Poor Amazonians cursed with riches

An Ecuadorean shaman and his British wife are on a house-to-house campaign in their Amazonian ­village to dissuade locals from granting exploration rights to an oil company in an area of pristine forest close to the Yasuni National Park.

Patrico Jipa and Mari Muench hope to thwart the advances of Petro­Amazonas, which has promised villagers cash, new schools, a new eco-lodge, better healthcare and university education for their children if they accept plans for a seismic survey.

Muench, a London businessperson, said they had until a village meeting on October 27 to win over the 422-member community on Sani Isla, which has land usage rights over 70 000 hectares in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Scientists say a single hectare in this region contains a wider variety of life than all of North America.

But it is under growing threat from loggers and energy firms. Oil companies have promised to minimise the environmental impact of exploration and extraction, but the paths they cut and the roads they build tend to lead to immigration and the destruction of the forest for agriculture. Freshwater ecosystems have also been polluted by the traffic along the Napo River and creeks that lead into this tributary of the Amazon.

The villagers are part of the Kichwa indigenous group, which has moved from hunting with blowpipes to promoting ecotourism within two generations. The villagers tried to raise their incomes by jointly investing in an eco-lodge, but it has failed to break even in recent years, prompting a growing number of residents to look more favourably on the offer from the oil firms.

All-time low
Jipa said they faced a heart-wrenching decision. "The oil companies have made great inroads this time. They have found our people at an  emotionally and financially and have seized their chance. How can we help the community give up such all-time low

wonderful opportunities? They are offering what we need and want, but the cost is immeasurable for us and the rest of the world. We are isolated and fighting alone."

With huge financial opportunities for developers interested in extracting the area's resources, the stakes are high. Several years ago, Jipa was told that someone had been paid to kill him. As the most prominent opponents of potentially lucrative oil development in this extensive tract of land, the couple continue to face risks. The non-governmental organisation Global Witness has reported a growing trend of killings of environmental activists, particularly in the Amazon, where laws are poorly enforced.

The couple do not consider themselves activists, but they are at the front line of efforts to leave the forest intact, having loaned the villagers money to keep the eco-lodge afloat and now campaigning against the oil exploration.

Muench, who married Jipa two years ago in a ceremony at which she wore a headdress and an outfit made from tree bark, said the couple would take their 14-month-old child with them when they walked or paddled a canoe between homes that can be several kilometres apart and only accessible through forest paths or along creeks.

"It is frightening. I have been lying in bed wondering what we should do," she said. "But how can I look my daughter in the eye when she is older and tell her we were too afraid to fight for her and her land?"

Their situation mirrors what is happening to the wider resource-rich Yasuni region, where the government has carved up much of the land into oil-exploration blocks. One area of about 200000 hectares has been targeted for protection under a plan called the ITT initiative, which the government has promised to leave intact if the international community provides compensation worth at least half of the $7.2-billion oil reserves believed to lie beneath the surface.

Conserving the Sani Isla region is potentially cheaper, but politically more difficult. Maintaining an eco-lodge and providing the community's needs would cost a fraction of the money sought by the initiative. But without government support, it is hard to imagine the community will be able to resist the oil companies indefinitely. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Jonathan Watts
Jonathan Watts works from Bristol, England. Copywriter, Classics MA and author. Bristol, books, gigs, dogs. Jonathan Watts has over 100 followers on Twitter.

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