Independent Fact-Finding as a Catalyst for Cross-Cultural Dialogue: Assessing Impacts of Oil and Gas Development in Ecuador's Or

Independent Fact-Finding as a Catalyst for Cross-Cultural Dialogue:. Assessing Impacts of Oil and Gas Development in Ecuador's Oriente Region

This article reviews the author's experience as a member of a team that conducted an independent review of environmental impacts associated with oil and gas exploration in Ecuador's Oriente region. The focus of the independent review evolved from a look at environmental documentation to an examination of the environmental planning processes, and still further to include a look at the nature of consultation with indigenous communities in oil and gas exploration in ARCO's lease of Block 10 in Pastaza Province. The independent review, including the publication and discussion of the findings and recommendations that followed, initiated cross-cultural dialogue.

The Independent Review vs. Environmental Impact Assessment

Environmental impact reports or environmental assessments are now required on many proposed projects in the developing world. Yet, the traditional way these reports are commissioned, scoped, and completed stifles the free flow of information and often serves as an obstacle to cross-cultural dialogue. Analysts completing these reports are typically accountable only to the lead agency or project proponents. Indigenous communities and organizations seldom have a hand in choosing the individuals or team to complete the report. The scope of issues to be investigated is typically set by the project proponent. The data sources and informants consulted are also often constrained by the lead agency. The resulting studies many times are vague in their prescriptions for action to avoid or mitigate environmental damage. Moreover, the final reports usually have very restricted circulation, even in nations with emerging traditions of a free press. Thus, accountability for compliance is often very weak. Finally, representatives of indigenous communities almost never have an opportunity to discuss the findings, and implications of the findings, directly with the authors.

The Independent Review Team (IRT) model as defined in this article offered several important improvements. First, indigenous communities (and environmental NGOs) had an opportunity to frame the issues for investigation, and to approve the composition of the independent review team. Second, as the IRT model described here included extensive consultation with local translators and village leaders in interpreting the ecological and cultural significance of the impacts reviewed. Third, representatives of indigenous communities had a direct opportunity to receive preliminary briefings on the finding of the IRT, and to obtain, complete copies of the resulting report, translated into Spanish. Fourth, the IRT effort made a concerted effort to sort out competing factual assertions, and to distinguish areas of certainty from areas of uncertainty. An additional, noteworthy feature of this particular case study is that the IRT investigation provided the foundation cross cultural dialogue between representatives of a major North American petroleum corporation, and indigenous communities who had previously had no direct contact.

Gaining Entry and Framing Issues for Investigation

The members of the independent review team gained entry and neutral finders of fact for Block 10 as a result of a series of events.

ARCO Oriente, a subsidiary of Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) was first awarded a service contract by PetroEcuador in 1988 and soon contracted for seismic testing to begin identifying potential petroleum reserves. Work was temporarily halted when villagers from Sarayacu occupied a portion of the testing area. ARCO commissioned a river study and several other environmental documents in 1990, and site development of test wells began at the village of Moretecocha. In July of 1990, ARCO published "Guidelines for Exploration in Tropical Forest." The well at Moretecocha was capped and abandoned, and revegetation efforts were started; ARCO initiated a second drilling site at Villano, establishing a worker's camp in 1992.

ARCO's exploration in Block 10 provoked a polarized debate. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN), an activist organization headquartered in San Francisco, carried a highly critical article in their periodical World Rainforest Report (RAN, 1991). RAN asserted that ARCO had cleared over two thousand acres of rainforest for helicopter landing sites and seismic testing, and that ARCO had also destroyed many purinas, or agricultural subsistence lands. Sacred sites were allegedly destroyed. Water pollution caused by inadequate waste treatment at oil camps led to skin and stomach disease among the natives. With the felling of 400,000 trees, game and fish became scarce. The overall effect, stated RAN, was "to force Quinchua people to abandon traditional ways, often for minimal-wage work in the oil project."

ARCO environmental staff prepared a letter rebutting RAN's assertions. According to ARCO, numerous environmental studies prepared as part of normal procedures, plus ongoing discussions with local villagers, confirmed that ARCO's exploration caused none of the impacts asserted by RAN. In turn, RAN published the ARCO letter in a later issue of World Rainforest Report annotated with its own contradictory assertions.

