Amazon Oil Offensive

By Jochnick, Chris | Multinational Monitor, January-February 1995 | Go to article overview

Amazon Oil Offensive

Jochnick, Chris, Multinational Monitor

This past November, the Organization of American States sent an official delegation to Ecuador's Amazon ("the Oriente") to investigate alleged human fights violations. The investigation was significant for its concern with the actions of two U.S. oil companies, Texaco and Maxus. While environmentalist and indigenous groups have long decried the unregulated development of oil in the Oriente, it is only recently that these activities have come under scrutiny as human rights violations.

The Oriente consists of over 13 million hectares (32 million acres) of tropical rainforest lying at the headwaters of the Amazon river network. The region contains one of the most diverse collections of plant and animal life in the world, including many endangered species. The Oriente is also home to 95,000 indigenous people belonging to eight different ethnic groups and 250,000 recent immigrants, who have followed the oil roads east in search of land and work.

The development of oil in Ecuador has followed a pattern that is familiar to most developing countries. Since the first barrels were extracted in 1972, the industry has been dominated by multinational corporations - led by Texaco until its 1992 departure - with negligible government oversight and scant attention paid to non-economic concerns. Oil development has taken a predictable toll on the environment and welfare of the Oriente's inhabitants. Less predictable was the strength of the opposition.

The struggle over oil came to a head in 1994. In January, the government announced a plan to double the amount of rainforest subject to oil exploration; a coalition of environmental and indigenous groups immediately challenged the government's plan. Local protesters took over the offices of the Ministry of Energy and Mines in Quito, condemning any new oil development until the oil companies remedied past damages and the government imposed stricter controls on the industry.

The protest was joined by international groups led by Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Oxfam America. In March, the New York City-based Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) released a report documenting dangerous levels of toxic contamination and related health problems in Ecuador's Amazon and charging the government with human rights violations. That same month, New York federal judge Vincent Broderick sided with Ecuadoran plaintiffs bringing suit against Texaco, granting them access to Texaco's files to establish the parent company's responsibility for damages caused by the company's Ecuadoran operations. This past summer, Ecuador Minister of Energy Francisco Acosta rejected a Texaco-commissioned environmental audit of the damages caused by the company, arguing that it was too narrow. The minister threatened to bring his own suit against Texaco if the company refused to negotiate in good faith. When it was later discovered that the minister had arrived at a secret agreement with Texaco, environmentalists convinced an already restless Congress to impeach him.

Violating the Amazon and its people

The OAS investigation and the use of human rights rhetoric against Texaco and other private companies have challenged traditional human rights dogma. In this case, it is more than civil liberties being threatened and the government is only one of many essential actors. "When we indigenous peoples talk about the environment, we are not just talking about the trees, rivers and butterflies. We are also talking about human beings," explains Rafael Pandam, vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). "Likewise, when we talk of human rights, we are not just talking about the right to free speech. We are talking of the political, economic, social and cultural rights of all peoples."

Pandam's broad vision of human rights is well supported by international and Ecuadoran law. In 1972, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously endorsed the principle that "man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being. …

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