Ecuador Protests Challenge Foreign Oil

In Ecuador protests erupted
on August 15 in two oil-rich northern provinces, as people demanded
an end to pollution in their homeland by oil exploration and the
promised but not delivered investment in their communities from
multi-million dollar oil profits. 

call for resistance spread through the Orellana and Sucumbios provinces
as residents clamored that they were hardly benefiting from the
feats of foreign oil investors, such as Occidental Petroleum Corp.
(U.S.), Burlington (U.S.), EnCana Corp. (Canada), and Petrobras
(Brazil). More than 1,500 people blocked highways and impeded all
activities of several oil refineries in the area. 

President Alfredo Palacios declared a state of emergency in the
region and called for the military to quell protesters. Clashes
between the troops and protesters resulted in at least 67 people
injured—6 by bullet wounds—and more than 30 arrests. For
days oil production and exports were frozen, resulting in the loss
of between $300 and $500 million for the country, forecasted into
a 60-day period by the Ministry of Economy. 

The strike was prompted by a failed concession on August 2 between
local officials in Orellana and Sucumbios and multinational oil
producers in the area. Local officials believe their demands for
structural and social development have not been met. On August 5
a call for a bi-provincial strike was issued and the next day people
mobilized to take over the airport. 

Receiving increasing pressure from oil companies, President Alfredo
Palacios called for a state of emergency on August 15—limiting
free speech, freedom of movement, and access for media networks—and
sent troops to forcefully end the strike; 25 arrest warrants were
issued by Interior Minister Mauricio Gandara against local officials. 

That same week Gandara received a vote of no confidence in Congress
for issuing arrest warrants and for claiming that protesters had
been infiltrated and incited by Colombian guerrillas. They requested
that President Palacios remove Gandara from office, but he remains
in power to this day. 

Unrest driven by general discontent
quickly spread throughout the region and most people took to the
streets. Nueva Loja, capital of Sucumbíos, and Coca, capital
of Orellana, were the battlegrounds for confrontations between the
population and the military under a rain of teargas, rocks, and
molotov cocktails. 

Two days later, when military repression of the population reached
national news, General Solon Espinosa, commander in chief of the
troops in the region, was forced to resign for his “weakness”
to tackle the violence and his inability to take preemptive measures
against the strike. General Oswaldo Jarrin Roman took command in
his place. 

General Jarrin had been appointed defense minister under the previous
government of ousted President Lucio Gutierrez, but resigned from
office five months later. He was said to have opposed Gutierrez’s
attempts to “politicize” the armed forces. Human rights
organizations in Ecuador say Jarrin has been a big supporter of
the militarization of Ecuador’s northern border, as specified
under the U.S.-initiated Plan Colombia. 

Nevertheless, Jarrin’s first move was to release local officials
from prison and transport them to the nation’s capital, Quito,
to begin immediate negotiations with President Palacios’s administration.
The first two days of talks failed, as representatives from foreign
oil companies refused to sit at the negotiation table, repudiated
demands brought by local officials, and called for the prosecution
of all strike leaders. 

In the meantime, the protests continued. According to the national
newspaper El Comercio, four out of twelve women, all members
of women’s organizations, were arrested as they called for
a hunger strike in Nueva Loja’s main church. There was also
an attempt by the military to close down Radio Sucumbios. The station
was spared only under the condition that it would replace its daily
reports from the region with music broadcasts. 

Residents from Orellana, Sucumbios, and other Ecuadorian provinces
have a long history of disputes with foreign oil companies. Most
of the revenue from oil falls into foreign hands and locals have
seen little improvement in their standard of living. 

In their request to renegotiate oil contracts with foreign companies,
officials from Orellana and Sucum- bios petitioned that 50 percent
of the net oil profits go back to the state (as opposed to the current
25 percent), 15 percent of which would be invested in the water
systems, road improvement, the construction of their first hospital,
and economic support for their schools. They also requested payment
for any natural resources used in the process of oil exploration
and that future negotiations between the local government and oil
companies take place in offices instead of military compounds, as
has been done so far. 

On Friday, August 26 an agreement between officials from Orel- lana
and Sucumbios and the national government was reached. It ended
the two-week state of emergency and granted 16 percent of the 25
percent oil revenue for regional investment. It also included a
provision for further talks about the invalidation of Occidental’s
contract, said to violate legal stipulations for conceding some
of their rights for oil exploration to EnCana without state approval,
and the re-negotiation of contracts with the remaining oil companies.
Delegates from the foreign oil companies did not attend the negotiations,
but subscribed to them in absence. 

“Honestly, we are not satisfied because it has been as if we
managed to get a few cents from the great economic power that oil
companies have,” said Guillermo Muñoz, prefect of Sucumbios.

Jarrin-Thomas’s articles have appeared in
Magazine, Dollars & Sense,, and Boston Independent