Conflict on the Bobonaza

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The  Bobonaza watershed remains one of the most pristine wildernesses to be found in all of South America.  However, this remote region, which Isabel Godin traveled through in 1770, is now becoming a scene of conflict. The Ecuadorian government wants to open it up to oil development and has sold drilling rights to Houston-based Burlington Resources and its South American partner, Compania General de Combustibles (CGC), but most of the indigenous people in this region fiercely oppose this activity. The village of Sarayacu is a leader in this resistance.

The indigenous groups fear that the oil development will pollute their lands and threaten their existence, and point to what happened in Ecuador's northern Oriente as reason for their fears. Oil was discovered in that region in the late 1960s, and from 1972 to 1992, Texaco pumped 1.5 billion barrels of oil from the area. In the process, Texaco transformed a remote rain forest into one of the more polluted environments in the world. Texaco dumped 19 million gallons of toxic waste--drilling muds that contained oil, heavy metals and other chemicals--into 600 unlined pits, which regularly overflowed into streams and lakes. Texaco also cut more than 1,000 miles of roads, which enabled 250,000 colonists to migrate into this region, and the settlers slashed and burned more than two million acres of old-growth forest in order to plant crops and raise cattle.

This combination of colonization and pollution decimated the indigenous population. A small tribe that lived near Lago Agrio, where Texaco drilled its first well in 1972, simply vanished. Three other groups--the Huaoranis, Cofans and Secoyas--saw their numbers decline as well, and, to a large degree, their old way of life disappeared. Fish and game disappeared from the polluted areas, and the people living there have suffered a variety of health problems, such as elevated cancer rates, skin diseases and respiratory ailments.

Remarkably, the "oil boom" in the north also deepened poverty in Ecuador. Its foreign debt rose from $250 million in 1972 to $15 billion today. In recent years, the country has witnessed the failure of its banks (1999) and a popular uprising in January 2000 that overthrew President Jamil Mahoud. It is this fiscal crisis that is now forcing Ecuador's hand. Faced with pressure from the International Monetary Fund, the country is intent on opening up its southern Oriente--which includes the Pastaza and Bobonaza watersheds--to oil development in order to pay the interest on its debt.

Oil workers for CGC moved into the upper Bobonaza, near Canelos, in late 2002 to begin conducting the seismic tests that are a prelude to drilling. A group of oil workers that ventured further downriver, into Sarayacu, were "detained" by the village for a short period, and since then there have been a number of skirmishes between the two groups. The most recent came on December 4, 2003, when a contingent from Sarayacu were traveling upriver to Puyo for a political demonstration were blocked by oil company security in Canelos. According to the Sarayacu people, the oil company employees beat them with stones and machetes. Several in the Sarayacu group suffered head injuries and a number escaped by fleeing into the forest.

The oil companies have negotiated with communities on the uppermost regions of the Bobonaza--in Canelos, Pacayacu and Jatun Molina--to allow drilling to proceed in that area. However, the people of Sarayacu remain fiercely opposed to it, and people living further downriver appear to share their intention of resisting any such activity. The Ecuadorian government has announced that, if necessary, it will, bring in the military to allow CGC and Burlington to drill in the Sarayacu region, and other points further downriver.