Discussion continued at an August 1991 meeting in San Francisco among ARCO staff and RAN. Present was US-Berkeley Professor Matt Kondolf, a specialist in hydroplogy and geomorphology. Kondolf proposed that a neutral team from UC-Berkeley might be able to shed some light on these issues. Several months of correspondence followed and final arrangements for the trip were made in late December of 1991; in-country phase of the investigation began on January 2, 1992. Kondolf's team include four members: Joseph McBride, a senior forestry professor; Robert Twiss, an expert in physical environmental planning, Kondolf; and myself, an environmental policy analyst with training in conflict resolution and planning. Gustavo Gonzalez, a native of Ecuador and graduate of the environmental planning program at UC-Berkeley, served as a translator for the team.

Participation in Commissioning the Independent Review:

This independent review was undertaken at the behest of ARCO International Oil and Gas Company (AIOGC,) the Rainforest Action Network, Orfam America, OPIP (Organización de Pueblos Indigenous de Pastaza), and Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). AIOGC was included by virtue of its role as a service contractor to PetroEcuador, a state-owned enterprise.

OPIP and CONAIR, respectively represent multiple villages in Pastaza Province (where Block 10 is located) and throughout the nation of Ecuador. Both organizations have established ties to European and North American NGOs. Oxfam America has worked with indigenous communities throughout traditional lifeways. RAN has a long-standing commitment to environmental protection of rainforest ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. RAN and OXFAM both had direct ties to OPIP and CONAIE.

Building a REsource Pool to Support the Study:

As part of the task of gaining entry, we built a resource pool to support the travel and logistics of the investigation. The traditional method of underwriting a study would be for a project proponent or aid agency to support the study. In this case, the IRT created a mixed funding and logistical support arrangement in order to create an arm's length relationship between members of the IRT and the group that commissioned the study. Rather than receive funds from a single paying entity, the independent review funds from a single paying entity, the independent review team was supported by the pooled financial and logistical resources of the parties. Most travel costs and other expenses were met by a grant from Oxfam, USA. Costs for helicopter travel to enable inspection of well sites, as well as attendant lodging and meals in Puyo, were contributed by ARCO. Representatives of OPIP helped arrange for field visits to the villages of Curaray and Sarayacu. Of course, members of the village communities themselves provided food and lodging while we visited with them. UC Berkeley's Department of Landscape Architecture funded a research assistant to help prepare the report of the team's findings. IRT members donated their time for field visits and report preparation.

Possible Strategies for Framing the Issue for Investigation

An important finding from the Block 10 investigation was the need to frame the investigation fairly broadly to include a look at the decision-making process as well as the documents it produced. The initial focus was to provide a third-party evaluation of existing environmental documentation commissioned by ARCO. This focus on documentation was broadened, with the consent of the parties, to evaluate the effectiveness of the environmental planning and impact assessment process to date. The motivation for broadening the investigation was ARCO's letter, which specifically referenced discussions with local villagers. The consent was explicitly obtained through our regular conversations with representatives of both OPIP and ARCO while we conducted our field work in Ecuador. (RAN and OXFAM were not present in Ecuador during our in-country investigation.) That which structured our investigation thus included both scientific questions as well as themes related to consultation and communication: * How have key environmental and social issues been framed? * How complete has the ARCO investigation been and what was the scientific quality of the ARCO investigations? Have assertions been backed up by specific evidence? * To what extent does ARCO's environmental review constitute a coherent process of environmental planning? * How have the nearby communities been informed of the oil exploration and development process? Have community representatives had an opportunity to contribute to the scoping of environmental studies? How are the results of environmental studies disseminated to affected communities?

Information Gathering Methods Help to Redress Power Imbalances

Acute power imbalances often exist between indigenous communities and corporations with respect to access to capital, political power, and information. Our experience shows that the information gathering phase of an independent review can help to redress these imbalances in two respects.

First, and IRT can provide a balance with respect to formal training and experience. Multinational corporations and their consultants typically posses far more in the way of formal education than do indigenous people. Thus,indigenous communities can be overwhelmed by volumes of technical information (even where they can get access to the reports). Alternatively, indigenous representatives may be de-legitimized as being competent to question the findings of technical analysts. In their case, the IRT possessed more extensive academic credentials than ARCO's in-country consultants. (ALL IRT members hold doctorates from major research universities; all have worked in the environmental management field for at least 15 years and have published widely).

Our team established consistent evaluation criteria to assess all available environmental documentation for the project area which was prepared for the ARCO exploration for oil and gas. Reports were prepared on rivers, soil fauna, morphology, soils, and climate; surveys of the physical environments surrounding the Moretecocha Villano wellsites. Besides these technical reports, we were provided with copies of ARCO's environmental guidelines. (We also obtained copies of the draft and unofficial final report of a "bilateral commission" that investigated environmental impacts of seismic exploraiton within Block 10.)

