Community Contradictions: Petroleum Exploration, Development, & Huaorani Sociality

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Community Contradictions:

Petroleum Exploration, Development, & Huaorani Sociality

Flora Lu1,2 and Ashley Carse1
1Department of Anthropology

2Curriculum in Ecology

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Word count: 6,755

2 Figures

September 2007

Address correspondence and proofs to:

Flora Lu, Department of Anthropology

CB #3115 Alumni Building, University of North Carolina

Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3115

Presented at the 2007-08 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar,

“The Changing Nature(s) of Land:

Property, Peasants, and Agricultural Production in a Global World”

Key words: petroleum exploration, community, sharing, Huaorani, subsistence risk, Amazon, Ecuador

Draft: Please do not cite without permission.

The discussion of the impacts of petroleum exploration and extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon has been largely focused upon the tragic linkages between oil-induced environmental catastrophes and the health of indigenous peoples. While regional environmental and social justice concerns are of critical importance and deserve continued attention, we approach the complex relationships between the Ecuadorian state, transnational petroleum companies, indigenous peoples, and the environment from a somewhat different perspective. We argue that, among the Huaorani, a critical and unexplored side effect of petro-capitalism has been to reify a Western image of community while undermining the inter-household networks critical to sociality. On one hand, a form of community recognized by – and, thus, amenable to negotiations with – extra-local actors has been constructed through a history of encounters between the Huaorani, missionaries, the Ecuadorian state, and petroleum companies over the past 50 years. On the other hand, the recent oil company community development programs that have emerged out of these historical relationships have the effect of undermining food exchange and sharing networks. Because of the importance of these networks for maintaining social bonds and mitigating subsistence risk among the Huaorani, we treat them as a proxy for Huaorani social relations and a non-Western form of community. In particular, two oil company community development initiatives – food provisioning and company wage labor opportunities – undermine Huaorani sociality by reducing inter-household visits and reducing the intra-household contributions of “traditional” food providers. However, with the departure of the oil company from the study site due to insufficient oil reserves, we witnessed the return of extensive patterns of reciprocity and inter-household exchange.

Imagine the pulsing of helicopter blades, distant at first, but soon deafening. The helicopter is now directly overhead. It begins to drop and then lands slowly. From it white plastic bags full of rice, sugar, tuna, lard, drink mix, and other processed foods are unloaded. Women have gathered on a soccer field in the middle of the rainforest to pick up the rations that they receive as part of a community agreement with the petroleum company Oryx. Those who have happened to be away from the village working in gardens or fishing when previous food drops occurred found their rations usurped by other households. This reinforces “sit and wait” behaviors, where women forsake subsistence activities outside the village and instead spend time waiting for the arrival of the helicopter.
These events took place in 1997, following a four-year increase in global oil prices driven by rapidly increasing Asian consumption. More specifically, they took place in Ecuador, a country with approximately 5 billion proven barrels of reserves (BP 2007), where petroleum accounts for nearly half of national export revenues. Since the 1970s, petroleum exports have driven strong economic growth in the country. However, a cursory reading of national-level production and economic figures threatens to conceal the more complex reality of Ecuadorian petro-capitalism, where aggregate gains are not typically equally accrued across cultural groups and socioeconomic strata. Indeed, the nation’s economic growth coincided with an era of growing disillusionment about wealth distribution across the continent, recently manifest protests related to petroleum extraction in the Amazon, burgeoning anti-globalization social movements across the continent, and the elections of leftist political leaders in many countries. These might be read as signs that, after decades of participating in and awaiting the benefits of structural adjustment and economic austerity programs, the promises of free market capitalism have noticeably failed to materialize in the daily lives of many people. The extraction of petroleum in the Ecuadorian Amazon is a particularly contentious case exemplary of many of the economic, political, cultural, and ecological tensions that exist across South America during a period of rapid global economic integration. As wealthy North Americans drive SUVs, native Amazonians in dazzling feather headdresses proclaim petroleum extraction a threat to their livelihoods and cultural survival, raising difficult questions about the distribution of burdens and benefits between North and South.
Complicating the Impacts of Petro-capitalism

