Thursday, March 17, 2011

Indigenous people make united stand at summit

Attempting to adjust the trajectory of their nation’s development, the Indigenous Peoples of rural Belize call their Government’s approach into question

With the vast majority of Belize currently under concession from oil companies, the commitment of the Government on resource extraction is undeniable.  In the southern Toledo district, US Capital Energy are already at work and are reported to be just months from beginning to drill. The Indigenous Peoples, who have lived upon the land for generations, were expected to accept this as a done deal. Yet, to quietly sacrifice their land is not on their agenda. They are making a stand and forcing their Government to listen.

Panel of speakers listen to Greg Ch'oc
In Punta Gorda, the principal town in the district, leaders from indigenous villages crowd in a community hall. They have come to listen to experts on the legal, environmental, social and economic aspects of oil development. A translator reiterates in their Que’qchi language. After a series of round table discussions are held, it is proposed that a stand against the Government is made. A vote is held and a unanimous show of hands give their support.

 The participants decide to collaboratively write a declaration. A document is projected to the front of the room and the audience take turns to contribute to its content. Phrasing is debated and the use of single words questioned before finally agreed.  The resulting People’s Position Paper outlines the concerns of the Indigenous Peoples and states how they intend to proceed.

Santa Theresa's Mario Chub states the People's Position
The media soon arrive with their video cameras, microphones and flash photography. One of the village members is chosen to read the statement aloud. Santa Theresa resident Mario Chub stands defiantly as he reads: "We learned first hand about the hidden consequences of oil development, including challenges to negotiating fair and equitable compensation, dealing with inevitable environmental pollution and possible human rights violations."

He compounds their decision for a participial role for all communities in proceedings, stating with certainty that this is “the beginning of a conversation which will ensure that throughout the oil development process, our communities are treated with fairness; dignity and their legal and human rights are honoured.”

The unprecedented event is plastered across the news. The Mayan people are having their views heard by millions across the country, demanding that their human rights are respected throughout their country’s ill-conceived pursuit of wealth through oil. In the national debate on this contentious issue, their message is loud and clear.
Amandala Page 3, the widest read newspaper in Belize, 11/03/2011
 For the Mayan people whose lives are built upon lands that are an oil hot spot, extraction has irreversible social and cultural implications. For it to go ahead, they will have to sacrifice huge areas of their traditional land. Land where generations of their people have felled trees for buildings, hunted for food and sought natural medicines. The erosion of their culture will be inevitable as machines, foreigners, industrial infrastructure and pollution are brought into their rural villages. Should there be any of the inevitable mistakes and mishaps that are so common in oil extraction projects across the world, the consequences would be of catastrophic proportion.

Greg Ch’oc from Sarstoon Temash Institute of Indigenous Management (SATIIM) stated that “an oil spill would not only be an ecological disaster, but an act of genocide. For the Mayan people, their land is integral to their way of life.” Of Mayan background himself, Greg pioneers the rights of his indigenous people.  At the event in Punta Gorda, facilitated by SATIIM, Ch’oc speaks to his fellow people: If we do not fight for our share, we’ll forever be worse than where we are right now... If we lose the land and lose the river and lose the wildlife, then what do we get? We end up losing everything.”

Whilst discussions take place amongst indigenous community members, Government officials stand outside the venue handing out leaflets to participants and passers by. Entitled ‘Facts about oil exploration’, the leaflet advertises all of the supposed benefits of oil extraction. Lee McLoughlin, from the organisation Ya’axché Conservation Trust, shakes his head in disbelief. “The irony is” he says “is that it has come from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment. I would like to know on what basis the Deputy Prime Minister, who is Minister of this department, claims that oil development is beneficial for the environment of Belize”.

The leaflet features the case study of Spanish Lookout as an example of a successful oil extraction project. Given that minutes earlier, Leonard Reimer, former member of the resident’s Petroleum Board at Spanish Lookout, was advising event participants of his regret of going ahead with oil exploration, its timing is almost comical. Reimer had just explained that the company failed to meet any of the agreed conditions of the contract intended to benefit his community.  He explains that the money they received as compensation was not near what the damage was”. Members of his community were compelled to move away as they feared the pollution caused would affect their health. Meanwhile the oil company demanded that the biggest proportion of the money the community received be invested into new roads that could cater for their heavy machinery.

Despite dissatisfaction and protest, the leaders of the nation have dollar signs in their eyes as they consider the potential value of the oil buried underneath the feet of some of their people. In February, Prime Minister Barrow stated that US Capital Energy is no more than 6 to 9 months away from actually beginning to drill, and certainly when they reach that point, drill they will”. Outcry ensued as numerous organisations in Belize declared such action illegal.

Today, the certainty with which Barrow stated that that remains the position of the Government and that position will not change” is being questioned. As Ch’oc explains "The battleground is in Toledo, what happens in Toledo will determine what happens in the rest of the country.” The Indigenous Peoples are taking matters into their own hands to play a pivotal role in the future of their nation. They know their rights and they will not go down without a fight. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Will Belizeans let history repeat itself?

