Wednesday, February 10, 2010

the people vs. texaco/chevron ii

I promised a few weeks ago a series of posts on oil, Indians, and the Ecuadorian state, and here's number two.

The history of petroleum exploitation in Ecuador that led to a class action suit on the human and environmental fallout is long and sordid. Oil in Ecuador, as in a number of other Latin American countries, lies beneath the soils of Amazonian jungle. That physical reality has resulted in a confluence of players acting in a story of resource exploitation, ecological destruction, and nation-state development, bringing together international petroleum speculators, evangelical protestant missionaries, state agents, and indigenous communities. In fact, in the case of Ecuador it seems that petroleum exploitation and protestant evangelism almost always go hand in hand.

Ecuador's Oriente region has held a strange position in its national mythologies precisely because of oil. For the vast majority of its existence, Ecuador as a country struggling with regional tensions between the Sierra and the Pacific coast, but in the 20th century it recast itself as an Amazonian nation. In part, this was directly the result of insecurities over its ability to maintenance territorial integrity, and in part it was the result of the insecurities produced by the global capitalism defined by the developmentalist and modernizationist pressures from the 1950s on. Both of these insecurities had their roots in oil. In 1830, at the moment of it's founding, the nation state of Ecuador claimed territory covering approximately 1 million square kilometers, lands that were effectively reduced by a border war with Peru in 1942 to just 270,670 square kilometers.[1] The 1942 loss to Peru was extraordinarily traumatic for the nation, expressed a few decades later thusly by Pedro Saad, then president of the Ecuadorian Communist Party:
(S)ince 1942 we are a country, a generation, that has lived with the stigma of something worse than defeat- with the brand of flight before the enemy. Since then we are a losing country.[2]
And what was lost? Essentially control over a vast area of potential oil reserves in the Amazonian section of the country. The 1942 border war with Peru was a cynical war, funded by oil interests. On its face, the 1941-1942 border conflict that resulted in the Rio Protocol was simply an extension of border conflicts between the two nations going back to the wars of Independence. A more conspiratorial explanation lies the the highly political maneuvering of Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil of New Jersey to control the potential stores of the Amazon Basin. Ecuador initially granted exploration and exploitation rights to a front company for Standard Oil, dating back to the 1920s, for a total of some 1.6 million hectares of the Oriente. But in 1937, Ecuador passed a new national petroleum law that opened the region more broadly to foreign interests, and subsequently granted a lease on exploration and exploitation of some 10 million hectares of the forest to Royal Dutch Shell, effectively ousting Standard Oil from the region. In response, supposedly, Standard Oil financed Peruvian military expansion, and encouraged Peruvian border belligerence.

Regardless, the loss of territory to Peru in the Rio Protocol left an indelible mark on national policy, highlighting not only the need to maintain territorial integrity, but also the need to occupy and develop that territory as a means to substantiating claims to national sovereignty.

As part of the 1937 concessions to Royal Dutch Shell, the company founded a town bearing its name on the Pastaza River, at the beginning of the Amazon basin east of the cordillera, and down the road from BaƱos, Ecuador. The town wasn't much more than an airstrip, and was abandoned by Shell in 1948. It quickly became a headquarters for protestant missionaries and the Ecuadorian military, both of whom had interests in consolidating access and control over the indigenous groups of the Amazon Basin. The symbolism is too perfect-- oil, missionary, state agent together to exploit the technological advantages of the airplane for their unique, but intertwined civilizing, development missions.

[1] Erika Silva, Los mitos de la ecuatorianidad, 2nd ed. (Quito: Abya-Yala, 1995): 19.