rivera, director of the Centre for the Development of Amazon Indigenous Peoples, has worked in the Urubamba Valley with the Machiguenga for 20 years and says local people are prepared for an uphill battle with the new company.

Rivera recalls a Shell executive patting him on the shoulder after the company lost the bid, saying: 'Hey, look, it was worth the trouble fighting all the time because now we have a plan for working with indigenous communities worldwide.'

Rivera says Shell first came to the region in the 1980s, with disastrous consequences. Whooping cough and influenza decimated previously uncontacted groups and sexual relations with indigenous women, including many rapes, left sexually transmitted diseases and the ironically named 'baby Shells'. So when Shell returned in 1996 the communities were prepared. By then nearly all the land under exploration had been legally titled to the Machiguenga and they were well versed in their rights under Peruvian and international law.

Still smarting from the public outcry over its alleged human-rights violations in Nigeria, Shell decided to engage in a little image polishing. Bigshots like Washington's Smithsonian Institute were hired, along with a team of Peruvian anthropologists, to handle contact between the company and native people. Shell promised no other company employees would come in contact with locals and agreed not to build major roads, thus preventing an invasion from landhungry peasants eager to turn the forest into farmland or deal in tropical hardwoods. …

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