Is Oil Worth Destroying Rainforests . . . part 2
(This is a follow-up to last week’s column on the impacts that demand for oil have on rainforests and indigenous peoples)
Cesar Alvarado is a local community leader among the Kichwa indigenous peoples within Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. He remembers decades ago, when petroleum companies came to pump crude oil out of the ground. He leads National Geographic writer Scott Wallace and a team of photographers to a clearing in which stands a 15-foot deteriorating exploratory well. Wells like this led to the knowledge that the so-called ITT region of the park held 850 million gallons; more than 20 percent of Ecuador’s petroleum reserves. Workers discovered the oil reserves they moved into the area, bringing and building an entire town to house them. Eventually, they left.
But if the government of Ecuador opens up the reserves for exploitation in order to raise the country’s living standards, how will the local natives feel? Alvarado explains that they want health and education. So, “If they take care of the environment, we’ll be for it.” But for the other major indigenous group, the Waorini, some of whom live by choice in relatively primitive and isolated conditions, the choice is not as clear. They live in the Untouchable Zone.
Just outside that zone “impoverished Kichwa and mestizo communities lie strewn along feeder tracks.” So, while the outside world seeks to slake its ever-growing thirst for oil, the peace of those at “ground zero” grows evermore threatened. The “if” of whether the oil companies and the government will care for the environment, is huge.
In one of these villages, Yawepare, its community chief, Nenquimo Nihua, describes the area as dangerous because nearby, oil company workers are drilling a well. Nihua, who is fluent in Spanish, worries that the commotion created by all the machinery is scaring the primitive peoples in the adjacent jungle, who feel their land is shrinking. Nihua’s village does not want conflict.
According to Wallace, “Despite their family ties, many civilized Waorini [we take this to mean those who interact with modern society] fear attack by the [isolated groups]. Yet the nomadic clans are also a source of pride, a potent symbol of tribal resistance, and a reminder of their ancestral traditions.” Nihua and his family leave axes and machetes in the woods for their relatives to take. They plant gardens to feed them and run armed patrols to guard against intruders who would bring them harm. “‘We’re taking a stand here,’ Nihua says, his chest swelling. ‘No more oil development. No more colonizers entering here. No more loggers.’”
The National Geographic team’s guide into the Untouchable Zone describes his experience working for the oil companies. He quit, he says, because he couldn’t stomach the contamination and the dead animals. He also describes the killing of illegal loggers by Waorini warriors.
We strongly recommend that you visit the National Geographic site and peruse the amazing photographs from the Untouchable Zone (better yet, subscribe to the magazine) at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/01/yasuni-national-park/wallace-text.
While the Waorini don’t have government-recognized ownership rights to the land, they threaten to kill those who try to intrude, one oil well at a time as they have in the past.
Back in Quito, President Rafael Correa puts it this way to Scott Wallace: “What would suit the country most would be to exploit the resource. But we also understand our responsibility in the fight against global warming, the principle cause of which is the burning of fossil fuels.” He adds, “We cannot be beggars sitting on a sack of gold.”
And so, as the human race increases in number, and as that number expands into the energy-guzzling middle class, the impacts on the infinitesimal indigenous populations of the world’s remote places grow. It seems we humans will consider any decision except the one that determines, after all, that there are Enough of Us.