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In the western Amazon, oil blocks eat away at Indigenous lands, protected areas

  • A total of 1,647 Indigenous territories and 52 protected areas are affected by encroaching oil lots in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, some of them subsumed entirely within concessions.
  • Those are the headline figures from an extensive analysis by the journalistic alliance ManchadosXelPetróleo, with information gathered by the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG).
  • Oil blocks overlap with 1,001 Indigenous territories in Peru, 480 in Ecuador, 106 in Colombia, and 57 in Bolivia.
  • In some cases, prevailing laws provide loopholes for oil activity in ostensibly protected areas, often on the nebulous basis of “national interests.”

Plot out all the Indigenous territories in the Amazonian region of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, and you’ll get an idea of just how important conserving these lands is for the rainforest — and thus for the future of the planet. Now map out all the active oil fields in these four countries, and it’s striking how much overlap there is with native communities, Indigenous reserves and lands of peoples living in voluntary isolation — especially because many of these oil fields occupy much of or sometimes all of these territories. And when looking at the overlaps, it’s possible to detect the areas that have become flashpoints of social and environmental conflicts in recent years.

To better understand this problem, the journalistic alliance ManchadosXelPetróleo, with information gathered by the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG), conducted a geospatial analysis in the Amazonian region of these four countries to analyze the magnitude of this overlap and how it affects Indigenous lands and protected areas.

One of the most important findings is that 1,647 Indigenous territories and 52 protected areas are affected by encroaching oil lots in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. In the case of Colombia, although there are no protected areas that overlap with oil fields, 70 forest reserves in the Amazon are affected.

The map shows how oil activity has spread throughout these territories, often justified on the basis of national interest.

Oil in indigenous territories

In Colombia, 106 indigenous reserves are affected by the presence of oil blocks, most of them in the departments of Caquetá, Vichada and Putumayo. At least 84 of these reserves have been subsumed entirely within oil blocks.

“In the coming years, I believe, the extraction of oil and coal will be more aggressive than ever to take advantage of the time that still remains until the decision is made to fully transition to other energy sources,” says Marco Velásquez, a law professor at Pontifical Javeriana University in Bogotá.

Velásquez, a lawyer specializing in human rights, says oil activities in Colombia began in the northeast of the country, spreading in the 1980s to the Amazon and Orinoco regions, on the border with Venezuela. “The Amazon is probably the last area where these activities are starting to be developed,” he says.

While holding vast unexploited natural resources, the Colombian Amazon is also home to numerous Indigenous communities who occupy large swaths of this territory. That makes the search for oil a potential flashpoint that threatens the survival of these people, Velásquez says.

That dire scenario is already playing out in the Peruvian Amazon, where at least 474 oil spills were recorded between 2000 and 2019, according to a 2020 report by Oxfam and the country’s National Coordinator for Human Rights. The report helps highlight the relationship between these environmental emergencies and the problem of oil-field overlap: 1,001 Indigenous communities have been affected by the presence of oil lots, of which 769 have a 100% overlap. Three reserves for Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, two of which are still in the process of being declared, have also been affected.

Silvana Baldovino, director of the biodiversity and Indigenous peoples program at the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA), says these overlaps affect Indigenous communities on several levels. For a start, there’s the cultural aspect, given that for Indigenous peoples, territory is life, Baldovino says. There are also the problems of pollution and access to water as a result of the oil operations. And finally, there’s the problem of oil spills.

“There is not much level of negotiation at the moment of granting consent, because there is no legal restriction,” Baldovino says, referring to the fact that while Indigenous communities may have ownership of the land in their reserves, Peruvian law dictates that any resources found beneath belong to the state.

It’s the same for Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, Baldovino says: “One of the main claims, the strongest for me, is that the law on Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation says that the reserves are intangible as long as something of national interest is not found in them. So they have relative intangibility.”

In Ecuador, the scale of the overlap is even more extensive, given the country’s smaller size. The analysis shows that out of 643 Indigenous communities located in the country’s Amazonian region, 480 have oil blocks in their territories; of these, 402 have a 100% overlap.

Sofía Jarrín, advocacy adviser for Amazon Watch in Ecuador, points to the intensification of oil activities in recent years. “President Guillermo Lasso declared as soon as he took office that he was going to double oil exploitation and go from 490,000 barrels to 1 million barrels [per day],” she says. And among the expansion zones are the Amazonian provinces of Pastaza and Morona Santiago. According to the analysis made for this report, there are 26 oil blocks in Pastaza and 181 in Morona Santiago.

“Several of these blocks compromise the Sarayaku, Zápara and Shiwiar territories, among other nationalities that would be highly threatened,” Jarrín says. “The Zápara nation is a population that is practically in extinction because there are only 560 people left who are guardians of their culture.”

