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Synthesis/Regeneration 38   (Fall 2005)

Shaking Off El Norte

Oil Multinationals Privatize the Military in Ecuador

by Bolívar Beltrán and Jim Oldham

Shaking Off El Norte Oil Multinationals Privatize the Military in Ecuador by Bolívar Beltrán and Jim Oldham

There is a troubling history of links between multinational oil companies operating in the developing world and the armed forces of the host countries. Unocal was recently forced to pay damages to Burmese villagers who sued the company for involvement in forced labor, rape, and murder committed by soldiers providing security for the company’s natural gas pipeline in southern Burma.[1] In Nigeria, both Shell and Chevron (now ChevronTexaco) have been linked to military abuses, including the execution on trumped-up charges of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni, and the murders of unarmed community activists by military thugs flown in by the oil company.[2] Occidental is currently being sued for alleged complicity in the bombing of the Colombian village of Santo Domingo by the Colombian air force, which was under contract to protect the oil company’s pipeline.[3]

Even in countries without the history of military abuses that have been seen in Burma, Nigeria, or Colombia, private contracts and security arrangements between foreign multinationals and the local security forces raise serious concerns for human rights and democratic rule.

Ecuador suffers from a struggling economy, illustrated by the loss of the national currency through the IMF-inspired “dollarization” in 2000, and from a dysfunctional political system, which has been highlighted by the extra-constitutional removal of three presidents in the last eight years. In this context, and in an economy where oil is the number one foreign exchange earner, multinational oil companies wield a lot of influence.

This is particularly true in the eastern, Amazon region, Ecuador’s rainforest “frontier,” where the majority of the oil reserves are found and where government oversight and services range from extremely limited to non-existent.

The history of oil development in the Amazon region is one of vast ecological destruction, loss of livelihood and cultural identity by indigenous groups, and conflict between multinationals and indigenous peoples. More often than not, the state has been absent from these conflicts, other than facilitating oil company entrance through concession contracts, and its growing dependence on oil revenues. When indigenous people have asserted their rights, government reaction has ranged from turning a deaf ear to military intervention, leaving oil companies free to impose terms on the communities whose land they enter. Now it has come to light that the Amazon region has been more formally militarized, at the request of the oil companies, through secret contracts signed between oil company representatives and the Ministry of Defense.

Las Lianas Resource Center has obtained copies of previously unpublished contracts and security agreements between the Ecuadorian armed forces and foreign oil companies that reveal military-for-hire and oil companies that are usurping the role of the elected government.

Central to these contracts is a master agreement, the “Military Security Cooperation Agreement between the Ministry of Defense and the Oil Companies that Operate in Ecuador,” which was signed on July 30, 2001 by 16 multinational oil companies including the US companies Occidental, Burlington, and Kerr-McGee, the Spanish oil company Repsol, and the Argentinean company Perez Companc, among others. The purpose of this global contract is: “To establish, between the parties, the terms of collaboration and coordination of actions to guarantee the security of the oil installations and of the personnel that work in them.”

This seems innocent enough since it just concerns the security of oil operations. The reality, however, is that these multinational oil companies have huge concessions covering hundreds of square miles which include, in many cases, all or most of the ancestral and legally recognized territories of the indigenous peoples and nationalities that make up the population of the Amazon region. The result is that, at the request of the oil companies, the vast majority of indigenous lands in the Amazon have become militarized.

This militarization is causing serious conflicts within and between the indigenous communities that have seen their way of life change. The presence of armed men causes insecurity and divisions. Villages that have resisted oil development, such as the Quichua settlement of Sarayacu in Napo province, have experienced threats and violence. This has been the experience farther south as well, among the Shuar, Achuar, and Shiwiar.

…the vast majority of indigenous lands in the Amazon have become militarized.

