African Palm Oil: Impacts in Equador's Amazon

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The development of large African palm oil plantations in Ecuador's Amazonian province of Napo has become a sensitive issue for this small South American country. Over the past couple of years the Cofán, Siona-Secoya and Quichua peoples have felt threatened by the existence of palm plantations and are concerned because of palm plantations and are concerned because of plans to greatly expand this agro-industry in their region. Such an expansion for them means extensive destruction to the rainforest and a decline in the quality of the river waters, both of which are vital to their physical and cultural survival. The government supports the plantations as a vital part of development in the Oriente and, for the most part, has been insensitive to the Indian's needs.

Ecuador's Amazonia commonly called the Oriente, includes the upper Amazon basin and a portion of the westernmost lower Amazon basin as the river systems flatten out. The entire Oriente is rainforest, in which year-round moist conditions along with a stable warm temperature have created incredible biological richness. In addition to a diversity of plant species, the rainforest is also the home to a wide variety of forest animals, and a complex set of interdependent relationships between these multitudinous animals and plants, which are well known to the region's indigenous people. Western scientists, on the other hand, readily admit that they are just beginning to comprehend the complexity of the rainforest.

Presently approximately 20,000 ha of African palms are under cultivation in the Oriente. Although 20,000 ha does not seem extreme, substantial environmental and social damage has already resulted. Given this significant destruction, it is particularly alarming that the palm oil industry now plans to increase the area for palm oil cultivation up to as much as 250,000 ha. If these plans are realized, it means the deforestation of almost four percent of the Oriente, which in turn, accounts for almost half of Ecuador's total land base. The oil-palm industry is particularly interested in expansion within the provinces of Napo where, unlike most of the Amazon basin and other parts of the world's tropics, the soils are quite rich due to the breakdown of volcanic material that has washed down from the Andes.

Oil Industry - "Pure Business"

The palm oil industry is not new to Ecuador. The first African palm seedlings were plated in 1953. Until recently all oil palm plantations were located on the coastal side of the Andes, primarily in the area of Santo Domingo de los Colorados. To grow well and produce an abundant crop of oil nuts, African palms require strong sunlight, regular rainfall and a consistent temperature between 25o - 28o. They also need fertilizer, pesticides and, most of all, extensive amounts of manual labor to prevent Kudzu vines from choking the palm trees. Because Ecuador is endowed with excellent growing conditions and an abundant supply of cheap labor, it is considered an ideal location by the palm oil industry.

Palm oil trees grow rapidly; five to six years after planting, they start to produce clusters of reddish-orange nuts and, if managed well, will continue to do so for 20 years. Once the nuts are harvested they are put through an extraction process which produces two kinds of oil. The first one, reddish in color, is extracted from the fleshly pulp of the nut's outer coverings. The "red oil". as it is commonly called, is sold primarily within the country to companies that produce cosmetics, industrial grease and cheap cooking oil. The other oil clearish-white, is extracted from the seed kernel of the nut. Used for cooking, this higher-grade white oil is exported abroad and is common in a wide variety of prepackaged foods in the US. According to Bruce Kernon, a USDA (US Dept. of Agriculture) forester in Ecuador, Ecuador now imports approximately 30 percent of its cooking oil. This figure is a major justification for the palm oil industry's expansion plans to make the country less dependent on imports. However, it really comes down to pure business, because cooking oil is already being exported from the country. Yet, in spite of its growing popularity abroad, palm oil is far more saturated and more damaging to blood vessels than they any animal fat known, including pork and beef fat.

Companies Receive Title to Indian Land

Fifteen years ago, the areas where the palm oil plantations are now located were trackless virgin rainforest. The discovery of high-grade petroleum in the 1960s and the subsequent development of the industry in the northern Oriente has radically altered the forest ecosystem. New roads for oil exploration and a network of oil pipelines have opened the way to a continuous invasion of landless colonists and land speculators from the Sierra and coastal regions of the country. With little or no knowledge of how to subsist in a rainforest, the oil industry and the colonists have caused massive deforestation. This imported labor supply and a new infrastructure of roads have made it feasible for the palm oil industry to develop plantations in the Oriente.

In 1978 two palm oil companies, Palmoriente and Palmeras del Ecuador, received titles from IERAC (the Ecuadorian Institute of agrarian Reform and Colonization) for 10,000 ha each of "undeveloped" rainforest in Napo province. In the process of clearing these tracts of forests to plant the African palm seedlings, little of the timber resources was used. According to Jorge Uquillos, a sociologist working for INIAP (National Institute of Agricultural Research), Palmeras del Ecuador simply bulldozed trees and left them in large piles to rot. This same 10,000 hectares had previously been one of the primary hunting grounds for the Siona-Secoya Indians, who still live adjacent to the plantation along the Shushufindi and other nearby rivers.

