Background of indigenous peoples and oil
in Ecuador

Indigenous Rights
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Indigenous peoples

With a stunning geography of towering Andean peaks, simmering volcanoes and lush tropical rainforests, the Nevada-sized nation of Ecuador is among the most ecologically diverse in the world. It is equally diverse in peoples and cultures. Representing over 40 indigenous nations, native peoples comprise roughly 35 percent of Ecuador’s population. The Cofán, Secoya, Siona, Huaorani, Achuar, Zápara, Shuar, Shiwiar and Kichwa comprise some of the major indigenous groups of Ecuador’s Amazon basin region, also known as the Oriente.

Native peoples of Ecuador, with roots dating back to at least 3500 B.C., evolved in isolation from Western culture until the Spanish conquest of the 1500s. Led by Francisco Pizarro, Spaniards conquered the Incan Empire in modern day Peru and then beyond, rapidly imposing harsh colonial rule throughout Latin America. According to writer Allen Gerlach, the legacy of Spanish rule - characterized by economic exploitation and violent repression of the natives - is a discrimination of indigenous peoples that today pervades Ecuadorian society. As throughout Latin America, indigenous peoples are marginalized socially, politically and economically by minority, European-descent elite.

Unlike the coastal and highland regions of Ecuador conquered by the Spaniards, the dense forests of the Oriente provided isolation to indigenous peoples for several centuries. In the shelter of rainforests, these cultures survived as hunters and gatherers, fishermen, and subsistence farmers. They developed complex adaptations to their environment, acquiring a vast knowledge and utilization of an astounding array of plants and animals.

The 20th Century brought rapid changes to the Oriente. Modern civilization steadily encroached. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, indigenous communities experienced dramatic changes as missionaries, settlers, loggers and oil workers penetrated the depths of the forest. The development that followed chipped away at indigenous territories and altered traditional ways of life.

Oil in the Oriente

For the indigenous peoples of the northern Oriente, life took a dramatic turn for the worse in 1967. Texaco Gulf, a U.S.-based oil consortium, discovered a vast oil field stretching from southern Colombia to northern Peru, ranking it among the largest ever discovered in the Western Hemisphere. In 1972, oil began flowing through Texaco’s 312-mile Sistema Oleoducto TransEcuatoriana (SOTE) pipeline that ascended the Andes and snaked to the Pacific. From here, most of the oil shipped to foreign markets, primarily the U.S.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the government of Ecuador gradually took over the Texaco Gulf consortium, culminating in 1990 with Texaco terminating its operations in the country. By Gerlach's estimate, Texaco had shipped 1.4 billion barrels of oil out of the Oriente by the time it left Ecuador.

According to indigenous groups and environmental activists, Texaco purposely utilized sub-standard methods for oil extraction and waste disposal to save on operational costs. Company documents recently released in court verify Texaco's awareness of the damage, but reveal the company deemed upgrading technology cost-prohibitive. Indigenous peoples accuse the company of environmental racism in its disregard of their health and human rights. Retired Gen. Rene Vargas, who headed Ecuador’s Energy and Mines ministry in the early 1970s, testified in court that “Texaco knew these methods were damaging. If Texaco had done the same thing in the United States, they would all be in prison.”

By most accounts, oil development in the northern Oriente has created an environmental disaster. Peter Lippman, of the human rights organization The Advocacy Project, stated that during its operations in the Oriente, Texaco dumped “billions of gallons of toxic waste into the rain forest, and millions of gallons of oil were spilled from ruptured pipelines.”

Simultaneously, roads cut for oil production cleared the way for over 250,000 settlers, who subsequently cut and burned even more forest. Indigenous groups such as the Cofán and Huaorani, which numbered in the tens of thousands when oil production began in the northern Oriente, have virtually vanished. In a recent story for the Inter Press Service, Jim Lobe wrote that of the 15,000 Cofán living in the the Oriente in 1971, only 300 survive. Gerlach stated that these poverty-stricken communities now subsist on poisoned food supplies and drink from contaminated rivers and streams.


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© 2003 Matt Levitch