Second, an IRT can ensure that additional sources of information are tapped in conducting environmental assessments. Indigenous people often posses intricate knowledge of local ecosystems, local cultures, and their interactions. This knowledge may be absolutely essential to crafting a well informed decision but may be very difficult or time consuming to uncover. Moreover, indigenous communities may be unwilling to disclose information about hunting lands or sacred sites unless they trust the analysts making the inquiry. Thus, the ability to contribute information to environmental decision making process is itself a source of power.

We made an explicit choice to meet directly with indigenous communities to tap this local knowledge as part of our two week in-country evaluation of environmental conditions. Some of our information gathering was in the presence of ARCO staff; other activities were undertaken with OPIP representatives present. We visited the Moretecocha and Villano well sites via helicopter with ARCO and also met informally with ARCO staff in Quinto in a formal half-day meeting and during two informal dinners in Puyo, on the frontier of Block 10. We spent three days in the remote village of Curray-reached via single engine plane and dugout canoe-which lies downstream from Block 10. We spent three days in the remote village of Curaray-reached via single engine plane and dugout canoe-which lies downstream from Block 10. There, we attended a village assembly where we explained the purpose of our investigation, heard first-hand accounts of environmental and health impacts, and discussed the nature of consultation with the indigenous communities. We also traveled to the village of Sarayacu, which uses portions of Block 10 as its traditional hunting grounds. There we heard about the "detention" of several ARCO staff; seismic testing began in Block 10 without consultation with the village.

We also conducted several overflights of the major river basins in Block 10. In all, we interviewed approximately 25 people and conducted follow-up debriefing sessions with ARCO staff in Puyo and Quito. (Logistical problems prevented the UC Berkeley team from visiting the communities of Villano and Moretecocha within Block 10.) Thus, within the constrains of time and resources, we conducted a wide range of data gathering.

Independent Review as a Pre-negotiation Step to Cross-cultural Negotiation

Before we embarked on our trip, we had let the parties know that we planned to release our findings in a written report. As work proceeded, I made the recommendation to my colleagues that we should present the results in an interactive workshop format. Several factors led me to this recommendation. First, the time and effort we took in gathering information, including the somewhat risky choice of traveling in very remote areas near the Peruvian border, seemed to enhance both our respect from ARCO staff and our credibility with the representatives of OPIP. Second, our affiliation with a major research university provided credible, neutral auspices for the meeting. Third, I had been working actively in convening dialogues on natural resource issues, and wanted to build on this experience with the Block 10 case.

My colleagues agreed, and we began to discuss the idea with representatives of OPIP and ARCO while we were in Ecuador. We confirmed this idea with RAN and OXFAM after we returned to California and began working on the written report of our findings.

As we began planning this workshop, the role of IRT began to cross over more explicitly into a type of third-party. Thus, we once again expanded our role, this time from a neutral fact-finding team to the convenors and failitators of a cross-cultural dialogue.

Anticipating Groundrules and Protocols in Creating Cross-cultural Dialogue

As we prepared for the March workshop, I reviewed several sets of groundrules I had used in other natural resource disputes-primarily in North America-to see which ones might be applicable. (Typically these groundrules deal with such issues as participation, representation, information-sharing, work products, and definitions of consensus.) My review, coupled with ongoing discussions with the parties as we finalized preparations for the workshop, enabled us to elicit several important pre-conditions which most directly dealt with information-sharing and participation.

Information-sharing arose in two ways. As we finalized plans for the workshop, the indigenous delegation requested a meeting with us. In this discussion, they made clear that the upcoming workshop must be viewed as a forum for exchanging information. The delegation stressed that they cold never enter into a negotiation or make commitments without first taking proposals to a village assembly. With this specific input, we stated the meeting objective as "to present and discuss the findings and recommendations of a four-member UC-Berkeley team, which conducted a field investigation in Block 10." ARCO readily agreed to this formulation, stressing that, as service contractors to PetroEcuador, they could make no commitments without concurrence of their client.

Some restrictions on exchange of information were also introduced. ARCO reminded us that Ecuadorian law treats all oil and gas-related information as a matter of national security. For this reason, we were not permitted to copy or distribute any of the environmental reports that had been commissioned by ARCO.

