martes, enero 17, 2006

Selling the Amazon for a Handful of Beads

By Kelly Hearn, AlterNet. Posted January 17, 2006.

In the midst of an Amazonian oil boom, classified documents reveal deep links between oil companies and Ecuador's military. Tools
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Ecuadorean Huaorani Indians march on the streets of Quito. The Huaorani Indians were protesting against oil exploration by oil companies on their lands. Credit: REUTERS/Stringer GG/SA.

Scanning bookshelves in his tiny law office in Quito, Ecuador, Bolivar Beltran's disdain for Big Oil is as legible as the contracts that map their nefarious ways.

"These were all negotiated in secret," says the soft-spoken attorney and Ecuadorian congressional aide, explaining how he used a lawsuit last year to obtain pages of once-classified contracts between the Ecuadorian military and 16 multinational oil companies.

In November, when I visited him, Beltran handed me a grainy photocopy of a contract dated 2001. Then another bearing an official government seal. Soon a small table is covered, his finger running down keywords that spill off the page. Occidental Oil. Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense. Counterintelligence. Kerr-McGee. Armed Patrols. Military detachments. Burlington Resources.

The contracts come to light as an oil boom bears down on the Ecuadorian Amazon. Ecuador's 100,000 square kilometers of the world's richest rainforests unfortunately sit atop 4.4 billion proven barrels of oil, the 26th largest reserve in the world. Since the 1960s, state and private companies have taken oil from Ecuador's eastern province, known as the Oriente, and sent much of it to the United States, leaving behind environmental and public health disasters. And on top of all else, serious poverty: Despite their country's vast natural resources, 70 percent of Ecuadorians live below the poverty line.

Impoverished, in debt and dependent on petro-dollars for revenues, the Ecuadorian government has put some 80 percent of its oil-flush lands up for international grabs, according to Amazon Watch, a California-based watchdog group. Oil companies are given subsoil rights by the government, but by law must negotiate with the pre-industrial societies that hold title to jungle lands -- tribes like the Huarani, the Achuar and the Shauar tribes, some of which have only come into contact with the modern world in recent decades.

Too often, the tribes' introduction to modernity comes from oil company negotiators. By finessing them into signing away oil access in morally deplorable contracts, these deals channel the legendary purchase of Manhattan Island for $24 worth of trinkets. But they are learning fast. Increasingly savvy to the oilman's ways, tribes here are putting on war paint, grabbing spears and shotguns, and saying no, sometimes violently, to the world's most powerful interests.

Against that backdrop of rising tension, these previously unpublished contracts, including classified agreements between the Ecuadorian military and 16 oil companies, are changing the debate. The bulk of the documents, obtained by Beltran and verified by this reporter in November, offer what experts say is an extremely rare and detailed look at how cut-throat capitalism and an oil-guided militarization of the Ecuadorian Amazon are digging deep rifts through the country.

Sealing the deal with a fingerprint

"This one is one of the worst," Beltran says, handing me an eight-page contract.

In 2001, Agip Oil Ecuador BV, a subsidiary of the multibillion dollar Italian petrochemical company Eni, convinced an association of Huarani Indians to sign over oil access to tribal lands and give up their future right to sue for environmental damage. In return Agip gave, among other things, modest allotments of medicine and food, a $3,500 school house, plates and cups, an Ecuadorian flag, two soccer balls and a referee's whistle.

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