Amazonian indigenous views on the state: a place for corporate social responsibility?

Author:Macdonald, Theodore

    Shortly after dinner on November 16, 1532, Father Vicente de Valverde, chaplain to Francisco de Pizzaro, explained to their Inca host Atahualpa that he must pay tribute in gold and silver to God, through King Charles IV of Spain. (2) The Inca responded to this circuitous logic with a series of well-reasoned questions. (3) Instead of answering, the Spanish assemblage leapt from their seats, attacked their hosts, and stole the Incas' wealth. From that point on, argues Mexican philosopher Enrique Dussel, the possibility of a genuine multi-ethnic dialogue with indigenous peoples of Latin America has remained permanently quagmired in asymmetry. (4) The sovereign state and the interests it represents, he argues, now dominate the debate. (5)

    While genuine multi-ethnic dialogue remains quagmired, it may not permanently be so. Some recent Amazonian indigenous responses to the impact of oil development and the distribution of its spoils from the Amazon--far more complex, illogical, and circuitous than Spanish tribute--illustrate a resurgence of dialogue, which is a requisite for the foundational human right to self-determination in modern democracies. (6) In turn, the states' responses invite new approaches for corporate social responsibility by international oil companies, now the states' latter day conquistadors, handsomely paid to explore and fill the sovereign's treasuries. (7)

    When this five-century leap from initial contact lands on the platforms of oil development in the Upper Amazon, it illustrates many of the human rights aspirations and dilemmas of indigenous peoples. From the late 1980s to the present, indigenous leaders of the Andean/Amazonian region sound like students of Jurgen Habermas when he argues that "political participation and communication ... do not guarantee freedom from external compulsion, but guarantee the possibility of participating in a common practice, through which citizens can make themselves into what they want to be--politically responsible subjects of a community of free and equal citizens." (8)

    While environmental degradation, crime, and economic abuse continue to plague native peoples of the Upper Amazon, their responses and their respondents have changed considerably. (9) External advocates, from Fray Bartolome de Las Casas to Amnesty International to OXFAM, would be and still are welcomed. (10) Indigenous people, however, now often speak for themselves. Their messages, though sometimes coded in complex local metaphors, are generally clear and their messengers often pass along to new formalized national human rights avenues or into international arenas, examples of which include the Organization of American States (OAS) and the World Bank, both of which are currently drafting specific indigenous rights declarations or policy papers. The United Nations, which passed its historic Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on September 13, 2007, and the International Labor Organization's 1989 Convention number 169, concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries offer other avenues for protections. (11)

    In these new times and settings, indigenous peoples and their organizations no longer voice pleas solely to stop killings, desist from seizing land and natural resources, end forced relocation, or cease cultural denigration. (12) While such violations and prescriptive denunciations persist, there are also new demands calling for states to fulfill their obligations to give power and voice so that indigenous peoples can realize their prescriptive rights and positive freedoms. (13) High on the list are demands for inclusive and effective political and economic participation without loss of identity. (14) Indigenous peoples now seek to engage democratic states as members of civil society, not simply to repel violations by states or agent's of the state. (15) Meanwhile, international treaties and formal commissions now support and emphasize state obligations to advance the realization of the participatory rights. (16) The case could hardly be clearer than in the Amazon.

    Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s oil rigs broke open the canopy of the Amazon rainforest, where they remain today. (17) Because of oil development's breadth, speed, and impact on indigenous peoples and communities, nothing like it has occurred in the Amazon since the late 19th century Rubber Boom. (18) In contrast to that era's river transport of rubber gatherers and their products, oilmen and their massive equipment travel largely by roads constructed especially for them. (19) Wherever roads penetrate the forest, most of the adjacent space is quickly logged for timber and then occupied by colonists. (20) These colonists arrive either spontaneously or with strong government encouragement and modest subsidies. (21) Unlike previous natural resource booms the direct (landscape change) and indirect (colonization) impact of oil development is permanent in terms of environmental impact and enclosure of indigenous communities and territories.

    The oil industry in the Amazon is often imagined by critics as massive, flaring, oil wells and passive indigenous victims. (22) Sometimes that simple image is accurate and unavoidable, as in the situation of voluntarily isolated communities or similarly marginal populations who cannot or choose not to speak for themselves. (23) And a simple David versus Goliath metaphor is often invoked by journalists or NGOs working on behalf of indigenous peoples. (24)

    This article, however, emphasizes the broad and proactive indigenous response to oil development as part of their general status as colonized people and, in this light, suggests an expanded approach to corporate social responsibility. (25) The article asks who this indigenous David is, whom he his aiming at, whether or not he wants that powerful giant's head, and what might take place after the fight? To suggest a reply, this paper interprets actions and patterns observed by the author since the mid-1970s. (26) Responses are first considered as broad theoretical human rights debates and then illustrated though specific cases from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. (27) The ideas presented here draw on first hand observations of several highly publicized disputes between the oil industry and indigenous people in Ecuador and Colombia as well as participation in a series of multi-stakeholder dialogues hosted by Harvard University.

    Mindful of transnational corporate oil wealth and power, this article nonetheless suggests that current indigenous rights claims and oil disputes are aimed largely, and accurately, at the state. For them, governments are not only the legal guarantors of rights to security, health, and safety, but also as the primary foci for debate and dialogue over citizenship rights and freedoms. Through regular public statements, indigenous peoples now speak clearly of their right to participation, consultation, and prior informed consent on all political and economic policies and projects that affect them. International treaties, declarations, and court decisions now define rights and freedoms as well as help to seek recourse for violations. Finally, this article considers ways to include and advance these broad claims into the growing human rights thinking on corporate social responsibility. (28)


    What are Amazonian indigenous opinions on oil development? To answer this question one must distinguish between local communities and regional or national organizations. The only way to characterize the views of indigenous communities in the Amazon is heterogeneous; their opinions are probably as varied as their three hundred plus languages. (29) The Ecuadorian Amazon, or Oriente, is an excellent illustration. (30) Here oil development can be divided into three sectors--north, central, and south. In the north, the area, often identified by its major facility at Lago Agrio, above and adjacent to the Napo River has been extensively explored, and the resulting pollution has caused controversy since the 1970s. (31) In the central Oriente, between the Napo and Pastaza Rivers, oil development is more recent, less extensive, and regulated by new environmental technologies so there is less environmental damage.32 In the south, oil work has hardly developed. (33) The varied reactions and responses of the indigenous peoples in each of these regions are discussed below.

    1. Heterogeneous Communities

      In the north from the 1970s through the 1990s, the roughly 600 Cofan people were almost totally circumscribed by oil roads and subsequent colonization. In 2007 they were granted a 100,000 acre territory close to the Peruvian border, where most reside today. The 300 Secoya and the related Siona live largely alongside the Aguarico River and close to the extensive Lago Agrio oil fields. From roughly 1993 until today community members have been highlighted as plaintiffs in a case of environmental damage and health against Texaco (now Chevron). (34) In the late 1980s, however, the same communities negotiated a Best Practices agreement with Occidental Oil and Gas, which later provided local control and economic payments in return for exploration and test drilling rights near their communities.

      Several of the more numerous Kichwa communities, with a population between 30,000 and 40,000 including many who colonized the lower Napo in the 1970s, have working agreements with nearby oil companies. Some leaders have also performed cleanup work, while others have led protests against oil practices.

      In the central Oriente, the Kichwa community of Sarayacu filed a complaint against the Ecuadorian government, which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accepted and subsequently passed on to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica regarding the failure of consultation and prior informed consent by Argentine-owned CGC Inc. (Compania General de Combustibles)...

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