Latin America has a long and bloody history of extractivism. The rivalry over natural resources, such as sugar, copper and oil has for many years pitted large multinational corporations – usually backed by state authorities – against local communities, often indigenous groups. It is not difficult to guess who won most of these struggles. That is why it is so newsworthy that an oil drilling project in the Amazon was recently abandoned due to indigenous protests. Rebecca Bertram reports
In November 2019, two indigenous groups – the Sapara and the Kichwa –managed to stall a project in a 158,000 hectares area of the Amazon rainforest near the country’s eastern border to Peru. The Ecuadorian government had strongly favored the project by the drilling company Andes Petroleum, a Chinese joint venture oil firm. But when indigenous’ resistance against the project began to undermine its profitability, Andes Petroleum decided to pull the plug.
Yet it took almost four years for the Ecuadorian government and Andes Petroleum to realize that they had lost the fight. The indigenous communities most affected by the project continuously blocked the airstrip near the remote drilling site and thus the whole project and, in addition, demonstrated against Chinese products and government entities throughout the country.
The Sapara and the Kichwa were successful despite the odds. Their political and economic weight was marginal to that of the Ecuadorian government and Andes Petroleum. The government had no interest in abandoning the Chinese joint venture project. China is the country’s most important foreign creditor, and Ecuador owes the Chinese 90 percent of its total oil production until the year 2024 as part of a ‘cash for oil’ deal between the two countries.
But for the Sapara, who consist of just 500 people, this was a fight for survival. Although the Ecuadorian government continuously tried to weaken the protests and divide the two indigenous groups while numerous community leaders received death threats to overcome their resistance, it had to admit failure in the end.
What led to this outcome? Obviously, the persistence of the protests by the Sapara and the Kichwa played a major role. But a growing media interest and international concerns over the Amazon region responsible for producing 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen contributed as well.
The timing of the project’s cancellation is revealing. It was taken in the midst of violent protests against President Moreno’s decision to discontinue general gasoline subsidies, with diesel prices doubling and gasoline prices rising by more than 30 percent. As the protests against this measure grew to target the government’s policy more broadly, indigenous groups proved to be particularly well organized and articulate; for them, the protests were more about the impact of the extractive industry on their territories. In the end, the Ecuadorian government had no choice but to reverse course. Probably in the hope of softening the protests, it also abandoned the drilling project on the territories of the Sapara and the Kichwa.
This example shows that David can win against Goliath at least sometimes. Indigenous communities can win against a state or a powerful company. But the fight is far from over. Ecuador still plans another 21 oil drilling projects in its Amazon region. The victory over Andes Petroleum, however, will not be in vain. It has taught indigenous groups that fighting for their territory is not a lost cause.