Much of the discussion of the impacts of petroleum exploration in the Ecuadorian Amazon has been situated at the regional level and focused upon the pernicious environmental effects of exploration and extraction, including oil spills, soil and water contamination, and deforestation (e.g. Kimerling 1991a,b, 1993, 1996; Sandoval 1992; Miller 2003; Sawyer 2004a,b). Scholars and the popular media have also, rightly, addressed the tragic linkages between petroleum-related environmental degradation and increased disease incidence among neighboring populations (CESR 1994; Hurtig & San Sebastian 2002; San Sebastian & Hurtig 2004). Meanwhile, others have focused on indigenous social movements and the political struggles that surround petroleum in the region (Sawyer 2004b). We approach the complex relationships between the Ecuadorian state, transnational petroleum corporations, indigenous peoples, and the environment from a somewhat different perspective. Remarkably little has been written about the less conspicuous, but equally important, effects of petroleum operations on indigenous social relations at the household and community levels1. Following James Ferguson’s (1994) suggestion that the most significant effects of development interventions may be unintended – that is, intentional plans interact with unacknowledged social structures and chance events to produce unintended outcomes – we focus on the effects of petroleum company “community development” programs on social networks in the Huaorani communities of Huentaro and Quehueiri-ono.

Communities are not simply bounded entities acted upon by extra-local processes, but may in fact be constituted through historical encounters with the “outside.” We argue that one important side effect of petro-capitalism in the Ecuadorian Amazon has been to – seemingly paradoxically – reify an image of Huaorani community while undermining the inter-household networks critical to group sociality. A form of community recognized by – and, thus, amenable to negotiations with – extra-local actors has been reified through a history of encounters between the Huaorani, missionaries, the Ecuadorian state, and petroleum companies over the past 50 years. These have included, but not been limited to, purposeful efforts by missionary groups to reformat indigenous community according to a Western image since the 1950s. We argue that recent oil company community development programs have emerged out of a historical complex of relationships of control, resistance, and negotiation between Huaorani and extra-local actors. The paper is broken up into two sections. In the first, we first discuss the concept of community broadly, provide a brief historical account on the production of a new form of Huaorani community, and introduce the case of Oryx Petroleum Company’s exploration in Huaorani territory. In the second, we review the literature on sharing and subsistence risk and then analyze the impacts of two oil company community development initiatives – food provisioning and company wage labor opportunities – on Huaorani sociality.

This paper focuses on the experiences of two relatively isolated Huaorani communities, Huentaro and Quehueiri-ono, which are located along the Shiripuno River in Orellana Province, approximately 11 hours by non-motorized canoe from the nearest road. We situate these recent encounters within the broader historical context of the region, arguing that recent relationships between petroleum companies and the Huaorani can not be understood outside of the context of past political, economic, and ideological encounters between the missionaries, oil companies, the Ecuadorian state, and the Huaorani. In this section, we explore the manner in which a form of Huaorani community recognized by – and, thus, amenable to negotiations with –petroleum companies has emerged over the past 50 years. Whether intentional or not, we argue that a history of encounters with non-Huaorani actors has worked to reshape Huaorani community to one that better fits a Western image. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore these complex historical relationships in depth here, we contrast “traditional” Huaorani community with a Western image of community, introduce the key stakeholders in the region, and discuss Huaorani transformations in recent decades.

