Latin America & Caribbean

Ecuador indigenous group fights oil exploration plans

A Quechua man guides a tour in Sani Isla
Image caption The Quechua community in Sani Isla is keen to promote eco-friendly tourism but wary of oil exploration

An unequal struggle is going on in eastern Ecuador's tropical rain forest between a Quechua indigenous group trying to promote local eco-tourism, and the powerful state oil company set on pushing oil exploration further into the Amazon, the BBC's Mike Lanchin reports from eastern Ecuador.

Standing upright in the rear of a small wooden canoe as it glides effortlessly through the narrow water between overhanging branches and thick green water lilies in the Ecuadorean Amazon, Patricio Jipa stops for a moment.

He rests his body against the long pole he uses as a punt. "You don't need to have a great education to realise what's happening," the 41-year-old Quechua man from the village of Sani Isla says.

Image caption Patricio Jipa says the potential harms of oil exploration are too great a risk too take

"By instinct, we know the dangers brought by oil," he adds, looking around.

Under threat

In the distance, the low-pitched wail of a howler monkey pierces the early morning rhythmic chirping of exotic birds, some circling in pairs above the lagoon.

The water laps at the edge of the canoe. It is hard to imagine a more unspoilt place on the planet.

Mr Jipa helps run a local eco-tourism project in Sani Isla, one of a number of small settlements that lie along the River Napo in eastern Ecuador.

He says the delicate natural balance of flora and fauna in the jungle is under threat as oil companies pressure the locals to allow exploration and drilling beneath their lands.

"We have no idea how much oil reserves we have here, but there must be a lot, because that's why they [the oil companies] keep coming back," he explains.

"But now we have said no," he adds.

In December 2012, a community assembly voted to reject an agreement signed by villagers with national oil company Petroamazonas which would have allowed seismic testing to begin.

Since then, Mr Jipa says, villagers have been repeatedly told that the Ecuadorean army could be sent to enforce the deal.

Underground riches

Drilling in the oil-rich Ecuadorean jungle has been going on for three decades - and tensions over the issue are nothing new.

Image caption Oil production in the Amazon has been going for 30 years, but locals fear an increase could harm their area

But since President Rafael Correa announced last year that he was ending a six-year moratorium on exploration in a previously untouched part of the Amazon's Yasuni national park, indigenous communities and conservationists have warned that a new oil frontier is being opened.

"Over the 20 years I've been here, there has been a constant nibbling away at the edges of the forest," says Kelly Swing, who runs a research station in the 900,000-hectare Yasuni park.

Animal riches

Of all the different animal and plant species on the planet, around a tenth can be found in the park.

Large parts have already been damaged, says Mr Swing, as roads are being built and settlers move in.

He says that in the past few months, new seismic surveys have been carried out.

This is the first stage in the attempt to detect underground oil. And, he says, it points to a future of "even greater oil incursion right across the forest".

Image caption River traffic has increased notably as oil exploration goes ahead in eastern Ecuador

The Ecuadorean government has said that any new drilling in the ITT block - as the area previously covered by the moratorium is known - would only affect a tiny fraction of the Yasuni park.

There is potentially as much as 800 million barrels of crude waiting underground, some experts say and President Correa has argued that Ecuador badly needs the oil revenue to fund infrastructure and development projects.

An attempt to convince foreign governments to contribute to a trust fund that would have compensated the country for the loss in earnings failed to get off the ground.

Financial incentives

Queuing for an early appointment at the local health centre in Sani Isla, Blanca, a quietly spoken middle-aged Quechua woman, is dismissive of the government and the oil companies.

"We don't want anything more to do with them, they just leave behind destruction in our forest," she says.

The state oil company has in the past donated funds to other indigenous communities, in return for permission to test for oil.

Sani Isla's brightly coloured health clinic and the local school were both built with oil money.

Image caption Oil money paid for the local health centre and the school in Sani Isla

But according to Blanca, depending on hand-outs from the oil industry does not amount to a long-term future for these small and impoverished communities.

Pablo Licuy, 51, is among those in Sani Isla who signed the agreement with Petroamazonas.

He says that his fellow Quechua are foolish not to accept offers of help from the company in return for exploration tests.

"Before the oil companies came we had nothing," he says, standing outside his simple wooden house, built on stilts, which still has no plumbing or electricity.

Image caption Houses in Sani Isla are typically basic and have few modern conveniences

He points out that many villagers struggle to make ends meet just from farming cocoa beans, and that eco-tourism alone will not solve their problems.

Image caption The eco lodges have so far failed to bring much profit to the community

Polls suggest that public opinion across Ecuador is equally divided.

Campaigners collected 850,000 signatures in a bid to force the government to hold a referendum on the future of the ITT block.

But this week Ecuador's National Electoral Council rejected more than half of them, leaving campaigners short of the number needed.

Mr Jipa remains undeterred: "We are the guardians of the jungle. If we don't protect it, who will?"

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