The Palmoriente plantation is located approximately 40 km to the southwest of Palmeras del Ecuador near the river town of Puerto Francisco de Orellana, more commonly called Coca. Palmoriente lies along the Huashito River, a fast-moving tributary of the Napo River. The largest river in the region, the Napo, is the main "highway" for the Indians. All along the river and its tributaries, the Quichua and Siona-Secoya peoples have numerous settlements and homesteads.

Toxic Pesticides Endanger Indians and Environment

When forests are cleared for these plantations wild-life populations decline because of a loss of habitat. Although not documented, there is strong reason to suspect the extinction of some species because of the high degree of plant and animal endemism in the area. Further deterioration of the environment continues once the palm oil seedlings have been planted. To protect the palms, a variety of highly toxic pesticides must be applied to the crop at regular intervals which later find their way into the local rivers and destroy essential sources of riverine protein upon which the native peoples depend. Fish kills have been reported downstream from Palmeras in both the Shushufindi and Aquarico rivers. The Huashito, Punino and Payamino rivers are now contaminated with toxins from Palmoriente. In recent years sickness among the Indian communities, who use the rive water for cooking and drinking, has increased significantly due to deterioration of the water quality.

The use of toxic pesticides is a common practice and essential for protecting a large monoculture crop in the tropics from a wide variety of insects and other pests that abound in the surrounding forests. There are 15 separate pesticides being used on the oil-palm plantations in Ecuador. These particular pesticides are extremely toxic and easily enter nearby streams and rivers via runoff from a vast network of ditches throughout these plantations. The most dangerous include endrin, aldrin, dieldrin. Both aldrin and dieldrin were banned for crop use in the US in 1974. Endrin is so dangerous that it is now considered the most toxic of the commercial cyclodienes. It is both persistent in the environment and highly toxic to fish. Eating game contaminated by endrin has caused brain damage and birth defects. Parathion is also extremely persistent in the environment and has an estimated lethal dose one-sixteenth that of DDT.

Once the oil extractors are installed within the next year or two at these two plantations the quality of the nearby river water will deteriorate further. For example, the Cucaracha River just west of Santo Domingo de los Colorados is now constantly covered with a greasy film and unfit for human consumption because of the waste dumped from palm oil extractors. Some rivers in Malaysia are compared to open sewers due to the waste from palm oil extractors in that country.

Such contamination threatens Indian peoples who live near plantations. Their physical survival depends on the well-being of the rainforest and the rivers; disturbances in this complex ecosystem will more than likely affect them adversely as well. The forests provide building materials for their homes, wood for canoes, palm leaves and vines for baskets, and a place together wild foods and medicines and to hunt small game. The rivers supply them with water and protein from fish, caimen and turtles.

The Indians also depend on extensive areas of rainforest to support their swidden form of agriculture, which is ideally suited to the tropical rainforest. Their small forest gardens, called chakras, use only one to two hectares of land and require no pesticides or fertilizer. A wide variety of crops are planted together rather than in rows. By intercropping these plants, plant-specific pests are controlled and the different root systems avoid competition for nutrients. Finally, this multilayered garden canopy, which mimics the structure of the surrounding rainforest, helps to break up the impact of the rainfall and minimize erosion. After a couple of years a new garden site is cleared and the old garden is left fallow, allowing the forest to regenerate.

Indians Accuse Industry of Ethnocide

For the indigenous peoples of the Oriente, a whole culture is interrelated with the rainforest. It has been their home for millenia; the history of their people and the bones of their ancestors lie within these forests. The forests give their lives meaning and purpose and are a continuous source of spiritual sustenance. Their traditional religion could be called a type of ecological animism because of the respect it inspires for all the plants and creatures of the rain-forest. Quite complex, this spiritual relationship with the forest is based on the careful observations and experiments of many generations of native shamans. New knowledge about the forests is constantly being acquired as apprentices to shamans must prove not only their knowledge of known plants but also demonstrate potential uses of new plants.

Because of this long-term association with the rain-forest, the indigenous people, supported by various Indian organizations, accuse the expanding palm oil industry of ethnocide. The connection for them is obvious. The destruction of the rainforest threatens their traditional way of life and with it their identity as a forest-dwelling people. Several reports published in 1984 that include plans for expanding the plantations confirm the worst of their fears about the intentions of the national government and the palm oil industry.

In the spring of 1984 the Central Bank of Ecuador published a report (Informe 84-012 SEI) elaborating plans to expand development of palm oil in the province of Napo up to 245,000 ha. Most of this land lies within areas the Quichua and Siona-Secoya communities already inhabit.

