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Ecuador debates plan to sell rainforest to foreign oil companies

Murders of tribesman in Ecuador highlight controversy over proposal to auction off section of Amazon rainforest to oil companies 

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President Rafael Correa plans to sell off three million hectares of Amazon rainforest to ease Ecuador's debt burden. (Image by Dallas Krentzel)

Ecuadorian society is locked in a fierce debate over president Rafael Correa’s move to auction off three million hectares of the Amazon rainforest to international oil companies, including in China.

Correa has come under intense domestic and international pressure over the sale, which seeks to use the country’s oil reserves to reduce the national debt. The South American nation owed an estimated US$7 billion – 10% of its GDP – to China alone as of last summer.

The auction process is now open, and will last until the end of May. The president has made efforts to advertise the sell-off around the world in recent months, sending a delegation to host a series of roadshows in Texas, Paris and finally Beijing on 25 March.

Companies such as China Petrochemical and China National Offshore Oil Corporation were present at the roadshow in Beijing and stand a good chance of winning the contracts. “Chinese companies are really aggressive. In a bidding process, they might present the winning bids,” said Ecuador's secretary of hydrocarbons, Andrés Donoso Fabara.

The tour was accompanied by protests from indigenous groups who say the proposed sale threatens their land and livelihoods.

The issue has been brought into even sharper focus in recent weeks following the tragic killing of some 20 members of the Taromenane tribe by members of the Huaorani tribe. Ecuadorian newspapers have been awash with suggestions that the murders, which happened on March 29, are indirectly linked to the presence of oil companies in the area. A report in the Columbian daily, El Commercio, said:

Eduardo Pichilingue, coordinator of the Observatory of Collective Rights, said in an interview broadcast on Radio Vision that the state of war between the two separate societies [huaorani and tagaeri-taromenane] is caused by external influences from the Western world, and has come about because “the politics of the protection of isolated indigenous tribes is incompatible with the country’s extractive oil policy.”

President Correa has hit back, saying that the deaths have “nothing to do with oil companies, it is a problem between tribes.” But many Ecuadorian groups are in any case vehemently opposed to the auction of new land, as they say the end result will be further degradation of the rainforest.

A meeting of indigenous community leaders on April 9 led to the decision strongly to oppose the auction and the president’s plan, with a call for unity from all opponents, as reported by the online news service ecuadorinmediato.com:

“The rainforest cannot be bought or sold. The Amazon has no price,” stressed Milton Callera, president of the Parliament of Amazon Nations… Fernando Santi, president of the Shiwiar nation, expressed the need to resist the extractive policy being implemented in the Amazonian central south region, and to unite opposition efforts against it.

Correa has defended the decision to push ahead with the auction of rainforest land, saying that the projects will be held to the highest environmental standards. He says the decision is one taken out of absolute economic necessity, as reflected in comments reported by the Columbian newspaper, El Diario:

“There are people opposed to the petrol round [the auction] because they are humanists, they love nature, and Correa hates it… with this stupidity, these fools will bankrupt the country… our energy network will not be sustainable unless we discover more oil. The country is going to collapse by 2020 if we do not improve our reserves and exploitation of oil.”

Many Ecuadorian commentators outside the indigenous communities have accepted that the country’s dire economic situation leaves it with no choice but to go ahead with the auction. But there is still a strong desire to avoid the negative environmental and social impacts that often go hand in hand with oil extraction. Writing in the national newspaper La Hora, Eduardo Naranjo Cruz put forward one proposal:

The Amazon rainforest’s worst enemy is the unstoppable deforestation and spontaneous colonisation, factors that are accelerated as soon as roads are made for oil exploration. This is the same for the exploitation of the Yasuni as well the Amazonian south. The solution would be to have a highly demanding contractual scheme, with guarantees and plans for exploitation solely using air transport. This would be more expensive, but any company with sufficient expertise could do it.

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