By Anita Parlow Anita Parlow is a freelance writer and author who specializes in land and natural resources in indigenous territories. The Uniterra Foundation and The Amicus Journal provided financial support for this article. TORAMPARE, ECUADOR--"The jungle is everything. We have to maintain the jungle, take care of the animals and defend ourselves," says Dabo, an elder in a Huaorani-speaking village in Ecuador. In August 1990, the Huaorani Indians in the Ecuadoran Amazon held an unprecedented meeting. More than 250 delegates came to Torampare from 10 villages, poling upstream in dug-out canoes for as many as four days to talk about indigenous rights in their newly legalized territory. The organizers of the gathering referred to their assembly as "The First Congress of the Huaorani." Following an earlier organizing meeting in April 1990, the most isolated indigenous people who inhabit this small corner of the Amazon, known as the "Oriente," are joining together to respond to economic, political and cultural challenges to their way of life. During the week-long meeting marked by the emotion and consciousness of the birth of a nation, the delegates primarily debated the human costs of the large-scale development agendas of multinational petroleum companies that threaten to dominate their homelands. The Huaorani story is emblematic of the fate of the Amazon. Here, between the Napo and Curaray rivers, conservationists, indigenous peoples and the petroleum industry are competing to control the pace and nature of development. "Our existence hangs in the balance," says a young man from the remote village of Yasuni who assumed a leadership role at the Torampare assembly. Poisoning the jungle's bloodstream Huaorani territory, located south of Lago Agrio and Shushushfindi, the center of the worst excesses of the frenzied Ecuadoran petroleum projects, is currently a center of international attention. The United States-based Conoco Oil Company, a subsidiary of DuPont, plans to build 90 miles of roads into pristine forest in order to pump oil from its vast concession in Huaorani territory. The company is also negotiating for a second concession located in the adjacent and environmentally "protected" Yasuni National Park, an area noted for its exceptional biological diversity. Despite its national park status and designation as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Program, Ecuador's controversial management plan for the Yasuni allows the oil companies to operate in the protected territory. This policy has inspired considerable opposition from both indigenous organizations and conservationists, who charge that the petroleum industry operates in an "environmental free-fire zone," without appropriate constraints. Perhaps the most notable challenge to the national policy that is designed to encourage rapid development was a lawsuit brought by an aggressive environmental law firm, CORDAVI, in Ecuador's Tribunal of Constitutional Guarantees. The suit attempted to block Conoco from producing oil in protected national parks, but it was unsuccessful. Now, it has fallen to international environmental and human rights organizations--and to the indigenous people themselves-- to protect the rainforest. Survival International, an indigenous rights group, and several U.S.-based environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Rainforest Action Network, have directed their attention to Ecuador, fearing that Conoco's plans could devastate the nation's rainforest. "So little is known about the Amazon's complex ecosystems that the extent of the potential damage is of unforeseen dimensions," says Judith Kimmerling, author of the NRDC report "Amazon Crude." "It is clear that petroleum cannot be produced in the Amazon without causing enormous environmental damage." NRDC calculates that the thousands of rare, unique and endangered species that lie at the headwaters of the complex Amazon River system could be permanently damaged no matter how much caution Conoco exercises. Conoco has already conducted core drillings in preparation for obtaining its production permit. Despite company claims that it used a degree of care designed to "minimize impact on the rainforest," Survival International issued an "Urgent Action Bulletin" in March 1990 that focused on the "severe" destruction of life in this preliminary phase of oil production. Its report noted: "hundreds of helicopter landing sites are cleared, explosives are detonated every 100 kilometers and at least 1,000 hectares of forest are cleared for camps. Highly toxic wastes containing oil, sulphates, mercury, lead and arsenic are discharged into the rivers. Many of the rivers which the Huaorani depend on no longer support fish, and cattle drinking from [the rivers] have died." Now Conoco, claiming that it will carry out its plans in an environmentally sensitive manner, is preparing to construct a pipeline and road network in the pristine forest. It promises to bury its pipeline facilities before linking them to the existing Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline System. Ecuador Conoco President Edward Davis says that the access road to this system will "not be connected to any outside roads" so that it will not intensify illegal colonization. With the roads and pipelines completed, Conoco will begin oil production. But opposition from indigenous groups and environmentalists has delayed Conoco's plans. Davis says he has been waiting for nearly two years for the government to grant him the permit that will allow his company to be the first to pump oil from Huaorani territory and a national park. Expressing dismay with the government's delay, the director of Conoco's Ecuador Environmental Project Program says that "we've become a lightening rod, taking the blame