Western Community

Benedict Anderson writes, “Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (2006:7). From this perspective, the question becomes: What is Huaorani community? We conceptualize these communities not as historically discreet entities acted upon by exogenous forces, but as hybrid social forms produced through a history of cross-cultural encounters. Our first task in understanding this process is to consider the models of community organization imagined by missionaries, petroleum companies, and state officials in their early encounters with the Huaorani. Raymond Williams traces the usage of community in the English language to the 14th century (1985:75). However, its use as a concept has been marked by frequent revision. The most important for our purposes is the version that has persisted since the rise of large, complex industrial societies in the 19th (75-76). During this period, community came to be represented an immediate entity distinct from the more abstract, instrumental, individuated, and formal constructions of state, nation, and society. The rhetoric of community-based development, conservation, and natural resource management ascendant during the 1990s drew heavily and often uncritically on such romantic constructions of community (Agrawal & Gibson 1999). As Watts (2004) points out, however, “community” is simultaneously modern and bound up with capitalism in that it is deployed as a tool of legibility and liberal discipline (2004:197). Along similar lines, Miranda Joseph sees communities as legitimating and producing the forms of hierarchy and difference “required but disavowed by capitalism” (2002:xxxii, quoted in Watts 2004:198). In northeastern Ecuador, petro-capitalism, missionary efforts, and the reorganization of indigenous community as sedentary and hierarchical were mutually-enforcing projects.

The Study Area

Ecuador is typically divided into three distinct regions: the coast, highlands, and the Amazon. This study is situated in the northeastern Ecuadorian Amazon, or Oriente, part of what is often referred to as the Upper Amazon Basin. The topography of the region is low and undulating to slightly hilly between the broad, swampy floodplains of the region’s main rivers, spanning an elevation of 200 to 600 meters. The annual temperature averages 25 degrees Celsius with extremes of 15 degrees and 38 degrees. The annual rainfall is 2425-3145 mm, with an average humidity of 88% (Herrera-Macbryde 1997). The Ecuadorian Amazon is characterized by high levels of biological diversity, with an exceptional concentration of endemic species experiencing rapid habitat loss (Myers et al. 2000). Since the 1990s, northeastern Ecuador has experienced the highest rates of deforestation in the Amazon basin (FAO 2005). The Oriente is also remarkably culturally diverse, home to the lowland Kichwa, Shuar, Achuar, Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Huaorani, and mestizo groups. These populations vary in population size, linguistic affiliation, history of contact, and diversity of economic activities (Holt et al. 2004).

The Huaorani

Before sustained contact began in the late 1950s the Huaorani has a reputation for “fierceness” and resistance toward outsiders, which allowed them to occupy a 20,000 km2 territory bordered on the north by the Napo River and on the south by the Curaray River (Yost 1991:97). From a population numbering only about 500 at the time of missionary contact, Rival (2002) estimates their current population to be approximately 1400, although others put the number closer to 3000. Their language is huao tededo, a linguistic isolate that was never suppressed and replaced by Spanish. In 1969, a 66,570-hectare “protectorate” for the Huaorani was created, representing about one-tenth of the traditional territory. In 1990, the Huaorani were granted the largest indigenous territory in Ecuador (679,130 hectares), including the former “protectorate” and adjoining Yasuní National Park (Rival 2002).

Huaorani social organization was historically quite distinct from Western concept of community. Three aspects of Huaorani sociality prior to contact with missionaries are particularly salient with regard to our argument. First, the pre-contact Huaorani lived in small, extended kin groups, called nanicaboiri, which were largely autonomous. One to two families would live together on a clearing that they made together and shared. Due to warfare and hostility, there were few opportunities for inter-group decision-making or conflict resolution, and even gatherings to exchange marriage partners were often characterized by anxiety or aggression. Second, the political structure of the Huaorani was historically non-hierarchical and decentralized, with no established authority beyond individual persuasion or coercion (Robarchek & Robarchek 1998). Within kin groups, there were no headmen or formal councils; leadership was situational rather than established (Yost 1981). Third, the Huaorani were semi-nomadic, moving every three to four months and returning to the same locations cyclically (Larrick et al. 1979:163). Yost (1991) states that the maintenance of two or three living sites with gardens at different stages of maturation not only disperses human population pressure on an area, but reduces the visible evidence of habitation in a given area thereby reducing the chance of detection by enemies, and also providing a place to flee in the event of a raid by other Huaorani groups or non-Huaorani (cowode). In some cases, these semi-nomadic practices persist, but in others they have changed, as we describe later in the paper. Fundamentally, then, the pre-contact Huaorani were distinct from a Western image of community because they typically settled in small, kin-based settlements, were organized non-hierarchically or according to a situational hierarchy, and were highly mobile.
Oil and Missionaries in the Oriente

