Letter From Ecuador
When I ask Moi why, he says it's because they now see that the communities that cut deals with the oil companies years ago didn't understand what they were giving up. In hindsight, that's not surprising: Pitting a multinational oil company against a premodern society in contract negotiations isn't exactly an even match. Company officials came to the rainforest expecting to purchase Manhattan for a handful of beads. For the rights to drill on their land, the communities did get some things in return--motors for their canoes, chain saws to build houses, soccer balls for the children, even a school. Some can now call the oil companies for emergency transportation and modern healthcare, which is otherwise nonexistent in the rainforest.
"In the beginning, we accepted whatever the oil company offered," says Moi. "But after a while, we realized we didn't get any benefit. The gifts don't last. We can have everything--an airplane, a helicopter--but we can't maintain it." Indeed, it's the Huaoranis' growing dependence on the companies and their increased alienation from the rainforest that's steadily destroying their way of life. "Now we want a moratorium on oil drilling so we can organize as a community and decide what to do."
Down south, the Achuar, with 5,000 members spread over more than 2 million acres of roadless rainforest, have already decided. Their answer is a resounding no: no to the oil industry, and no to the trappings of modernity that come with it. Although some individuals may feel differently, the Achuar federation is so adamant about its position that it's not only refused oil companies permission to enter their territory but has gone so far as to kidnap company workers who have ventured there.
When I visited an Achuar community last winter, I was led down a long dirt path, past lush fields of banana, manioc and pineapple, to meet Vicente Jimpikit, a stoic-looking 35-year-old in jeans, a number 13 soccer shirt and red warrior face paint. Seated on a wooden stool in the front room of a two-room palm house, his thick bare feet planted firmly on the dirt, he explained the Achuar position. "If the companies enter, they will destroy the entire forest," he said. "The forest is like a supermarket. It's where we collect things to build our houses and make our food. It is where we get our medicine. The companies will contaminate the water and bring diseases. We saw what happened in Coca, and we don't want that here. We want to live quietly, without trouble, with our own culture."
It's not clear how long they'll be able to maintain that position. Although the Achuar have legal title to their land, the government has already leased the subsoil rights to a consortium of oil companies led by Houston-based Burlington Resources. Burlington says it won't enter Achuar territory without the federation's permission. But as company spokeswoman Ellen DeSanctis told me firmly, "Bear in mind: We have the right to go in and explore. The government has given us the right to proceed with oil-exploration activities." Instead of using the military to do so, DeSanctis says, the company will try to convince the Achuar leaders that it's in their best interests. "At the end of the day they will have to make some very difficult decisions," says DeSanctis, from her office in Houston. "I understand how they feel. I don't like what's happening to my way of life either. Two blocks away from me they're tearing down a tall building with a view and building a mall. We're all trying to preserve a way of life. The modern world is encroaching on us everywhere."
Perhaps, but the stakes in downtown Houston aren't as high as in the Amazon rainforest. And Houston long ago made its decision. The Amazon's Indians are now pitted against some of the world's most powerful interests in a bitter struggle to defend theirs.