Letter From Ecuador
The upside of modernization, of course, is that it can make oil drilling far less destructive today than it was in the days of Texaco. But that's only if companies use the best available technology. They usually don't, because it costs more. Continued indigenous resistance, however, could force that calculation to change.
That would still leave the question of who gains. Even Burlington acknowledges that in the past, the poor and indigenous have not reaped the benefits of petroleum production. "If we could figure out how to work with the government so that some of the economic benefits actually get to the people, that would be quite remarkable," says DeSanctis.
So far, neither Burlington nor any other oil company in Ecuador has managed to do that. And while from Houston working with the government might seem like a plausible goal, most Ecuadorians long ago lost faith in their government's willingness to regulate companies to insure the people's well-being. If anything is to change, it will have to come from an evolution in the complex and historically dicey relationship between the oil companies and the indigenous groups who live in the country's oil-rich regions.
Burlington, for its part, hopes the Achuar will eventually allow the Texas company to drill for oil on their territory. And it's hired local Ecuadorians, including a member of the Achuar tribe, to help persuade them. That could be a cynical exercise in manipulation, or it could be a sign of incipient change. "There's a slow realization among some companies that they have to start taking community concerns more seriously than they have in the past," says Keith Slack, an extractive industries expert and senior policy adviser for Oxfam America, based in Washington.
Already, small successes are fueling sparks of optimism. Randy Borman is one surprising source of it. The son of missionary parents, Borman was born and raised among the Cofan Indians in the far northeast Oriente. Eventually elected a Cofan chief, he led several armed rebellions against the state oil company, Petroecuador, to force it to stop drilling or testing for oil on Cofan territory. Borman has since relinquished his warrior ways. At 49 he's pale and slight. But he continues to battle, from a spare office in downtown Quito, to preserve what's left of Cofan land. Now devoted to land conservation, he believes the oil industry can change its ways. "We need to insist that better work is done," he told me, describing how one oil company built a drilling station in the rainforest without roads, accessible only by helicopter and monorails. "It's more cost-effective in the long run. There's a lot of fear because of the Texaco experience, but there are countercurrents. We can force them to change."
Would he recommend the Cofan accept oil companies on their territory? I asked him. "We would look at it very closely, keep tabs on it and expect a fair share of the profit, not just a payoff," he said. "We would want to come in as shareholders. The budget would have to include patrol money for independent monitoring. That we could deal with."
"Many people see conservationists as against everything," he continued. Indeed, some eco-activists--many based in California--militantly oppose oil operations in Ecuador altogether. "I can't see having that position when the world uses oil for everything," says Borman. "But I can see holding them to the highest standards possible." As North Americans do in the UnitStates, he added. "When I visited Texas a few years ago with my family, I was driving along and seeing one oil well after another, and not a speck of oil anywhere on the ground. No big infrastructure. In the desert. There's no dirt. There's no uncleanliness. It's amazing. It's the corporate motivation: If it's not against the law you do it the cheapest way possible. But if there's someone to stop you, you do it better."
If recent events in Ecuador are any indication, there may well be someone--tens of thousands of people, even--ready to stop those who do business the old way. That leaves it up to the oil companies to prove that they can do better.