for all the oil excesses of the past." Indigenous groups and environmentalists, however, say the oil companies' dismal record in Ecuador justifies their concerns. Luis Vargas, president of Ecuador's Pan Amazonian indigenous organization, CONFENAIE, explains, "one only need travel as far as Lago Agrio [where Ecuador's oil boom began] to understand the public health menace and hazardous nature of the highly toxic contaminants that poison our food supplies and destroy our peoples." Vargas describes streams and rivers that run black from periodic oil spills. "The highly toxic petroleum floods combine environmental degradation and ethnocide." Evaristo Nugquag, president of COICA, the Pan Amazonian Coordinating Committee of the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin, accuses the petroleum industry of ruthless destruction of indigenous lands. He says, "for years the oil industry routinely used our open spaces as a free disposal system, pouring millions of gallons of untreated oil into hundreds of unlined open pits that bleed into the rivers that the Huaorani view as the jungle's bloodstream." He emphasizes that environmental problems must be solved within the context of indigenous peoples' aspirations to control their borders and their natural resources. Indigenous control, he says, is essential to indigenous survival. "Without the rainforest we will disappear. We have no other place to live." The director of the Torampare community says his people see their destiny foreshadowed by the fate of the almost totally decimated Cofan Indians. The Cofan's 20-year encounter with the Texaco Oil Company has left them hovering on the edge of extinction, with fewer than 500 surviving. Health clinic officials in Coca attribute the Cofan's destruction to a combination of disease from outside contacts, enormous health problems brought by oil wastes and a sense of hopelessness that too frequently leads to frontier prostitution and alcoholism which Vargas calls "Ecuador's shame." The few remaining Cofan and other newly impoverished indigenous groups now depend upon oil camp food supplies for survival. Their situation contrasts sharply with the Texas-style luxury enjoyed by oil workers who, as Representative Joseph Kennedy, Jr., D-MA, noted after a visit to the Oriente, are provided with air conditioned compounds, swimming pools, 24-hour electricity, telephones and health care, and are often treated to hunting expeditions in a company helicopter. Davis says his company will be different. "Nobody produces like that any more," he says. Describing his efforts to work with both environmental and indigenous organizations, Conoco's president says the company has taken a long-term and constructive approach to the problems of the Oriente. He points to a company-funded health and education program in the impoverished Oriente, saying, "we like to think we're a stabilizing force out there." Davis promises that the company will use the "most advanced technologies" and "highest degree of cultural sensitivity" in its petroleum production activities in the Oriente. He proposes to "apply the same degree of caution" to minimize ecological damage that Conoco uses in exploiting resources in the sea. But environmentalists reject Davis's claims. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint on behalf of the Huaorani with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to oppose Conoco's plan. The brief points out close parallels between Conoco's plans and those that decimated the Cofan. The "airstrips, helicopters, roads, dynamite and motors that reduced the Cofan to 480 people are nearly identical to Conoco Oil's plans for the newly titled Huaorani lands," it says. NRDC's Kimmerling adds, "I haven't seen a written plan that explains how they will" limit environmental damage. Already the Huaorani are being hurt by oil development. Roads that connect oil camps deep in the Amazon with towns and cities bring colonists into the Huaorani area. The 100 kilometer oil road that runs due south from the frontier town of Coca nearly splits Huaorani territory in half. Colonist ranchers and farmers, who use the roads, surround the oil camps. They are the front line of a massive program of Amazon resettlement designed to defuse the country's land distribution problem. But they impede the nomadic Huaorani lifestyle by competing for game and wildlife and by destroying the forests. More generally, the oil companies' operations violate Huaorani sovereignty over their territories. For the indigenous, the right to control their land and its resources is the central issue at stake. The price of oil dependency Despite environmental and human rights concerns and the terrible record of oil development in the Amazon, the Ecuadoran government is eager to promote Conoco's plans. Ecuador is dependent on its Amazon crude production, which covers nearly 2.5 million acres of forest, to boost the country's sagging economy. At about 300,000 barrels per day, Kimmerling reports that oil production accounts for approximately 7 percent of the Ecuadoran economy annually. From 1972 to 1982, the government earned some $7.4 billion from oil production. Oil royalties finance close to 80 percent of the payments of the nation's $12.4 billion foreign debt. Ecuador's Minister of Petroleum, Diego Tabariz, expresses the widely held government view that oil production is necessary. "Without revenues from oil production, Ecuador's economy would collapse." This oil dependence dates back to 1967, when Ecuador's oil rush began in earnest at the base camp of Lago Agrio, just north of Huaorani country. Starting with Texaco, 28 international companies obtained oil-drilling concessions. These foreign firms sank exploratory wells in areas carved from pristine, ancient indigenous