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Money's Not Enough

Indigenous Tribe Takes On Big Oil

This community of 2,000 Quichua Indians is mounting a groundbreaking and -- so far -- successful campaign to prevent oil exploitation on their ancestral lands in the southern Amazon region of Ecuador.

Unlike most other indigenous groups, Sarayacu has been able to keep an Argentine oil firm called Compania General de Combustibles, or CGC, from drilling on their land even though the company has had a government contract since 1996.

Offers of money haven't swayed them. Sarayacu leaders say CGC officials have offered them cash payments. When that didn't work, they say, the company went to the village's governing council with a proposal of $60,000, which was also rejected.

... But Sarayacu is also unusual for its organizational savvy. It has developed its own system of education, ranging from preschool to university coursework, and has developed a micro-loan program to help women begin small development projects. The community is also looking at ways to commercialize ecotourism and medicinal plants.

-- via Howling At A Waning Moon

That the company is offering more and more money shows they don't really understand what's going on here. When governments and corporations think about local environmental decisions, they tend to look at it through the lens of economic considerations. The oil is only worth drilling for because it can be converted into money. So they assume that people who are opposing the project are doing their own cost-benefit calculation and deciding it doesn't add up for them. The solution, then, is to sweeten the deal by offering money.

But what's really at stake for Sarayacu is not the typically-alluded-to spiritual or "intrinsic" values that can't be commodified. It's about trust and autonomy. Given what has happened to so many other indigenous communities living near oil wells, Sarayacu has good reason to be suspicious of the company's commitment to doing things right. So all the environmental impact statements in the world won't assuage them. And money can't buy trust -- indeed, offers of payment erode trust.

Having pulled itself up by its own bootstraps, Sarayacu is acutely aware of the value of autonomy. Oil drilling, however, represents a severe loss of autonomy -- an imposition on them by the external powers of the state and the company. The payments being offered can't fix that, because they're being paid specifically to renounce having a say, to acquiesce to the government's decision that the oil under their land, and the right-of-way necessary to access it, are out of their hands.

It's quite possible that there are no circumstances under which the Sarayacu would allow drilling (aside from falling so deeply into poverty that that $60,000 looks good). But if there's any way they would, it would start by giving them a say in how it's to be done, a shift from "let us work" to "we'll work with you."


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