Life or Oil? The Sarayacu's Struggle against ChevronTexaco
by Jade

Beneath fairy tale pictures of Ecuador's vibrant, sweeping mountains, thundering waterfalls and unique wildlife, one might be surprised to find a gruesome tale. A tale that tells the story of greedy corporate hands; hands that strip away the natural resources that the indigenous people depend upon for survival. Faceless corporations that pillage the once beautiful landscape then return to the US, leaving pools of toxic sludge and cancer in their wake. This is a tale that ChevronTexaco does its best to keep hidden: the story of a people's fight to save their land, their culture and their very lives. For the people of Sarayacu, living happily ever after seems far out of reach.

The Kichwa community of Sarayacu is comprised of 1,500 indigenous people living within the Amazonian jungle in the eastern Ecuador province of Pastaza. They are no strangers to the threat of multinational corporations moving in to steal oil, and now they are once again under threat.

Likewise, ChevronTexaco is no stranger to Ecuador's Amazon region. More than three decades ago, the company extracted more than one billion barrels of oil. ChevronTexaco's original Ecuadorian operations resulted in environmental devastation, leaving behind 350 poisonous open pools, more than two million acres of pristine rainforest destroyed and three indigenous cultures on the verge of falling apart. In order to cut costs by three dollars a barrel, it dumped 20 billion gallons of toxic waste into rivers and wetlands. In some villages near polluted water sources, cancer rates skyrocketed to 1,000 times higher than the historical norm.

Then in 1996, the Ecuadorian government and Compania General de Combustible de Argentina (CGC) signed a contract that allowed for oil exploration within the 494,210 acres of rainforest of "Block 23." They failed to ask permission or even consult with the Sarayacu community, who had the largest number of inhabitants and territory at stake. ChevronTexaco joined forces with CGC in 1999 with CGC appointed as the "operator," doing all the dirty work while the two shared the costs and profits. The companies have now returned for another round of terror, murder and destruction.

This time, CGC and ChevronTexaco intend to search the area for oil by detonating thousands of pounds of buried explosives one after another in straight lines going directly into Sarayacu territory. Whether or not the companies find any oil, they will have already destroyed countless acres of irreplaceable habitat. Detonating explosives day in and day out will not only damage the immediate surroundings, but it will effect the rainforest as a whole, ripping up the Earth, causing noise pollution and killing all sorts of wildlife. The indigenous people who depend on hunting as a mainstay of their food supply will also be drastically affected. This procedure is destructive and invasive to the ecosystem and all life that finds a home in the Amazon region.

From the beginning, the project has been one full of deceit, scandal and bribery. The first strategy was to divide and conquer and to pit elected leaders against the people they were representing. Little did CGC and ChevronTexaco know, the Sarayacu people weren't going to let go of their homeland without a fight. Community members and leaders would maintain their stance against the oil giants at all costs, even women with babies at their breasts.

However, CGC and Chevron-Texaco persevered. The corporations offered money, outboard motors and computers. They convinced psuedo-leaders to speak on local TV and radio stations, while spouting lies about how the communities involved had agreed to the operations of the oil companies. Still, the people of Sarayacu resisted.

It wasn't until November 21, however, that the real promise breaking began. A CGC and ChevronTexaco representative eased the minds of those in Sarayacu by agreeing that the companies would keep their seismic activities within the territories belonging to the communities who had consented to exploration.

Any hope of victory was shattered, however, when a seismic crew was discovered cutting a line well into Sarayacu territory. Actions were taken immediately to show that this blatant disregard of promises would not be tolerated by the people. The Sarayacu captured and held three workers from CGC and ChevronTexaco in order to prevent them from continuing their illegal activities within Sarayacu territory.

A constitutional lawsuit was filed on November 28, and a judge granted temporary relief and protection from the encroachment of the oil exploration. After a meeting with the oil companies, the governor and other authorities, CGC and ChevronTexaco agreed to not enter Sarayacu territory until another meeting was held.

Yet sure enough, promises were again broken. CGC and ChevronTexaco entered Sarayacu territory two more times, and they paid the price when 10 workers were again captured. The first worker was taken captive when he was found on Sarayacu territory soon after the judicial order was filed. He was among a group of petrol company staff found passing out rice and an outboard motor in an attempt to sway people into agreeing to oil operations. The next time CGC and ChevronTexaco came trespassing, they presented a fabricated document with forged signatures and signatures of people who were no longer residents, thus making it seem like the community had agreed to the oil explorations. The document lacked signatures of any of the democratically elected officials of Sarayacu. In December, Sarayacu caught nine oil workers who were found detonating explosives in Sarayacu territory. This event forced the oil companies to withdraw completely from all operations. On December 24, the petrol workers were set free for humanitarian reasons.

When it became apparent that the Kichwa would not hand their land over to the corporations, CGC and ChevronTexaco decided to take what they wanted by force. The companies issued a statement on January 12, saying they would only respect a small piece of land around the central plaza of the community and continue exploration on the other 90 percent of Sarayacu territory. In the face of fearless resistance from the small community, it was only a matter of time before the greedy oil giants began to pull out the big guns.

Armed forces were deployed to instill fear and to debilitate resistance. These illegal paramilitary groups within Sarayacu boundaries began to attack members of the community. One company worker opened fire upon a canoe as the residents traveled up river. On January 15, yet another paramilitary camp was found within Sarayacu's borders. The five additional armed members of the CGC and ChevronTexaco "security" crew that were caught confirmed that the camp was protected with landmines.

On January 20, 23 more Sarayacu people were shot at by the paramilitary as they made their way up the river in canoes. They proceeded to confiscate all of the guns and knives the Sarayacu had in their possession. These were taken away under the pretext that the owners lacked a permit to carry arms, even though it is a well-known fact that the Sarayacu people depend on those guns for hunting to acquire their daily food supply.

Nearly a week later, the military troops attacked the Tiutihualli camp that had been erected to defend the Sarayacu against the permanent harassment by the oil companies. Four people from Sarayacu were captured, blindfolded, tied by their hands and feet and left in the sun without water. During the attack, the Sarayacu ended up disarming four military personnel. That night, an agreement was made between Sarayacu and the military that the captives would be liberated and the military would withdraw from Sarayacu so long as Sarayacu returned the confiscated weapons.

Forced to defend their land and the lives of their families from the encroaching armed forces hired by the petrol companies, the Sarayacu parents are left with little time to hunt for food and take care of the usual necessities for survival. The way of life for the Sarayacu is at stake in this struggle as well as the wildlife and pristine rainforests hanging in the balance.

It may be hard for people in the US to understand the seriousness and urgency of this sort of situation as we are filling up our gas tanks at the local ChevronTexaco. It is time to demand that ChevronTexaco withdraw its death troops from the Amazon and end its destruction of Mother Earth.

The Sarayacu are asking for people to help, whether that means writing a letter, donating money or making the trip to their territory to witness CGC and ChevronTexaco's ongoing injustices.

For more information, visit Sarayacu People

Jade is a native Cascadian forest defender who is currently drying out in the desert and working with some rad folks at the EF! Journal.

© Earth First! Journal March-April 2003