lands. In 1971, Ecuador passed the "Law of Hydrocarbons," creating a national oil company, now called Petroecuador. The Law stipulates that after the oil companies produce for 20 years, Petroecuador, which controls the oil concessions, will inherit the Amazon's 29 production stations, refineries and other operations. But this approach was short-sighted. According to CORDAVI attorney Marcella Enriquez, "Ecuador's petroleum laws encourage the companies to come in, exploit the resource without respect for protected areas and get out quick." Indigenous resistance The Ecuadoran government's plans to sell rights to exploit the Amazon's resources brings it into conflict with the indigenous people such as the Huaorani who consider Amazon territories their own. And the developing organizational strength of the Huaorani, the power of existing Pan-American organizations such as CONFENAIE and support for indigenous groups from international organizations such as Survival International have forced the government to recognize at least some of the indigenous claims and to negotiate with them. In early April 1990, the government met some of the demands of Ecuador's indigenous organizations. It expanded the tiny Huaorani Protectorate by returning nearly two million acres, about one-third of the Huaorani's original territory. However, the accord, which was delivered with much ceremony in Quito, does not allow the Huaorani to exercise any control over minerals on the land and prohibits them from impeding oil- related activities. Some critics say the land grant was a cynical, tactical move designed to deflect attention from a national policy that encourages oil exploitation in national parks. But, at Torampare, the newly elected director of the emerging Huaorani alliance took a positive view of the land grant. "The legalized territory gives us a place to begin controlling our destinies," he said. The land grant did not create lasting harmony between the government and indigenous groups, however. Only a few months later, in the summer of 1990, President Rodrigo Borja acrimoniously broke off talks with CONAIE, which represents the indigenous confederations of the Coast, the Sierras and the Amazon. The president of CONAIE, Cristobal Tapuy, a Quicha from the Oriente, proposed measures for indigenous control of land and natural resources in their homelands. Borja rejected the proposals, saying such rights would lead to a "parallel state." At a symposium held in Quito in August 1990 to celebrated 500 years of Indian resistance to foreign domination, Tapuy said, "the Indian people do not want to create a separate state, but we do want autonomy to guarantee our customs and language and natural resources." He said he is unmoved by the state's need for revenues which tax the people and their land. Pointing out that government officials view the Amazon as tierras baldias or empty land, CONAIE's president said, "The land has always belonged to our ancestors, [but] we now have to beg for it." Threatening the possibility of an "uprising" in the Oriente if the government refuses to legalize other indigenous lands. Tapuy stated, "Our objective is to express an Indian voice in all forums that affect the tropical rainforests." Some Huaorani, however, are willing to give up their traditional ways, especially as life becomes more difficult in the shrinking forest, for a share of the region's oil wealth. Some see no choice but to move to newly formed frontier towns. On the bus that travels once a day from the end of the Via Auca ("Auca" is a Quicha word for the Huaorani that means "savage")to the frontier town of Coca, a woman like many others who moved to the Auca Road, confides, we "moved to our finca [farm] here because life was too hard for us in the Sierras." And at the Huaorani assembly in Torampare, some delegates suggested that the Huaorani support petroleum development but demand a percentage of the royalties from the government. Conoco, which claims to be sensitive to Huaorani interests, would like to encourage such proposals. Conoco-Ecuador hired Jim Yost, an anthropologist who lived for 10 years in Huaorani territory, to seek the Huaorani view of petroleum development. Yost says that "despite a general inability to understand all of the implications of oil production, the general [Huaorani] sentiment favors production, protected roads and, perhaps, a return of royalties from oil production." The challenges ahead Whether Conoco will receive permission to go ahead with its project is unclear. Normally, obtaining a government permit is almost pro forma, but the opposition from indigenous organizations and international environmental groups has created new pressures which the government must address. Whatever the final outcome of the Conoco proposal, the political topography of oil development in the Ecuadoran Amazon is forever changed. Their organizing efforts give the Huaorani a greater chance to survive. As CONFENAIE's Luis Vargas counselled the delegates who attended the Huaorani assembly, "If you initiate this congress, your sons will be stronger than you." And the vocal objections of significant segments of indigenous communities and international environmental and human rights organizations have had some effect on corporate and government policies: the government has delayed approval of Conoco's request for a development permit and Conoco has determined it essential to at least assert its sensitivity to indigenous and environmental concerns. That alliance will have to meet many more tests if the Ecuadoran Amazon is to be saved; even as Conoco awaits permission to begin oil production, ARCO and UNOCAL are reportedly undertaking exploratory drilling in the Oriente, with the Ecuadoran military protecting them from attacks from indigenous groups.