A second report four months later, from the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG), known as Ministerial Agreement 0431, created two conservation reserves of 11,000 and 45,000 ha. Although the reserves were supposedly designed for conservation purposes, this agreement stipulated that certain forms of development would be acceptable within its boundaries. The cultivation of palm oil was specifically listed as an acceptable form of development (to Uquillos, personal communication). Even worse, MAG declared the areas within these reserves "empty of all human settlement," although 40 Indian communities, some with formal land title documents, lie within the proposed boundaries of these reserves.

Finally, in April 1984, the national newspaper Hoy quoted the director of the French Oil Institute (Institute de Recherches pour les Huilles et Oliagineux) as saying"...that the best land he has ever seen for growing African palms exists in the Oriente". Not only does the Oriente have the prerequisite growing conditions of sunlight, rainfall and constant temperatures, it also has unusually rich soils for a tropical rainforest region.

These three reports represent an attitude toward the land totally different from that of the native peoples. For the bureaucrats of MAG and agro-business entrepreneurs, the rainforests in their natural state are useless with no inherent value and therefore must be "improved". IERAC policies reinforce this attitude by encouraging colonists to clear the land and raise cattle, cash crops, or both. In fact upon receiving title to new forest lands, some "improvement" is required within five years or the title may be revoked. A large sign in the local MAG office in Coca eloquently sums up the government's attitude toward the rainforest: "El Bosque es Trabojo y Dinero" (The Forest is Work and Money).

The government lack of understanding, much less appreciation of the forest Indians' land-use patterns, exacerbates the ongoing problems of awarding titles to all Indian land claims. According to Uquillos, a sociologist working for INIAP, the government's notion of tierras baldias (empty, unoccupied land) is a complete myth because indigenous peoples inhabit or make use of almost all areas of the Oriente. To the government any forest lands that are not yet surveyed and registered with IERAC qualify as tierras baldias (Uquillos: personal communication). As recently as July 1985, Rafael Perez, the executive director of IERAC, stated that Ecuador's Oriente contains 13.8 million ha of unoccupied land. Such a statement from IERAC is consistent with its poor record of awarding titles to Indians as compared to non-Indian families. Moreover, IERAC is particularly reluctant to recognize communal lands and prefers to award titles to the heads of individual families, according to Cristobal Tapuy, president of the Confederation of Indian Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Such a policy, which Indian organizations strongly criticize, undermines tribal solidarity and cultural values.

Indians Fight Government Discrimination

Another essential component to this cultural interface is the deep racist attitudes held toward the Indians in Ecuador and forest Indians in particular. Although they are admired as picturesque in tourist posters, for the most part forest Indians are considered backward and a hindrance to national progress. According to anthropologist Norman Whitten, who has spent years in the Oriente: even the kindliest of the whites tend to look upon the Indian as a child held perpetually at the development stage. For the mestizo caught up in the national process of blanquemiento (White-mindedness), the thought of living in the jungle is repugnant, since only animals and Indians live there.

The Indian people of the Oriente are well aware of the severity of the problem and have made great efforts to organize. They have established several regional organizations and most of them work together through the umbrella organization CONFENIAE, which was founded in 1980 and has a modern office in Quito. Under the leadership of Cristobal Tapuy, CONFENIAE has worked to formalize Indian grievances with the national government. Committed to protecting the Indians' cultural heritage and land rights throughout Amazonia, CONFENIAE is trying to do what the government has yet to do - establish a consistent policy for dealing with Indian peoples. It was only because of strong local and written protests from CONFENIAE, for example, that MAG retracted Agreement 0431 for creating two conservation zones.

Deeply concerned about the negative effects of the palm oil industry, CONFENIAE last year published a booklet, Palma African y Etnocidio (African Palm and Ethnocide), to educate the local public and people abroad. Two well-known international Indian rights organizations, Cultural Survival and Survival International, along with the Inter-American Foundation and the national environmental group within Ecuador, Fundación Natura, support CONFENIAE's work.

Adán Grefa, president of FCUNAE (Federation of Napo Communities - Union of Ecuadorian Amazonian Natives), a regional affiliate of CONFENIAE, in a recent interview indicated that violence has erupted in the Oriente because of the colonists' intrusion. In one confrontation this past year a colonist was killed. Grefa expressed regret over this death, but was adamant about the Indians' willingness to fight if necessary. He also believes colonist invasions may be organized with the help of the palm oil companies because their efforts are coordinated, not the usual spontaneous activities of colonists.

Industry Provides Few Local Benefits

The very existence of palm oil plantations would not be possible without foreign capital and technology. Both Palmoriente and Palmeras del Ecuador operate with 40 percent foreign participation. The three principal foreign investors include British Commonwealth Development Corporation, German Development Company (DEG) and SOCFINO, a Belgian firm.