Missionaries seek to promote conversion to Christianity but may also – either intentionally or unintentionally – be the bearers more subtle cultural transformations (Comaroff & Comaroff 1992: 36). We argue that a particular image of community embedded in both missionary and capitalist oil extractions has precipitated certain types of expectations and encounters between outsiders and the Huaorani, bringing about two important forms of social change: 1) the emergence of the sedentary, centralized Huaorani village centers increasingly oriented toward acquisition of outside goods and services; and 2) the emergence of more permanent hierarchical leadership (in the form of a leader, community president, or spokesperson). First, missionaries from the Summer Institute of Linguistics relocated dispersed indigenous settlements to central, permanent mission settlements typically built around a school and landing strip (Lu 1999). Contrasting with the former nanicaboiri by the nucleated pattern of households around these amenities, the new communities also were differentiated by the presence of non- or distantly related-kin living together, brought together by a desire for things like education, medical care, and manufactured goods. Second, a generalized form of hierarchical leadership emerged among the Huaorani as new “cultural brokers” able to speak Kichwa and Spanish gained power through their ability to control the flow of outside goods and services (Yost 1981). Petroleum companies, like missionaries and other predecessors in the Oriente, wanted to negotiate with leaders, even though such formalized roles of representation and control were utterly foreign to the Huaorani. The expectation of community leadership may reify hierarchical power relationships.

Both missionary work and oil exploration in the Ecuadorian Amazon began in the early- to mid-20th century. The first oil exploration took place in 1937 when Royal Dutch Shell received a concession contract to conduct reconnaissance work across most of the region, though the company eventually chose not to drill. Some of this work took place during the 1940s occurred near Huaorani territory and resulted in the death of company employees to Huaorani spears (Lu 1999). Shell returned in 1948, however, and drilled six exploratory wells. After two years and $40 million in expenditures, Shell left Ecuador again because these wells failed to provide commercial quantities of petroleum. Up to this point, contact between the Huaorani and the “outside” had been minimal. This would change during the 1950s missionary attempts to establish contact increased. This began in 1955 when five young missionaries flying air reconnaissance located a Huaorani settlement. Over a several weeks, they dropped aluminum pots, machetes, salt, and colorful buttons from airplanes in what was called “Operation Auca.” In 1956, the first peaceful ground contact between missionaries and the Huaorani occurred. Two days later, a group of Huaorani men returned to the missionaries’ camp site, speared them, and destroyed the plane. It was 1958 before peaceful contact was again established. The Huaorani community of Guequetairi (56 people, living on the lower Tihueno River) welcomed the U.S. American missionaries Rachel Saint and Betty Elliot to come live in their village and teach about Jesus. Within the next 6 years, Guequetairi was established as a population center and missionary complex. In 1964, Texaco-Gulf discovered petroleum in southern Colombia, bringing petroleum prospectors back to the Ecuadorian Amazon for a third round of explorations. Oil was discovered in three years later in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, north of Huaorani territory. Within four years, more than 20 foreign companies were working in the region. The response of the Summer Institute of Linguistics missionaries to oil discoveries between 1968 and 1971 was to increase efforts to contact Huaorani and concentrate them in the settlement of Tihueno.