In Bolivia, the analysis found overlaps between oil blocks and 57 Indigenous peoples’ territories. Much of this overlap was recorded in the departments of Santa Cruz (23) and Beni (20).

Jorge Campanini, a researcher at the Bolivian Documentation and Information Center (CEDIB), says the process of prior consultation, which should play a key role in the planning and granting of oil concessions, is neither free nor informed in Bolivia. “There has not been, in terms of extractive industries, true free and informed prior consultation, in good faith,” he says. “Consultations have always been maneuverable and beneficial, especially for the mining and oil operators.

In 2021, the Bolivian government, through state-owned company YPFB, presented a new plan establishing the criteria and sites being prioritized for oil activity. “They have defined seven to eight core [areas] where they have started exploration and administrative efforts,” Campanini says. “Obviously in these places there is overlap with natural protected areas and Indigenous territories.”

Protected natural areas in the spotlight

Before any protected area was established in Ecuador, the country’s entire Amazon was Indigenous territory, says Esperanza Martínez, an expert with the environmental organization Acción Ecológica (Ecological Action). From 1970, various types of protected areas began to be created, and “what happened is that the state was left in custody of the territories that were conserved, but that same state prioritized economic activity — that is, the state itself was in charge of granting licenses in these areas,” Martínez says.

The analysis shows that 23 protected areas in Ecuador are overlapped by oil blocks, among them the emblematic Yasuní National Park. Martínez says the case of Yasuní is the best known for three reasons: there’s a strong visibility campaign around its biodiversity; the presence there of isolated peoples or those in initial contact; and the fact that it had previously been a no-go area for oil activity.

Affected protected areas include protected forests, national parks, biological reserves, wildlife production reserves, and ecological reserves.

“In Ecuador, there was a ban on oil activities in protected natural areas, [but this] became more flexible to the point of declaring them permitted,” Martínez says. Under the 2008 Constitution, she adds, a more protective regime was again attempted, but an exception was included that “ended up becoming the rule.”

Article 407 of the Constitution states that “the extractive activity of nonrenewable resources is prohibited in protected areas and in zones declared as intangible, including forestry exploitation. Exceptionally, such resources may be exploited at the substantiated request of the Presidency of the Republic and after a declaration of national interest by the National Assembly, which, if it deems it convenient, may call for a popular consultation.”

The citing of “national interests” is the same as in the Peruvian context. “Every time they want to create a national park or a protected area, the greatest opposition comes from the hydrocarbon sector, because these zones are identified as having potential for the exploitation of this resource,” says Baldovino from the SPDA. “A large part of the Amazon is already identified with potential, and even if it is not granted there is also resistance to the establishment of a protected area because of the expectation that there could be [oil].”

In Peru, eight protected natural areas are overlapped by oil blocks. The Imiría Regional Conservation Area, in the department of Ucayali, has full overlap with oil blocks, while the Cordillera Escalera Regional Conservation Area, in San Martín department, is 98% covered with oil blocks. Oil blocks also border two national parks: Yanachaga-Chemillén and Cordillera Azul.

Campanini from CEDIB points to the Aguaragüe National Park and Integrated Management Natural Area in Bolivia as “the laboratory for the implementation of measures that allow or facilitate the entry of oil companies into national protected areas and Indigenous territories.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, Aguaragüe was the site of oil exploitation, an activity that lasted until the ’70s and left a legacy of environmental damage that sparked protests from the Indigenous peoples living in this protected area. They demanded the closure of the wells, but what they got instead, at the end of the 1980s, was more “exploration … not for oil, but for gas.” The old oil wells were never closed and new gas wells were opened up, Campanini says.

This exploitation policy is being repeated today in other protected areas across the country. According to the analysis for Bolivia, there are 21 protected natural areas with some degree of oil overlap. Of these, the Espejillos Natural Monument has all of its territory covered with oil lots, while in the Eva Mosetenes Natural Area of Conservation and Integrated Management the overlap reaches 99%, and in the Cabeceras del Río Maniqui Municipal Protected Area it’s 98%.

In Colombia, while no oil blocks overlap with protected areas, the analysis detected a pattern that calls for attention: there are oil blocks in 70 forest reserves. This is important because, under Colombian law, these areas are intended for the development of the forestry economy and the protection of soil, water and wildlife.

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, general coordinator of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), says these countries’ extractivist policies allow concessions to be granted in these territorial spaces. “Since the beginning of the pandemic they have increased, and in Indigenous territories prior consultation has not been respected,” he says. “However, it is clear that Indigenous organizations have been permanently denouncing the loss of territory, pollution, health problems, and water and food crises when there are oil spills, in addition to deforestation, loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems.”

Banner image: Gas flaring at a facility in the Ecuadoran Amazon. Image by Diego Cazar Baquero.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Apr. 19, 2022.