On the question of participation, RAN requested just days before that the UC team invite representatives of nearly 40 North American NGOs. The basis of the request was that RAN wanted to avoid the appearance of dealing separately with ARCO. In effect, the organization wanted to avoid any possible inference that it was repeating the experience of NRDC and Conoco (see article by Riley and Sebenius in this issue). We declined this request. Our main reason was our conviction that our primary accountability rested with the organizations who had commissioned our study, and that most of the other NGOs lacked the familiarity with Block 10 issues to contribute effectively. Clearly, having 40 environmental NGOs and one oil and gas company would have skewed the dynamics dramatically. Of secondary concern, a 40-organization turnout would have overwhelmed our meeting venue and, essentially volunteer administrative capacity. However, we did invite about half a dozen NGOs who had been most directly involved in Block 10. Then, we established a tier of primary participants (those who commissioned the study) and a second tier of observers (other environmental groups with a general interest in petroleum extraction in Block 10). Observers were invited only to the first day; only primary participants were included in the second day's discussion, which had the specific goal initiating a direct dialogues between representatives of ARCO and the OPIP-CONAIE delegation.

One protocol addressed language and translation. We agreed that the workshop would take place primarily in English, but with time allotted for translation into Spanish and Quiachua. Translators were identified at the beginning of the meeting. (Rather than having a single translator, each Spanish-speaking participant had his own translator.)

Our groundrules addressed the agreement of parties to clarify areas of factual agreement and disagreement. As we conducted our field work, we found that many anecdotal accounts of impacts were impossible to verify independently. To help highlight areas of agreement and disagreement we prepared a series of tables, organized by impact type, that juxtaposed the assertions by each party along with our own independent findings. (To carry this groundrule to its logical conclusion, we invited participants to offer corrections or changes to our draft report. Comments were received and incorporated into a final report. ARCO and RAN eventually made minor comments; OPIP and CONAIE offered none.)

Presentation of and Response to the IRT Report

The IRT completed a 75-page draft report addressing the project and potential impacts; environmental documentation; site observations of Curaray, Moretecocha, and Villano No. 2 well sites; the planning process; involvement of indigenous communities; conclusions; and a detailed list of references. We drew on these findings to write eleven specific recommendations. Initially, at the Berkeley meeting, the draft report and subsequent presentation drew a range of reactions. A staff manager from the Plano International office repeatedly characterized the report as "constructive criticism delivered in a professional manner." An environmental affairs manager praised the team's recommendations as "excellent." A senior media relations representative from ARCO expressed concern that the team had not more clearly highlighted the short comings n the data behind the assertions made by Quichua people in village assemblies. The representative from Oxfam American characterized the research behind the report as excellent, while the senior official from RAN noted that while many classes of impacts were noted, none of the findings was really, in his words, a "show stopper."

The workshop yielded new information about the relative weight the parties placed on different classes of environmental impacts. For example, ARCO spent a lot of time and effort working to re-vegetate test sites-a subject that proved of modest interest to the OPIP representatives. On the other hand, the extent of the concern that OPIP and CONAIE representatives carried about the widespread impacts of seismic testing was evidently something of a surprise to ARCO. The workshop also yielded new information that had not been uncovered by the independent review team's investigation. At the informal Saturday session, ARCO for the first time revealed that the company planned to drill a 3rd well at the Villano site. At one point in the informal discussions, a representative of ARCO's Plano office went to the blackboard and drew a cross section of the site. This drawing elicited great interest among the indigenous representatives, as this was the first information they received about how deep the oil deposits were situated.

As discussions progressed on the second day, we began to outline a possible agenda for a second meeting. The main purpose of this meeting, as the IRT conceived it, would be to enable ARCO some time to consult internally and consider if and how some of the IRT's recommendations could be put into place. Our first choice was to hold the meeting in Puyo, on the frontier of Block 10, to enable greater participation from the indigenous organizations, and hopefully bring in the direct participation of Ecuadorian government participants. The topics that we as a group agreed should be addressed included a status report on ARCO's response to the IRT's recommendations, a report back on an evaluation and remediation of the impacts of seismic testing, and a report on the status of the test wells known as Villano #2 and #3. For a variety of reasons the follow-up meeting was never convened. This is regrettable, as it would have marked a truer test of the ability of an IRT process to catalyze ongoing cross-cultural negotiation. Thus, while the technical study aspects of the IRT's work met or exceeded our own expectations, our hopes for an ongoing dialogue did not materialize. Still, there were a few direct benefits of the independent review. With the help of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, we were able to arrange a meeting between a senior environmental planner of the International Division and one of the leaders of CONAIE. This planner mentioned that in planning the scope of work for a third well as the Villano site, ARCO had "taken a good deal of recommendations in draft report." The ARCO representative also mentioned that some of their internal procedures had changed to include sending an environmental consultant along with a survey crew. Ultimately, the decision (about whether to pursue development of the site at Villano) "will be more of a bottom of the hole decision (about economic value of the yield) than an environmental decision."