Although foreign investors, Ecuador's Central Bank and the government all point to the growing palm oil industry as a sign of development in the Oriente, local living conditions do not support this position. Even during the heyday of high petroleum prices, little if any money was put into the local communities. The existing roads are used primarily to transport heavy equipment to and from oil fields. Neither Coca nor Lago Agrio have any paved roads and Coca still lacks a running water system. Few Indians or local people are hired to work the plantations. The majority of the workers are brought in from the coast and paid by contratistas (contractors) (Uquillos, personal communication). Usually the laborers work on a rotation system, which saves the companies from providing social services and health insurance benefits, as well as overtime and vacation pay. Entry into the Palmoriente plantation is difficult because of guards and a high metal fence. In order to gain entry, a visitor must submit a letter of intent to the head office in Quito where it is reviewed for approval at meetings once every two months.

More than likely Palmoriente's attitude is a response to formal protests and public criticism from Indian rights organizations, CONFENIAE and Fundación Natura. There has been an obvious decline in government praise for the economic and social benefits of the "golden crop", as the palm oil was once hailed.

Government Remains Indifferent to Indians As Industry Expands

Nevertheless, the palm oil industry continues to expand in the Oriente and rumors repeatedly surface about United Brands and a Japanese firm starting a plantation in the near future. The ACEIPA Corporation, which already has a palm oil plantation near Santo Domingo de los Colorados, is presently clearing 5,000 ha of rainforest that adjoins the eastern boundary of Palmeras del Ecuador.

The development of this new plantation by ACEIPA is another example of the government's indifference to the rights of indigenous peoples. The land that ACEIPA is now clearing has already been recognized by the government as part of the Indians' traditional lands. Although not legally titled to them now, it adjoins the boundaries of their present comuna called San Pablo. In 1980 an inter-institutional commission set up by MAG, which included IERAC, agreed that these lands would be included with the San Pablo Comuna. By 1983 all the paper work had been completed and the land had been surveyed and marked with the participation and money of the Siona-Secoya. The Indians were simply waiting for IERAC to finish processing "their" land title. However, IERAC continued to delay awarding them the title and then, inexplicably, lost all the paperwork related to the Siona-Secoya land. Several people, including some employees at MAG, believe that this action was intentional on the part of IERAC because they knew a change in the administration from Hurtado to Febres-Cordero was coming. Consequently, 5,000 ha of this land now "belongs" to ACEIPA and is being cleared with the use of heavy military equipment. According to anonymous sources, a retired military general named Azanza, who is a stockholder of ACEIPA, is reportedly responsible for acquiring the use of this machinery. Left in a desperate situation, the Siona-Secoya are willing to compromise the loss of this land if it will prevent any further delays in acquiring the remaining lands that have been marked off for them.

In an interview, the director for MAG's African Palm Oil Program, Carlos Adolfo González, acknowledged that ACEIPA was in the Oriente but said that he knew of no problems with the Indians there. When asked about river pollution from pesticides González contradicted information published by INIAP, saying that it was minimal because the companies prefer to use organic pesticides. The INIAP documents list clearly the chemicals used in managing palm oil with warnings about those considered most toxic.

As long as the palm oil industry continues to expand, conflicts with the Indian people will continue, Right now the major economic spin-off of the palm oil industry in the Oriente is land speculation for its further expansion. Unless the government commits itself to securing all Indian land claims, the Indians' struggle to defend their will continue and perhaps result in other violent confrontations.

The present administration does not appear to be particularly favorable to the Indians' plight. Although difficult to confirm, it is widely believed that President Febres-Cordero is a stockholder in the ACEIPA Corporation. It is common knowledge, however, that Ecuador's Ambassador to the United States, Ribadeneyra, is a major shareholder of the Palmoriente plantation. In addition, Vice-President Blanco Peñaherrera Padilla is pressuring officials to bring back to the Oriente the infamous Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a missionary organization with a notorious reputation for insensitivity to indigenous cultures. The SIL was officially expelled from Ecuador in 1982 after numerous complaints from various Indian communities. CONFENIAE is adamantly opposed to its return and feels that it would drive a wedge in the Indian community and open the door for further development, particularly African palm oil (Tapuy, personal communication).

Contrary to government propaganda, Indian peoples of the Oriente do not see themselves as antidevelopment. Fully aware of a larger world, they welcome innovations when incorporated into their lifestyles without unnecessary disruption to their environment and cultural values. To date, the palm oil industry has added nothing of positive value to their lives. Considering that Western science knows little about the rainforest and that Indians have a deep intimate knowledge of the complex ecosystem, to destroy these forests and disrupt the lives of these people in order to plan a monoculture crop of palm oil trees is not only highly inappropriate but tragically foolish.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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