Ecuadorian tribe gets reprieve from oil intrusion


Jonathan Watts, Latin American correspondent –

Date of publication: 
17 January 2013

Residents of Sani Isla have built up an arsenal of weapons to fend off Petroamazonas, in a confrontation which did not take place as expected

An indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon has won a reprieve after building up an arsenal of spears, blowpipes, machetes and guns to fend off an expected intrusion by the army and a state-run oil company.

The residents of Sani Isla expressed relief that a confrontation with Petroamazonas did not take place on Tuesday as anticipated, but said the firm is still trying to secure exploration rights in their area of pristine rainforest.

“We have won a victory in our community. We’re united,” said the community president, Leonardo Tapuy. “But the government and the oil company won’t leave us alone. “

The Kichwa tribe on Sani Isla, had said they were ready to fight to the death to protect their territory, which covers 70,000 hectares. More than a quarter of their land is in Yasuni national park, the most biodiverse place on earth.

Petroamazonas had earlier told them it would begin prospecting on their land on 15 January, backed by public security forces.

Before the expected confrontation,the shaman, Patricio Jipa said people were making blowpipes and spears, trying to borrow guns and preparing to use sticks stones and any other weapons they could lay their hands on.

“Our intention was not to hurt or kill anyone, but to stop them from entering our land,” he said.

It is unclear why Petroamazonas hesitated. The company has yet to respond to the Guardian’s request for a comment.

Locals speculated that it was due to a reaffirmation of opposition to the oil company at a marathon community meeting on Sunday.

“They’ve heard that we are united against the exploration so they have backed off,” said Fredy Gualinga, manager of the Sani Lodge. “We’re happy they haven’t come. Life is going on as normal.”

The relief may not last for long given the huge fossil fuel resources that are thought to lie below the forest.

“It was a close thing, but we’re not out of the water. The oil company has not given up. They will continue to hound us and to try to divide the community. But at least we have a few days respite,” said Mari Muench, a British woman who is married to the village shaman.

The elected leaders of Sani Isla have pledged to resist offers from Petroamazonas for the duration of their term.

“This policy will remain in place during our period in office. We’re committed to that and we will do what we can to make it more permanent,” said Abdon Grefa, the speaker of the community.

The battle has now moved to the judicial system and the court of public opinion. Their appeal for an injunction went before a judge on Wednesday and they are calling on supporters to help them build a long-term economic alternative to fossil fuels.

“We hope people will write protest letters to Petroamazonas, come and visit our lodge, promote Sani, donate money to our school and projects, volunteer as teachers or provide funds to students to travel overseas so they can learn what we need to survive in the future,” said the community secretary, Klider Gualinga.