Natives fight to preserve Amazon

Dec 10, 2003 01:00 AM

As international energy companies move into the Amazon basin to tap some of the last untouched oil and natural gas reserves, more and more natives are fighting to keep them out. Oil workers and contractors have been kidnapped, company officials say. Equipment has been vandalized. Protests, injunctions and lawsuits are piling up as Indian groups grow increasingly savvy in their cooperation with environmentalists. The governments may increasingly regard the Amazon as an engine for economic growth, but native groups are struggling to balance development with the desire to preserve a nearly primordial way of life.
"Let the military come in, because we will defend to the last," said Medardo Santi, a leader of Kichwa Indians in an unspoiled jungle region that has been mapped for oil exploration in Ecuador, where the dispute is most contentious. "As long as we live here, we will defend our rights."

How this struggle plays out will determine whether Amazon resources become a critical part of Latin America's development and an important component of the American strategy to diversify energy supplies beyond the Middle East. Latin America already provides more oil to the United States than the Middle East does. Plans for new oil and gas fields are speeding ahead, pushed by companies from as far afield as China and including Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles, Repsol-YPF of Spain, EnCana of Canada and Petrobras of Brazil.
Governments are increasingly trying to lure investors and identify potential reserves along 1,000 miles of forests and Andean foothills, from Colombia to Bolivia. In Peru, one of the largest energy projects in Latin America is under way, a development that could cost $ 3.6 bn and include nearly 800 miles of pipeline and coastal plants to ship butane, propane and LNG to California by 2007.

In Brazil, the government plans a multibillion-dollar development that includes a $ 1 bn project to pipe gas through part of the rain forest. Oil companies are taking the first steps to explore in the Beni and Pando Departments of the Bolivian Amazon. Even Colombia, grappling with relentless guerrilla violence, has mapped out potentially oil-rich Amazonian blocks for prospecting.
But in no country is Amazon oil exploration as potentially lucrative as in Ecuador that has, for better or worse, hitched the fortunes of its 13 mm people to oil. The country's 4.6 bn barrels of proven reserves are among the largest in Latin America. Oil already accounts for nearly half its exports.

With the recent completion of a $ 1.3 bn, 300-mile pipeline by a foreign consortium, the government deepened its commitment to eventually doubling production, to 850,000 bpd. If development in the jungle moves unhindered, the Ecuadorian Amazon could yield as much as 26 bn barrels in oil reserves, enough to rival Mexico and Nigeria, according to a hopeful 1999 study by the Ministry of Energy and Mines.
"This basin has a lot of opportunities," said one foreign oil executive, "if we can get there and work it. That's why we are hanging on."

So far, oil executives and industry analysts say, threats from native groups are still less likely to drive off investors than the government's own tax increases and changes in agreements. But for the companies, dealing with Indians has proved arduous. Some have tried to placate tribes with everything from chain saws to outboard motors. Others focus on building schools and clinics. Some employ experienced anthropologists to help make deals.
"When we did our seismic testing, we suffered kidnappings, fires and robberies," said Ricardo Nicolas, general manager here of Cia. General de Combustibles, an Argentine company that has the contract to develop fields north of Pumpuentsa. "It's been seven years and we haven't been able to get started; seven years and $ 10 mm."

Faced with growing opposition, the government of President Lucio Gutierrez said it was prepared to provide military protection so oil companies could complete the needed seismic tests.
"The petroleum does not belong to them," Carlos Arboleda, Ecuador's minister of energy and mines, said of the native groups. "The oil belongs to the state."

Source: The New York Post
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