The contract between the Ministry of Defense and the oil companies was initially for five years, with a renewal option of a second five years, so it will be in force until at least June 30, 2006 and potentially until June 20, 2011. This global agreement was made in complete secrecy, as were dozens of other supplemental contracts between individual oil companies and the armed forces. Now that we have the opportunity to review the contracts, we can see that the military’s involvement in particular conflicts between indigenous communities and oil companies, as exemplified by governmental threats to use the military to force Sarayacu to accept oil development, cannot be taken to be isolated occurrences; rather such interventions represent a deliberate policy of intimidation and force by the oil companies that are using the military as a private army. Equally disturbing are the security agreements that were signed between the armed forces and individual oil companies both before and after this global agreement was formalized. One example is the contract signed April 1, 2000 between Occidental Exploration and Production Company (OEPC) and the Ministry of Defense. In this document, the armed forces contract with Occidental to:

What is striking about this agreement is the way it militarizes ancestral indigenous lands and threatens the human rights of the residents of the area. Block 15, Occidental’s oil concession, overlies virtually all the lands held by the Secoya and Siona nationalities, as well as large portions of Huarani lands, and those of a number of Quichua, Shuar, and settler communities. None of these communities were informed at any point of these military agreements, in direct violation of the Ecuadorian constitution and of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on indigenous peoples, to which Ecuador is a signatory. The security agreement puts indigenous people in potential conflict with the Ecuadorian military just for living on their lands and carrying out their normal daily activities. The concept of controlling “undocumented” individuals on indigenous lands in the rainforest is ludicrous if not dangerous. Many members of indigenous communities, particularly elders, have no documentation, and those that do would never think to carry their papers while moving about their territory; thus they are all immediately at risk of being stopped and questioned or held by armed soldiers working for the oil company.

Interestingly, even while keeping the security agreement secret from the affected communities, Occidental agreed to periodically inform the Jungle Brigade, N:19 Napo, about community aid projects and programs that the company is carrying out or might carry out in the future with communities living within Block 15.

In other words, all Occidental’s community relations activities, the fruit of what they call their “good neighbor policy,” are immediately reported to the military. What is the object of these regular reports to the army? Whatever the purpose, what we see is that, even as Occidental secretly conspired with and paid the army to militarize indigenous lands, they also became spies for the military, secretly informing them of activities taking place within indigenous communities without the knowledge of the residents of those same communities.

Occidental also actually managed to get the armed forces to base a military detachment in a Quichua community. In a letter dated August 6, 2001, Occidental’s head of security wrote Ecuador’s commander of ground forces to describe Occidental’s activities in the region and lay out the military and logistical advantages to building a base in the community of Edén, on the Napo River (and within Block 15). The base has since been built and is in use, on land expropriated from an indigenous community.

It’s unusual, to say the least, that a foreign owned business, dedicated to oil exploration and production, should choose to advise the Ecuadorian Armed Forces as to where best to base their soldiers, and it is a sad reflection on the power relations in Ecuador that the advice not only did not offend, but was followed. The danger is that, now that the oil companies have established their authority over the military, and now that indigenous lands have become a target for military intervention, it is a short step to the military terror that has been seen in Burma, Nigeria, and Colombia.

Bolívar Beltrán and Jim Oldham are, respectively, Legal Director and President of Las Lianas Resource Center for Science, Culture, and Environment (http://www.laslianas.org). They can be contacted at laslianas@msn.com.


1. Eviatar, Daphne. A Big Win for Human Rights, The Nation (May 9, 2005).

2. Ainger, Katherine, Making Waves, Interview with Owens Wiwa, New Internationalist, 351 (Nov. 2002). See also Democracy Now, September 30, 1998, Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship, and Friday, July 11, 2003, Drilling and Killing: As President Bush Meets with the CEO of Chevron Texaco in Nigeria, a Look at Chevron’s Role in the Killing of Two Nigerian Villagers. Available at: http://www.democracynow.org.

3. Kovalik, Daniel, US State Department Intervenes To Protect Occidental against Lawsuit for Human Rights Crimes, ZNET, January 13, 2005. Available at: http://www.zmag.org.

[28 nov 05]

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