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Oil Sparks in the Amazon: Local Conflicts, Indigenous Populations, and Natural Resources by Patricia I. Vásquez

Photo: Lars Klove

Since the early 1990s, the rising price of crude oil and other key natural resources—and the resulting drive by governments and private companies to extract those resources—has led to sharp conflicts in Latin America. At the core of these disputes is the clash between national economic interest and the rights of Indigenous people inhabiting the land where most natural resources are located. In Oil Sparks in the Amazon: Local Conflicts, Indigenous Populations and Natural Resources, Patricia I. Vásquez examines one of the region’s most contentious theaters of resource conflict: the vast oil and mineral-rich basin shared by Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil.

Vásquez, an independent energy expert and former senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, focuses on the first three countries, with a carefully researched analysis of 55 separate disputes between 1992 and 2010. In each country, she maps the conflicts by grading their intensity on a scale of 0 to 5, examining how the dynamics have shifted over time.

She finds that the number of conflicts linked to gas and oil has been especially high among Indigenous populations in Peru, and to a lesser extent in Ecuador and Colombia.

Resource conflicts generally involve a large number of stakeholders representing divergent interests. They include various government entities that are not always well-coordinated with one another; international NGOs with an environmental agenda; underserved and isolated local populations who may distrust the government and may not be fully aware of the laws and contractual agreements governing the extraction of natural resources; and private companies that are hoping to extract these resources.

While these conflicts may seem to be about money—or access to land that will produce revenue—Vásquez argues that at the heart of the issue is a question of identity. As she explains, “The constitutional view of natural resources is irreconcilable with the concept of territory for Indigenous peoples, for whom the geographic space where they live constitutes part of their identity.”

To better understand the foundation of these conflicts, Vásquez examines two recurring triggers: structural flaws and transient triggers. A central structural flaw is poor local and regional governance, which is characterized by high rates of corruption and an inability to locally administer increasing revenues from natural resources. The other structural flaw is a legal framework that is confusing and misunderstood.

There is a lack of clarity around Indigenous peoples’ rights to natural resource ownership and the available legal recourse for redress. As Vásquez notes, “When these types of structural flaws set limitations to open participation or to the promotion of public self-expression and accountability of the authorities, violence is bound to occur at some point.”

Outside the legal framework are concepts such as “national interest,” which, although meant to represent the interest of the majority of the population, is often used to make the case for subverting laws that were put in place to protect or give special status to areas with natural resources.

Transient triggers are more circumstantial and—according to Vásquez—easier to solve. A transient trigger may be the tensions that can arise between national and international NGOs, the latter of which often compete with more grassroots operations for economic support as well as exposure and local political influence.

Underlying these triggers is an emboldened Indigenous rights movement, whose fight for the recognition of rights of communities affected by resource extraction is rapidly becoming a new platform for social mobilization. Communities across the region are demanding improved living conditions, more political representation and access to their fair share of the profits of oil and gas exploration in areas where they live.

Resolving the structural and transient causes of local conflicts not only requires political will, but a real commitment from the government to be engaged, coordinated and accountable at the regional and local level. Vásquez argues that well-respected, credible institutions or individuals—such as Peru’s Defensoría del Pueblo (ombudsman)—could go a long way in mitigating oil-related conflicts by helping to create a platform for dialogue.

So far, the Peruvian ombudsman appears to be the only office that has forged a dialogue as conflicts have intensified. Although the office has yet to resolve these conflicts, it is seen as legitimate and unbiased, which has allowed it to play a critical role in facilitating conversation.

Vásquez concludes that in confronting these types of conflicts, governments must take the role of Indigenous identity seriously, and address some of the underlying issues that foster resentment and frustration—such as inadequate access to health care, education and public services. Often, the government has only visited these communities in the context of preparing for the development of a new oil project and has let extractive companies step in to provide services the state cannot or will not provide.

Vásquez’ book gives new texture to the so-called resource curse—the concept that countries rich in petroleum often have weaker democracy, less economic stability and more frequent civil wars than countries without oil. She localizes this theory, showing the negative implications of natural resource-rich countries on the local and community level.

What is missing, however, are reflections on whether, and how, the conflicts have affected the local communities. Were any Indigenous people displaced by resource extraction? What effect did the investment have on the natural environment? And what was the benefit or impact of any measures or strategies to address such concerns?

What Vásquez makes clear is that oil and gas exploration in the Amazon is increasing in tandem with the emergence of Indigenous rights, and these trends are on a collision course that will only worsen unless properly addressed. Her book offers important insights on approaches to mitigate this, and is a valuable read not only for students and scholars, but for government officials tasked with confronting this challenge.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Peru, oil, Indigenous Rights