Analyst urges broader look at Amazon oil resources’ local impacts

Increasingly disruptive protests are likely if oil, gas, and mining companies and national governments don’t pay closer attention to indigenous populations’ needs as Western Amazon basin resources are developed, an expert warned.

“They usually are ignited by past grievances that have not been resolved,” said Patricia I. Vasquez, an independent analyst who previously was a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the US Institute for Peace, at a Mar. 21 launch of her new book, “Oil Sparks in the Amazon: Local Conflicts, Indigenous Populations, and Natural Resources.”

“The Amazon is obviously a very challenging place with a unique environment and lack of infrastructure,” Vasquez said during the event at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “There also are large numbers of indigenous people who are poor and marginalized, especially compared to the nonindigenous population. A strong political commitment is required to resolve these conflicts.”

In her book, Vasquez said she examined 55 such conflicts in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia from 2004 through 2011 when a period of high crude oil prices and strong demand brought investors to an area previously considered to be economically marginal.

She also weighed conflicts on a 1-5 scale, with 5 representing the most violent confrontations. “As oil contracts grew quickly, social and environmental conflicts did too,” Vasquez observed. “Whenever there is a problem or issues, the communities demand a local government presence in addition to national government representatives. If it’s not there, they’ll tie things up until it is.”

Causes of protests

Confrontations can result from either structural flaws in the national resource management system, which are more difficult to address, or temporary problems resulting from a company’s behavior, she indicated. In the first case, revenue can be poorly distributed, resulting in construction of a massive soccer stadium instead of new drinking water systems, according to Vasquez.

“A lot of natural gas that’s produced in the Amazon is shipped to the coast for export,” she said. “Meanwhile, a huge number of indigenous people in the area continue to use wood for their cooking. Gas pipelines haven’t been built to their homes because it wasn’t considered commercial.”

International companies and nongovernmental organizations also can aggravate the situation, Vasquez said. “For most companies, they’re interested only in the 30-40 years they’ll be there, creating a paternalistic relationship that generates resentment,” she said.

“When international NGOs become active in the area, grassroots organizations compete for their support and resulting additional exposure,” Vasquez continued. “Sometimes, environmental organizations and other international NGOs have global agendas which don’t always coincide with what communities want, such as jobs.”

There can be a difference when stakeholders’ views become cohesive instead of polarized, she said, adding that the presence of good institutional mediation also can be positive.

“During my research, I discovered the work of the Peruvian Ombudsman was relatively beneficial,” Vasquez noted. “It appears to be the only institution which has forged a dialogue among stakeholders when the conflict reaches a very high intensity. It doesn’t solve the conflict, but has a high degree of legitimacy.

Accessible, versatile

“The people can take their claims to it easily and for free, which is very important,” she said. “It also is immune from prosecution, and can present cases in the inter-American judicial system which has helped protect indigenous populations’ rights and interests.”

The problems deserve more attention, three other experts agreed. “I think this is one of the most defining issues in social and economic development right now,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Society and founding editor of Americas Quarterly.

“There’s rising demand for resources,” he maintained. “Governments are tying their ability to address poverty and social needs to their ability to attract resource investments. The potential of this to reshape our socioeconomics is tremendous.”

Roger-Mark De Souza, director of the Wilson Center’s Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, said, “Conflicts can cause direct impacts, such as environmental destruction, and indirect impacts, such as mechanisms communities adopt to cope that may not necessarily be beneficial. But natural resources also can contribute to economic growth and sustainable livelihoods with the right policies.”

Robert E. McGuire, who directs Latin American and Hemispheric Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said simply getting a resource from the point extraction to a distant delivery point can be as big a problem. “I once heard an official say more oil has been spilled out of pipelines in Colombia than from the Exxon Valdez,” he said.

“The most important point is to start listening to the voices of the voiceless—people who live in areas feeling the greatest immediate impacts with the least influence on what’s happening,” McGuire said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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