A Look at Ecuador's Secret Oil Contracts

[Editor's Note: Reporter Kelly Hearn appeared on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman this morning to discuss his exclusive AlterNet report, Selling the Amazon for a Handful of Beads. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which is also available for download from AlterNet and DemocracyNow.org.]

A new article posted on the AlterNet website titled, "Selling the Amazon for a Handful of Beads," examines formerly classified contracts between the Ecuadorian military and 16 multinational companies, including the U.S-based Occidental Oil and Burlington Resources. The article says that "the documents prove that the Ecuadorian army has become a private security force for oil companies, one obligated to patrol vast swaths of jungle lands while engaging and spying on Ecuadorian citizens opposed to oil operations."

The article states that these previously unpublished contracts "provide an extremely rare and detailed look at how cutthroat capitalism and an oil guided militarization of the Ecuadorian Amazon are digging deep rifts through the country." We invited a representative from Occidental Oil and Burlington Resources but they declined our offer.

AMY GOODMAN: We're joined now by Kelly Hearn, who's on the phone from Buenos Aires. He is author of the article and a freelance journalist based in the U.S. and South America. We invited a representative from Occidental Oil and Burlington Resources on the program, but they declined our offer. Kelly Hearn, tell us about what you learned and the documents, the contracts that you have seen.

KELLY HEARN: Well, I've seen several types, most of them dealing with security links between the Ecuadorian military and the petroleras, the oil firms. But I also had a contract between an oil company and a group of semi-nomadic pre-industrial tribes, called the Huaorani Indians. And essentially the Indians gave over access to their oil lands to this multibillion dollar oil company for things such as modest allotments of food and medicine, I think a $3,500 schoolhouse, and items such as a soccer ball, a referee's whistle, plates, etc. So, turning to the military contracts, some of the most egregious provisions were found in an Occidental contract, which basically mandated that Ecuadorian soldiers perform counter-intelligence operations to avoid sabotage of oil operations and oil facilities.

The backdrop, the political backdrop to all of this is that there is rising indigenous opposition in eastern Ecuador and the Ecuadorian Amazon to these sorts of extractive industries. And as - I don't know if I just got cut off, but -- and as this type of political pressure is applied, then clashes between state forces and these indigenous opponents are sure to rise. And it's against that backdrop that these contracts are so worrisome to activists.

AG: Kelly Hearn, I wanted to read to you the statement from Burlington Resources on their website about their work in Ecuador. They say "As corporate citizens, we're committed to managing our operations in Ecuador and elsewhere around the world in a socially responsible manner. This commitment has led us to strive to understand and address the unique needs of the indigenous peoples in Ecuador. We believe the only way to gain access to these blocks is peaceably through open and honest dialogue with the recognized representatives indigenous peoples in the area."

KH: Well, certainly there are many activists who have worked in Ecuador for quite some time now who will tell you that oil companies are using the sort of historically proven divide-and-conquer tactic, by sending, for example, in some cases, anthropologists who speak the local language, who go into these villages, who promise certain members of the tribes jobs or money, and create political division that way. I will say, too, that activists that I have spoken with have recognized that oil companies, now that their feet are against the fire, have changed some. But there are still many examples of dubious tactics. And I didn't drill down, in particular, on Burlington, but, you know, it certainly sounds good on a website, but I think you would find it a completely different scene on the ground there.

AG: Can you talk about the military relationship with big oil and Bolivar Beltran, the man from whom you got these documents that have previously not been public?

KH: Sure. Bolivar Beltran is an Ecuadorian attorney and a congressional assessor. He's an aide to congressmen who come from eastern Ecuador, from the Amazonian political districts. And he basically filed a disclosure lawsuit in the name of three congressmen, one of whom I met to help verify these contracts. And so that's how the contracts came to light. One of the Occidental representatives that I spoke with told me that it's likely that these contracts are public anyway, and he disagreed with Bolivar's characterization that they were, you know, kept secret. But you can see clearly, if you go to Alternet.org and download some of these documents, that they're marked classified. So that's how I got the documents.

And I will say something about the military relationship, which may be a bit surprising. As you know well, from Nigeria to Colombia to Burma, there have been human rights problems along oil pipelines, and you're dealing in many cases with armies who are seen as the repressive minions of these oil firms. I found that many people in Ecuador see the military as a stabilizing force that has peacefully overseen several transitions of government and that, in some cases, has actually sided with indigenous opponents to oil when, you know, these clashes have come about. Now, there are plenty of stories of military personnel acting on behalf of oil companies and suppressing dissent and intimidating people, but there is also, as I said, a lot of people who see the Ecuadorian army in quite a positive light.

What is worrisome to activists is that this is as much about a trajectory as anything. Again, as the indigenous opposition to oil companies rises, you're sure to see clashes. And these sorts of links are worrisome. I would like to add, too, that the contracts that I obtained, some of them were already expired. But on December 8, the Ecuadorian Minister of Defense declared all contracts with foreign oil firms to be null and void. And he reportedly is designing a new military unit that's responsible for the protection of oil operations.

AG: And Kelly, in this last few seconds, the corporations' names that you found the contracts for?

KH: Well, I found, you know, Occidental was there. Kerr-McGee was there. Burlington was there. But also, I should note that Petroecuador was there. Chevron is involved in a multibillion dollar environmental lawsuit for basically having to answer for what Texaco Petroleum did, and Chevron and Texaco merged in 2001.

AG: We're going to have to leave it there, Kelly Hearn. Thank you for joining us.

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