Ayui’s talk was preceded by a film. I thought the film was going to focus directly on the toxic materials that the oil exploration and development activities in the Peruvian Amazon generate and the hazards it creates. Instead it was a slow-moving piece that focused on the relationship between the Achuar and their environment. There were scenes of adults and children fishing in the river, gathering and preparing food to eat and leaves to weave, working in their gardens, and dancing in ceremony. All of these activities were intimately connected to their physical environment; they are one with their environment. The people looked healthy and happy. The people in the film are part of the group that chose Ayui as their representative to speak on their behalf. And so, he came to speak to Canadians about how our Canadian company is threatening his people’s way of life and their very existence.
For me it was a very sombre moment. I wondered if this was the kind of plea that other indigenous leaders had made to colonizers in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a presentation of what the indigenous peoples in Canada had, what they lost, and what the future of the Achuar people would turn out to be without someone to stand up and say, “No, enough is enough. And agreements should be kept.”
Talisman Energy is an oil company headquartered in Calgary. Talisman acquired rights over 32,000 square kilometres of the Peruvian Amazon, some of which overlaps the traditional territory of the Achuar. Talisman had committed to work only with the consent of the community.
In a recent press release, Amazon Watch states:
“Since arriving in Peru in 2004, Talisman has steadily expanded operations and, as of 2011, has operating and non-operating interests in more than 12 million net acres in the Marañon Basin of Northern Peru. In Block 64, which overlaps the ancestral territory of the Achuar people, light oil was discovered in 2005 and confirmed in 2009. Since then, the majority of Achuar people located within Block 64 have rejected Talisman’s plans to expand seismic testing and drill further exploratory wells in hunting and fishing grounds in the heart of their territory.”
Preceding Talisman, the U.S. company Occidental Petroleum Corp. and the Argentinian company Pluspetrol operated in the area with wanton disregard of the human and environmental consequences. The Achuar have seen first-hand the effect of oil exploration and drilling on neighbouring blocks: the dumping of raw pollution into rivers and the resulting degradation of the rivers, land, and biodiversity, and the increase in human illnesses. The majority of the Achuar have been unequivocal in their refusal to grant Talisman permission to explore and drill. Despite this, Talisman has decided to continue to approach individual Achuar communities and convince them to allow them to operate on their land. This divide-and-conquer approach fits precisely with Talisman’s notion of “stakeholder engagement” as stated on their web site:
“In carrying out our business, we communicate and consult with a wide range of stakeholders. They can include landowners, local communities, Aboriginal and indigenous people, regulators and governments. We create opportunities to engage stakeholders early in a project cycle and frequently throughout our activities. Our goal is to share information, learn from external perspectives and build strong relationships in the community — all with a view to supporting our long-term success.” (emphasis mine)
While Talisman’s goals are clear and are perfectly fitting for a profit-oriented business, it is quite clear its goals are on a collision course with the rights and aspirations of the Achuar people.
Ayui met with Talisman CEO John Manzoni, but said the meeting was largely unproductive and left him feeling that he was not understood. Indeed, how can one be understood when the drive to develop and profit is the very mandate of the corporation? Is it even possible for an oil development corporation to agree to not develop on lands they have acquired precisely because they have determined there is oil in the ground? Perhaps only when the price is too high, does the activity lose its business purpose.
Talisman has been so aggressive in its seduction of Achuar communities that it has created a lot of conflict in the community where previously there was none. In 2009, during a peaceful demonstration against Talisman’s activities, the pro-development group of eight Achuar communities came armed with guns. A bloody conflict was narrowly avoided.
Our meeting with Ayui took place before the headlines of Attawapiskat First Nation and the sickening photos of dilapidated homes and stories of contaminated schools and lack of clean water and jobs. And there are many Attawapiskats in Canada. Canada has not to date been able to create a sustainable environment for many of its Aboriginal Peoples. If such a wealthy nation is failing so badly that the Red Cross needs to step in, then I am inclined to side with Ayui and agree that sustainable development in the Peruvian Amazon is not possible in the short term.
“We have seen how oil drilling causes contamination and foments divisions between families, it doesn’t bring development,” said Ayui. “The Achuar people have chosen to defend our territory so that our children and future generations can live peacefully in our Amazonian homeland.”
If corporations wanting to develop on indigenous lands are willing to take a longer view — 50 to 100 years — and develop impact-benefit agreements that are truly mutually beneficial, then sustainable development may be possible. Otherwise, to paraphrase Dr. Phil, the best predictor of future outcomes is what is happening in the present tense. Ayui’s vision of a catastrophic outcome is clear and sound.