A court in Ecuador has found Chevron Corporation guilty of crude oil pollution in the Amazon. Chevron have been ordered to pay US$8.64 billion in damages to residents of the Amazon. Yet, the residents have appealed the verdict stating that the amount awarded is not enough to repair the vast environmental damage inflicted by the oil giant.

The landmark ruling finds Chevron guilty of what has been dubbed ‘Rainforest Chernobyl’. During oil extraction 18 billion gallons of toxic waste were reportedly dumped into unlined pits and rivers. Cancer rates amongst the local people have been seen to increase as they were forced to drink from contaminated water sources, bathe in polluted rivers and breathe in toxic vapours. Four times as many children in the area have leukaemia as elsewhere in Ecuador, with children as young as a few months dying from the disease.  

An unlined waste pit filled with crude oil left by Texaco -  Lou Dematteis
In Belize, Government is making moves to allow another oil firm into an area of huge biological significance. Prime Minister Barrow declared“the Government has no intention in stopping the exploration process, especially not in the Sarstoon-Temash Park… US Capital energy, which is the company that has the concession, I think is no more than 6 to 9 months away from actually beginning to drill. And certainly when they reach that point drill they will.”

Since the case against Chevron began, the Government of Ecuador have strived to avoid further drilling in the area. In an innovative move, President Correa appealed to the international community to subsidise a decision to cease further exploitation. Their proposal was that Ecuador would not allow extraction of their largest oil field in the Amazon if compensation would be given.

The quantity of oil in the area, known as the Yasuni National Park, is estimated at 850million barrels and is worth a possible US $7,000million.  Correa asked for compensation of US$350 million to be given each year for 10 years. The proposed 50% profit margin to be given to the Government of Ecuador is an excellent return on the oil. Had Correa instead formed a contract with an international oil firm, it is likely that a smaller fraction of the profits would have been received.

Correa’s proposal for the world to “share in the sacrifice” of Ecuador in the fight against global warming and to preserve the biodiversity of the Earth was commended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. It offered the country the economic benefits of oil exploration without damage to the environment and with no further human cost. 

During the Aguinda v ChevronTexaco case, experts testified that oil exploration cost local people their livelihoods as crops were destroyed and animals killed. Photographic and video evidence was shown in court of the vast crude oil pollution such as toxic waste swamps and ignored oil spills. Health specialists concluded that increased cases of cancer are a direct result of oil related contamination.

Old oil barrels - Kayana Szymczak
In Ecuador, lessons were learned. The more recent innovation of Correa’s Government proves that there can be a solution to the economic, environmental, social and cultural concerns that energy development brings. As an alternative to oil drilling it sets a precedent.

For now there will be no further oil exploration in the Ecuadorian Amazon. This offers little respite for the Aguinda that have been fighting for 18 years for reparation from Chevron and the clean up is yet to begin. Described by campaigners Amazon Watch as “an environmental and public health catastrophe”, the damage caused to their lives and land by oil firm Texaco, who were bought out by Chevron, is irreversible. 

Even the multibillion payout awarded by the court in Ecuador is deemed as insubstantial. Luis Yanza, speaking on behalf of the Assembly of those Affected by Chevron said “eight billion dollars does not represent a significant amount to repair the environmental damages”.  The plaintiffs are appealling the verdict, as are Chevron, claiming it “contrary to the legitimate scientific evidence”. A date for the appeal is yet to be set.

In Belize, preparations are going ahead for oil exploration in the Sarstoon-Temash National Park. This is in despite of oil exploration being declared “illegal” by numerous organisations including SATIIM and APAMO. Previously, SATIIM successfully took Government to court on contention of this issue. The court ruled that seismic testing could go ahead in the park as ‘scientific research’ only if an Environmental Impact Assessment took place.  Greg Ch’oc, Executive Director at SATIIM is adamant that “at no point did this judgment allow for drilling to take place in STNP, even for exploratory purposes.” Yet the Government progresses with its oil development plans.

Sarstoon-Temash National Park
It was back in 1994 that the 50,000 acres park was dedicated a protected area, a contract legally bound under the National Parks Systems Act. The area is home to 38 Mayan communities who have respected the area as protected and refrained from utilising the land and its resources for the past seventeen years. It contains plants species and ecosystems found nowhere else in Belize and is home to endangered species such as the jaguar and manatee.

An ecological disaster of the scale of that in Ecuador would have catastrophic consequences for the area considered the most biologically diverse in the country. The lives of the Mayan people, who rely on the land for food and shelter, would be gravely affected. Repair would take years at best and may even be impossible.

The voices of multiple organisations are calling for the public to stand up and join a national debate on oil exploration in protected areas such as the Sarstoon-Temash National Park. They are campaigning for alternative and sustainable development solutions that do not pose a risk to our natural heritage or to the culture of indigenous people.

The historic success of  the 30,000 inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest is unprecedented.  According to Amazon Watch it is the first time indigenous people have sued a multinational company in the crime where the crime was committed and one. They hope that it “sends a loud and clear message”.  The Mayan people of the Toledo region can but hope that this message reaches the people of Belize. Let Belize not make the same mistake as Ecuador.