by Marcela Valente
(IPS) BUENOS AIRES -- Buenos Aires has unexpectedly become the new stage for a long-standing battle between an Argentine oil company and an Ecuadorian Native community fighting to defend its ancestral land rights in the Amazon rainforest.
Representatives of the Kichwa community of Sarayaku have come to the Argentine capital to call on President Nestor Kirchner to intervene in the conflict. "Our people's future is threatened. We are living in a constant state of fear," Marlon Santi, a community leader from Sarayaku, told IPS.
The community, located in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest in the eastern province of Pastaza, is home to roughly 2,500 Kichwa, whose rights to an area of 132,000 hectares were officially recognized in 1992.
The conflict dates back to 1996, when the Ecuadorian government signed an agreement with the Argentine oil company Compania General de Combustibles (CGC), awarding it the concession to exploration Block 23. According to the official property deeds, however, most of the land that falls within that area belongs to the Native community.
The Kichwa, however, were not consulted before this deal was struck, as they should have been in accordance with the Ecuadorian constitution.
The ongoing conflict has become increasingly tense since 2000, as a result of repeated incursions by the oil company, the pressure exerted by the Ecuadorian government, and the advance of military and paramilitary groups on the community's territory.
The Ecuadorian government of President Lucio Gutierrez has now militarized the area in an attempt to ensure that the project goes ahead, claiming that it will bring development and jobs to the region.
So far, however, the Native inhabitants have managed to block oil company operations on their land with the help of international campaigns denouncing the illegal encroachment on their territory and the potentially devastating environmental effects.
The Gutierrez administration acknowledges that the community of Sarayaku owns the territory in question, but claims that their ownership is limited to the land's surface, while the state reserves the right to explore and exploit the resources underground by awarding concessions to private companies.
The CGC sets forth a similar argument. Ricardo Nicolas, the director of the company's Ecuadorian operations, told IPS in Buenos Aires that the Sarayaku property deeds "specifically establish that the state grants them ownership of the land, but reserves its rights to the ownership of the underground resources."
Earlier this year, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed its "deep concern" to the Ecuadorian government over the failure to respect the land rights of the Kichwa inhabitants of Sarayaku, which are enshrined in the country's constitution.
The committee also voiced concern over the government's awarding of concessions for oil drilling in the area and the negative repercussions that could have on the local indigenous community. It consequently called on the Gutierrez government to ensure that the Kichwa participated in the adoption of any decisions that would affect their territory.
The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which forms part of the Organization of American States (OAS) system, then issued a series of resolutions aimed at protecting the safety and integrity of the Native community and their right to freely navigate the Bobonaza River, denied to them since mid-2003.
These international recommendations forced the Ecuadorian government to hold talks with the community, but the dialogue was cut off in September as a result of verbal attacks by government officials, who accused the Kichwa of fanning the flames of a conflict "that is only of interest to a handful of Indian families."
In the meantime, the Southern Cross Group investment fund, chaired by Argentine businessman Norberto Morita, recently acquired a majority share in CGC. As a result, even though the project has been halted, developments like these lead the indigenous inhabitants to fear that it could be revived at any time.
"We don't know if they will use military or paramilitary forces to extend the area of oil exploration into our land. But if that occurs, it will spark a serious conflict, because we are going to stand our ground," Santi said. "We will form a human shield to stop the company's operations."
Nicolás alleges that members of CGC's technical staff have been kidnapped for ransom and other workers have been tortured. He said that the company had invested six years in "consultations and explanations" before finally reaching an understanding with the local population and signing agreements with 26 of the 28 communities in the area.
After these agreements had been reached, however, armed Native groups led by Santi attacked the camps set up by the company, Nicolas claimed. "That was when the Ecuadorian army intervened, and the company pulled out," he said.
The executive added that CGC has 15 million dollars invested in the project. "We're not asking for the army to be sent into the area, we just want the government to talk with them and reach an agreement, so that we can get to work." Any further meetings with Nicolas himself have already been ruled out by the Kichwa.
Representatives of the community of Sarayaku and of non-governmental organizations that back its demands travelled to Buenos Aires this month with the intention of meeting with the Argentine authorities and leaders of social movements, and in particular, with CGC executives and shareholders' representatives.
Kenny Bruno travelled to Buenos Aires on behalf of the human rights and environmental organization EarthRights International, which has been waging a campaign to draw attention to the struggle of the Sarayaku community.
He told IPS that their goal in coming here was to raise awareness among the Argentine people regarding the operations of an Argentine company in another Latin American country, where it was endangering the environment and violating the human rights of the local indigenous people.
The community and NGO representatives have met so far with the Argentine deputy foreign minister, Jorge Taiana, and with Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights activist Adolfo Perez Esquivel, as well as the leaders of several local NGOs.
Taiana promised to study the matter and acknowledged the need to monitor the actions of Argentine companies to prevent potential violations of human rights both within this country and abroad, Bruno said.
The delegation had no luck with the CGC, however, whose executives and principal shareholders refused to meet with them. According to Bruno, they were offered a meeting in Ecuador with the company's "proxy," Ricardo Nicolas, but the delegation turned it down, demanding to speak with those who are really in charge.
To mark the end of their visit, the delegation staged a demonstration Monday in Plaza de Mayo, the public square in front of the government palace in Buenos Aires. They were supported by local Native and social organizations.
Santi stressed that the Kichwa are the "legitimate owners" of Block 23 and want their rights to their land respected. "We demand that they withdraw from the area, and that they don't sell the concession to another company, either," he said.
November 11, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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