Concluding Observations: Employing the IRT Model to Initiate Cross-cultural Negotiation

This article has shown how to model of an IRT can challenge prevailing models of assessing environmental impacts and represent a first step in initiating cross-cultural negotiation. In critically reflecting on my experience, I recommend that the following five themes be given close attention: 1 Establish Appropriate Representation and Participation in the Group Commissioning the IRT.

This issues has several dimensions: * Which group of organizations commissions the independent review? * Which organizations are contacted as informants in the study? * Which organizations are present when the findings and recommendations are reported?

The organizations which commission an independent review should ideally include direct representatives of indigenous communities. In this respect, we succeeded. I also believe that representatives of responsible government ministries should be present. In this case, a serious shortcoming, in my view, was our inability to recruit a representative of the Ecuadorian government in our workshop. NGO participation is desirable as well, though it is not clear that widespread participation of the US NGO community in this case would have enhanced the quality of the preferred outcome. RAN clearly wanted greater consultation with the US NGO community.

Reporting back from the indigenous representative to the community or village may take weeks; thus it is unrealistic to expect indigenous representatives to actually make commitments (as opposed to receiving or communicating information) unless a village-wide or region-wide assembly can be organized as part of the negotiation process. 2 Establish a clear Scope of Topics to Be Examined in the Investigation.

The clarity of the scope of the independent review will clearly shape its effectiveness. My advice, based on the Block 10 investigation, is to frame the investigation as broadly as possible to include both physical impacts as well as assessment of the decision-making process itself. Technical information is very hard to judge outside of its context in a public decision-making process. Moreover, the most important findings may focus on what technical reports excluded, as opposed to the material they did report. 3 Critically Examine the Relationship Between Information Gathering and Power Relationships.

Resource management issues involving indigenous communities are knowledge-intensive. Thus, many types of expertise are required. Our team, for example, included expertise in hydrology, geomorphology, wildlife and forest ecology, environmental, planning, policy, and impact assessment. It is especially important to devise methods to tap the anecdotal knowledge of the indigenous community. Even the expertise possessed by a four-member team will understandably include gaps in expertise. Yet, there are obvious financial and logistical constraints on sending much larger teams. To round out the expertise needs, the team either must include local translators and individuals familiar with local traditions (local informants), or must include these people as adjunct members.

IRT members have choices to make about the information sources they consult. If we had limited our review to published documents, we would have missed many of the important issues in Block 10. If a team undertakes a post hoc analysis of environmental impacts, it may be exceedingly difficult to validate assertions of impacts based on anecdotal reports, yet this may be the best information available. IRT's must make choices as to what information they actually include in their reports. Since it is difficult to validate or deny competing assertions, and IRT might have to devise format for reporting on areas of agreement and disagreement.

Another important issue is the method by which an IRT reports its findings. In our case, we wrote a report and presented its key findings at a workshop convened at a major American research university. The workshop itself was a facilitated meeting with a few simple groundrules. 4 Establish Meeting Protocols to Maximize the Success of Cross-cultural Negotiation.

I recommend to analysts or mediators who attempt to organize cross-cultural negotiations that they anticipate the need to create groundrules, addressing-at a minimum-participation, information-sharing, treatment of confidential information and language translation.

Once an IRT completes its investigation, clear agreements are needed for dissemination of findings. In this case, RAN decided to run a critique of ARCO in their monthly publication, selectively emphasizing findings from our report. This move seems to have undermined ARCO's willingness to engage in further rounds of meetings with the IRT. In this respect, we did not anticipate a possible obstacle to effective cross-cultural negotiation by creating clarity about the dissemination of findings. 5 Identify Ways to Link IRT Findings to an Ongoing Decision-Making Process

If an IRT investigation is not linked to ongoing governmental decisions, it may be little more than an academic exercise. In the Block 10 case, with the Government of Ecuador not party to investigation, our best hope was to influence ARCO's internal planning processes and procedures. Preliminary reports suggest that we did accomplish this goal, but without a follow-up meeting to monitor how our recommendations were received and used, implementation remains uncertain. In other words, a monitoring and compliance element should be added to the scope of an IRT's work. We may have strengthened the ultimate impact of our review by seeking an up-front commitment of parties to meet at least once to consider the findings, and at least once more to examine how the IRT's recommendations could be implemented.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: