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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Occidental in South America

Air Date: Week of

California-based Occidental Petroleum has a checkered environmental legacy in South America. In Columbia, a tribe of Indians have threatened to commit mass suicide if the company goes ahead with plans for oil in their land. In Peru, native people living alongside a former Occidental oil field can't drink water or eat fish caught in the river. At the same time, a tribe in Ecuador has signed an agreement with the company, allowing Occidental to drill for oil in exchange for a promise to use environmental safeguards. Meanwhile, on the U.S. presidential campaign trial, Al Gore is being pressured to divest his family’s holdings in Occidental stock. Ingrid Lobet reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Big oil and the 2000 presidential campaign. Those words make most voters think of Texas Republican Governor George W. Bush and his running-mate Dick Cheney, both former oil men. But the Democrat, Vice President Al Gore, also has ties to a big oil company, Occidental Petroleum. His father, Albert Gore, Sr., was a close friend of Occidental's former chairman, Armand Hammer, and a member of the company's board of directors for 28 years. A good portion of the Gore family's wealth is a result of ties to Occidental. Al Gore, Jr.'s connection to Occidental has been getting plenty of attention recently because of a tribe of Colombian Indians. The Uwa fiercely oppose drilling on their ancestral lands. They've even threatened mass suicide to keep Occidental out. But the plight of this small group of Colombian Indians to keep their lives unchanged is only one chapter of a bigger story. As Ingrid Lobet reports, Occidental's oil leases in neighboring Peru and Ecuador have also brought the company into Indian territory.

(Loud engine)

LOBET: Few ever venture into Occidental's former Peruvian territory in the heart of the Amazon near the Ecuadorian border. Remote doesn't begin to describe this place. No roads lead here. The fortunate go by private plane or helicopter. Indians returning to their villages far upriver wait for the occasional market boat. Their trip will take a week. An outsider can hire a skiff with an outboard.

(Outboard motor)

LOBET: The silty waters of the Amazon River stretch six soccer fields across, bordered by dense green. Even at this pace it takes two solid days to get to the region where Occidental struck its black gold, the largest oilfield in Peru. This part of the river is Mr. Gilberto Calderon's backyard. A 63-year-old Quechua, he remembers the 70s oil boom, when Occidental drilled dozens of wells and shipped the crude downstream on small barges.

CALDERON: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The oil boats, completely full, would collide with things in the river, break up and spread oil. The entire river covered with oil. The birds died. The ducks we were raising died. Then later they built the pipeline and there was a big rupture under the river. By the time they got to it, a huge amount of oil had spilled.

LOBET: Even today the brush and branches catching the current at the edge of the river are sometimes coated with black oil, and other evidence of spills isn't hard to find.

(Engine comes to a stop)

LOBET: At a site nearby, an oil pipeline dives underground and runs underneath the river.


LOBET: When the pipeline goes under the ground, there's a lagoon. It's dark brown water, and there are dead fish floating in it. Maybe about 40 small fish.


LOBET: Occidental and the company that recently purchased its operations have cleaned up acres of spilled crude oil, bulldozing it into pits. At one of these cleaned up sites, gray PVC pipes rise out of the mounds. Through the pipes comes the sound of oil underground, bubbling in the Amazon heat.


LOBET: A small lake of burped crude lies on top of one mound, but there is a worse problem. Lying right beneath every oilfield is a layer of scalding salt water laced with oil and heavy metals. When this water is released, it has to be treated, or better yet, reinjected into the ground.


LOBET: But the Indians who have been Oxy's neighbors say for years the company piped its millions of gallons of steaming brine directly into the streams where they bathe, drink, and draw their cooking water.

(Bubbling, scrubbing)

LOBET: A woman is washing pans in the river in front of her village, a small collection of houses. Dozens of native people in villages along the river tell stories like the one Herman Gomez tells here.

H. GOMEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The doctors came, and the students two years ago, and they told us the water in our creeks was contaminated. "Don't drink it." Some people didn't believe and drank it anyway, and got sick, and some died. When we bathed in the water, it burned our skin. We would get blisters and our skin would turn white and peel off. The doctors also told us it contained lead. They said, "Please go get water from rain to avoid deaths."

LOBET: Gomez sits in his broad, open, one-room house, traditional except for walls of scavenged plywood stamped with the Oxy logo.

H. GOMEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: About three years ago the fish were just dying in huge numbers. When the people ate them, their stomachs swelled up and they started throwing up. There were lots of fish, and big ones. We were afraid to eat them. You'd slit them open and see their guts were all rotten, just a mess. And they smelled like chemicals.

(Bird calls; a voice on loudspeaker)

LOBET: Upstream at another village, a loudspeaker announces a community meeting.

(Echoes of people gathering)

LOBET: At that meeting, Soledad Dawmanuka, now raising her grandchildren, says she believes the water killed her 27-year-old son, who died vomiting blood. She speaks in Quechua.

DAWMANUKA: My son died drinking this water. We don't drink that water any more. The only water we drink is when it rains. The water in the stream is salty. When we bathe in it, our hair falls out. We look for water far, far away, but the children don't obey. They play in the water and get sick, and sometimes they die.

LOBET: After the meeting, people head in different directions, some for a local form of Bingo played with corn kernels.


LOBET: Others to the evangelical church up the hill.

(Singing, tambourines)

LOBET: Occidental officials concede that up until this year, when they handed over their operations, they did not desalinate the production waters and piped all of them, millions of barrels, into tributaries of the Amazon River. Humberto Gomez is an attorney and chief of industrial and native relations for Occidental in Peru.

H. GOMEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: If you appeal to our feelings, whether we behaved well or poorly, you have to live in a context, not an ideal world. The context is the law. The law that governs your activities. I can say, "I did the right thing," if what I did was legal, and I can say, "I was wrong," if I didn't respect the law. And there's not a single case that's shown that the company acted outside its responsibility under the law.

LOBET: In fact, the company felt little weight of the law for its first 20 years in Peru. There were no environmental laws governing oil companies until the mid-1990s. Even then Occidental arranged for a seven-year phase-in, then sold before it had to fully comply. Occidental officials estimate that by then, they had completed 70 percent of an environmental cleanup plan. For Mr. Gomez, the attorney, compensation for harm to local residents would be out of the question.

H. GOMEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: We have no thought of any compensation because we have behaved well.

(Native music up and under)

LOBET: Two days voyage back by boat, three airplane flights, and several hours on bumpy roads bring us to another region of feverish oil drilling in the Amazon rainforest, this time in Ecuador. Unlike in Peru, Occidental is a recent arrival here. Facilities are modern, and that means cleaner.

(A man speaks in Spanish)

LOBET: Patricio Rivera, Occidental's environmental health and safety director in Ecuador, shows off a hangar full of oil spill boats and equipment, each geared to the width and current of a nearby river. This facility was the first business in Ecuador to attain international ISO 14000 environmental certification. A video produced in Spanish and English lays down the company's ground rules for subcontractors.

(Background music with voice-over: "With the goal of reducing to a minimum the effects of oil operations in Butadiene [phonetic spelling] and considering the high degree of sensitivity of the ecosystem, we have applied the cluster technology of drilling, thus avoiding a considerable deforestation...")

LOBET: And, in contrast to its Peruvian operations, Oxy's Ecuadorian video is explicit on the dangers of discharging production fluids.

(Voice-over: "Produced waters that result from productive processes are reinjected, avoiding in this way the contamination of rivers and estuaries that may be used by communities or by wildlife...")

LOBET: Even its critics say Occidental is one of the cleanest oil companies in Ecuador, and Mr. Rivera lists a series of Oxy's social improvements for nearby native communities, whose villages are nearly forgotten by the government. Fifteen classrooms, five community buildings, four clinics, a total of 64 projects.

RIVERA: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: We've built a health center here. We provide scholarship at the bilingual Quechua-Spanish institute. Another priority for us is self-sufficiency, and this community asked us for a coffee marketing project.

LOBET: Still, the presence of Occidental has pulled at the fabric of Indian life here. In Ecuador, Peru, and many other countries, the government owns all mineral rights and can put those rights up for bid regardless of who owns the land. But native people are increasingly vocal, and companies now often seek permission.

(Bird calls)

LOBET: Humberto Piyaguaje of the Secoya nation tells what happened in the late 1990s when Occidental Petroleum leased the right to exploit oil on Secoya land.

