Nemonpare, Ecuador – The Amazon rainforest is not an oil block and it is not for sale, says Ecuador’s Waorani community in a new petition.
The indigenous community has been living in and fighting for their jungle territory for thousands of years, but they could soon see the entire region auctioned off to the highest bidders in the oil industry.
Responding to the potential auction, 18 Waorani communities launched an international petition on Wednesday, asking the world to sign to demand oil drilling stays out of their territory in the southeast Amazon, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.
“We want to teach people why we live here, and all that we have here,” Nemonte Nenquimo told Al Jazeera from her home of Nemonpare, a remote Waorani community in the heart of the rainforest.
Nenquimo added that then maybe they would understand what the oil industry is taking away from her community and the area.
Earlier this year, President Lenin Moreno opened the southeast Amazon up for bidding to the oil and natural gas industry in an initiative called the South-East Oil Round (Ronda Petrolera SurOriente).
The aim, according to the government, is to boost Ecuador‘s floundering oil economy, which has seen major divestment since 2014 when the international price of oil plummeted.
The southeast Amazon region has been divided into 13 blocks in which one area, referred to as block 22, overlaps almost entirely with Waorani territory.
So far, the government has collected dozens of interested signatures from both national and international oil companies, including ExxonMobile and Shell, according to Carlos Perez Garcia, the minister of hydrocarbons.
Contracts will not be finalised until later this year, but the government is expecting to generate up to $800m, according to local media.
The Waorani community, operating with the help Amazon Frontlines, a non-governmental organisation, aims to gather as many signatures on its petition as possible to stop the sale of land in block 22 before it is finalised.
Mapping the area
A major part of the international petition includes an interactive map that was researched and designed by the community themselves using GPS systems, wildlife camera traps, and drones supplied by Amazon Frontlines.
They also used an offline mapping programme designed by Digital Democracy, an NGO that helps marginalised communities access technology.
Each of the 18 communities mapped their regions independently, a total of 180,000 hectares. They trudged hours through the thick forest, finding and marking points that are important to them, such as, sacred sites, medicinal plants, rare animal habitats, and areas of ancestral importance. They also included personal stories recounted by the elders of the communities of particular places.
“The only maps that exist of our territory only show communities, rivers and a school, nothing else,” Oswando Nenquimo, another resident of Nemopare, told Al Jazeera. “They never really show the territory, what it really contains. So, from the outside it only looks empty,” he said, adding that previous maps have been made by people with political or economic interests in the land.
Oil extraction has long been a controversial issue in Ecuador. It has always been an important part of Ecuador’s economy, contributing to much of its growth from 2006 to 2014, according to the World Bank.
The income from oil also contributed to lowering the poverty rate in the country by 15 percent during the same time period, due to the socialist policies of then-President Rafel Correa, and investments in education and social programmes.
But it has also generated a lot of anger and resentment among many indigenous communities who have been displaced by oil extraction near their territories.
‘It’s a lie’
Today, people in Nemonpare say they look at their Waorani neighbours who live in the Yasuni National Park as an example of how the oil industry can destroy the environment and local communities.
Yasuni became famous in 2007, when Correa asked the international community to donate money to Ecuador in order to avoid drilling in the park, famous for its biodiversity. By 2013, the plan had failed and drilling had already begun.
“‘There will be change and you’re going to live better,’ [the oil companies] say. But it’s a lie,” Nenquimo said. “I see the people in Yasuni, and they are more poor,” she said, adding that many Waorani communities there live near open pools of oil, and are subjected to constant smog and increased rates of cancer.
According to the government’s own research in 2012, it estimated that the country had fewer than 20 years left of crude oil reserves, and that includes the unexplored southeast blocks. With such low reserves, many have questioned whether Ecuador’s continued dependence on oil extraction is a good investment, let alone worth destroying the environment.
Angel Aviles, undersecretary of political and social management in the Ministry of Hydrocarbons, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that nothing has been decided about block 22 and “it is still in discussion among authorities.”
Aviles meeting representatives of the Waorani community who were in Quito.
He did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for additional comment on the Waorani’s concerns.