Since the 1967 discovery of oil in the region, there have been nine rounds of oil exploration in the Oriente. Petroecuador, the state oil company, solicits bids to drill in different oil concession units, or blocks. The successful bidder signs a contact with Petroecuador designating the terms of exploration and extraction. As a result of Ecuador’s seventh exploration bid round in 1994, Oryx Energy Company received concessionary rights to 200,000 hectares, delimited as block 21. From January to April 1996, the first phase of seismic exploration was undertaken in the northwest corner of the block, located near Kichwa communities along the Napo River. The second phase of exploration, undertaken in the first six months of 1997, involved seismic work in the southern portion of the block and almost entirely within the Huaorani reserve. This phase involved exploration along nine seismic lines with a total of 368.2 kilometers. About every 50-100 meters along these lines, holes were drilled 15-20 meters below the ground, filled with two kilograms of explosives, and detonated (Oryx 1997). By monitoring the movement of resulting sound waves through the ground, company geologists tried to detect potential oil reserves far beneath the earth’s surface. Besides the explosions, there were other environmental impacts involved in this exploratory phase. As all access to seismic lines was conducted with helicopters, 48-50 heliports were constructed, each about 30 x 30 meters, for a total of 45,000 m2 cleared. Moreover, the very presence of exploration crews living and working in the area had environmental impacts.

Negotiating Oil Exploration and Community Development

Although more than 600,000 hectares of Huaorani lands are protected under the communal legal title they were granted by the state in 1990, they do not control subsoil resource and mineral rights – all of which are the property of the Ecuadorian state. According to the terms of their land title, they are not permitted to receive royalties from oil exploration and extraction, to obstruct oil development on their land, or to carry out extraction themselves (Rival 1998:10). On the ground, however, the reality has been quite different, with the Huaorani responding to the expanding oil frontier by invading and looting oil camps located on their hunting grounds. Anthropologist Laura Rival has documented the oil company practices that emerged in Huaorani territory as a result of Huaorani resistance:

North American and European oil companies, which have worked south of the Napo River since the late 1970s, have resigned themselves to the fact that native forest dwellers form an integral part of their industrial environment. They treat Huaorani villages as additional camps to be serviced and provisioned in the exact same way as any other working site. By delivering food and equipment to villages whenever they operate within Huaorani territory, companies hope to avoid the looting of their forest camps and the occupation of their well sites. During the seismic survey programs of 1989 and 1990, I saw helicopters fly weekly to every village and deliver what was usually given to oil workers: rations of food, pots, axes, gardening tools, tents, medicine, and so forth (2002: 168).
In 1993, the Huaorani Organization (ONHAE) signed an "Agreement of Friendship, Respect and Mutual Support" with Maxus Ecuador, Inc. for a term of twenty years, committing the company to provide assistance in education, health, and community development (Rival 1998: 11). During dissertation fieldwork in 1996-1997 in the Huaorani villages of Huentaro and Quehueiri-ono, one of the authors (Lu) witnessed the same patterns of oil company provisioning documented by Rival – presented as “community development” – undertaken by Oryx Energy Company during seismic exploration (Lu 1999). In order to enter and work in Huaorani territory, Oryx had, like Maxus, signed an accord with ONHAE on January 14, 1997, specifying the terms and conditions for completion of the seismic exploration program. As part of the community development component to their Environmental Management Plan for Block 21, Oryx tried to increase the likelihood of smooth operations by agreeing to provide certain benefits to the Huaorani, including office equipment for the Huaorani federation office, air transport of delegates to the Huaorani congress held in March 1997, food provisions, employment opportunities, and school supplies. Two of the most important measures for the purpose of this study were: 1) Oryx agreed to hire residents (men) of the Huaorani reserve as workers during seismic exploration (a few as “community relations” people but most as macheteros clearing seismic lines); and 2) Oryx would implement a food drop program in which bags of supplies would be delivered by helicopter to the affected villages (Oryx 1997). Practically all able-bodied men in the villages agreed to work for the oil company.

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