H. PIYAGUAJE: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The company wanted to sign an agreement right away. And I said, "We the leaders of the three communities must talk among ourselves." And the company said, "No, we want to sign an agreement right now." They came again with an army major, and he said, "The State needs this project. You are part of the State, you are Ecuadorians. We need the petroleum, and the petroleum belongs to the State."

LOBET: Feeling pressured, Mr. Piyaguaje sought support at an international indigenous conference. While he was away, Occidental officials persuaded a younger leader to sign the contract for initial exploration.

H. PIYAGUAJE: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: And it had been signed without reading it. And all we had gotten were things like an outboard motor, a boat, some barbed wire, some roofing, and a little money. And it gave them access to all our 54,000 hectares, our most sacred, untouchable land.

LOBET: Next, the company pursued the right to drill test wells. The community struggled to set a value of the land that would be clear-cut.

H. PIYAGUAJE: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: There are some things we can't put a price on. Like our sacred places. There are places in the forest where the wild animals come in search of salt, animals like tapir and wild boar. We believe that souls exist there among the cedars, that give us wisdom. How can we calculate the price they're going to pay us?

(Bird calls)

LOBET: The Secoya council gathered a team of advisors. Facing resistance, company officials went around the council and negotiated separately with a single village.

H. PIYAGUAJE: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: That was when there was the biggest division between us. Imagine: 356 people, this tiny nation was on the verge of splitting apart. Finally they said to us, "Look, if you don't do this, we're going to give it to the State. We will expropriate your land." This made us very afraid. We said, how is it possible that just by obstructing this, that they're going to take the land away from us? That was the big threat that made them win. Because if they hadn't said this, I don't think we would have allowed the company in.

LOBET: The Secoyas and Occidental went on to negotiate a first in Ecuador, and perhaps a first in the oil industry: a code of conduct. It gives the tribe the right to sit down at the table with the company, the right to inspect all oil operation, and $600,000 plus $100,000 more if the company strikes oil.

Occidental is also using helicopters instead of building roads, averting a deluge of non-Indian settlers into Secoya territory.

When the Secoya agreed to work with the company, one thing they lost was the support of an environmental group in Quito, Accion Ecologia, which opposes all oil development. Adolfo Maldonado, a physician with the group, says the Secoyas let themselves be bought.

MALDONADO: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The kind of development an oil company brings, a few solar collectors to create light, sure, that can be attractive to Indian people, a novelty. But so were the glass beads brought over by Christopher Columbus during the conquest. This is nothing but new glass beads.

LOBET: But Edison Piyaguaje, a young Secoya who is studying agriculture, sees it differently. He says the long negotiations changed his self-image.

E. PIAGUAJE: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: Before, I though they were so big and we were so small. Now we can talk to them. We feel like we're worth something, too, like we're almost equal. We're saying no, you can't harm the forest.

(Bird calls)

LOBET: Meanwhile, in Colombia, where the Uwa tribe is opposing Occidental, thousands of soldiers were called in to protect Occidental workers as they moved heavy equipment to their platform. Guerrillas there threatened to attack the convoy. And in Peru, natives in the region Occidental used to own say what they hope for is to one day again have clean water.

(Bird calls)

LOBET: For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.

(Bird calls up and under)

CURWOOD: Human and environmental rights groups have zeroed in on Al Gore's ties to Occidental Petroleum. Because of his claim to be the environmental candidate, the Vice President is a particularly inviting target of demonstrators on the campaign trail

DEMONSTRATORS: Hey, Gore! What about Oxy, what about the Uâwa? Hey, Gore! What about Oxy, what about the Uwa?

CURWOOD: A few details about Al Gore's relationship with Occidental Petroleum. Upon the death of his father in 1998, the Vice President was named executor of his father's estate, which had major holdings of Occidental stock. The stock, worth as much as a million dollars, was transferred to a family trust. In March of this year, the Vice President resigned as trustee but remains a beneficiary. The Vice President has publicly remained silent on the Uâwa tribe and Occidental's exploration activities in South America. His campaign declined to respond to our story.

Al Gore is not the only candidate with ties to the oil industry. George W. Bush got his start in oil. And his running-mate Dick Cheney was a major oil executive. The industry has pumped more than $21 million into this year's elections. Eighty percent of those dollars went to Republicans. So, whether a Republican or a Democrat wins the election, oil and politics will continue to mix at the White House.



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