Message from the Amazon

Message from the Amazon

One hundred and five million barrels. That’s how much crude the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that we will consume per day by the year 2030. Pretty staggering considering the fact that delegates from nearly 200 countries just gathered in Copenhagen with the singular goal of solving the world’s carbon emissions problem.

Going in, there was significant skepticism about the developed world’s ability to collaborate with emerging economies in order to come to a workable agreement on how to share the burdens related to climate change. Now, with only a moderately aggressive climate change agreement in place, the IEA estimates that global oil consumption will continue to rise – and with it, greenhouse gas emissions, international tensions, and the race of top oil firms to tap into the world’s reserves wherever and however they can.

Deep in the trenches of Ecuador lies an unfortunate victim of the developed world’s unwillingness to more rapidly taper its addiction to fossil fuels. It is a primal rainforest – an incredibly pristine and biodiverse region, holding the greatest known selection of trees, insects and amphibians on earth. The Amazon rainforest serves a distinct purpose for humanity, providing essential nutrients, absorbing large quantities of carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen into the atmosphere. It is home to several indigenous communities, including the Achuar, Shuar, and Kichwa peoples, who have lived there for millennia.

Over 35 oil firms keep a keen eye on this precious ecosystem, as they have great incentive to unearth what lies beneath. “We’ve been following oil and gas development in the Amazon since 2004 and the picture has changed before our eyes,” Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests told The Guardian back in 2008. “When you look at where the oil and gas blocks are, they overlap perfectly on top of the peak biodiversity spots, almost as if by design, and this is in one of the most, if not the most, biodiverse place on Earth.”

According to a recently published research report from Save America’s Forests, there are now 180 oil and gas blocks (ongoing extraction projects) covering 688,000 kilometers of forest in the Western Amazon alone. Many of the blocks cover protected areas, such as national parks, which were originally established for biodiversity protection. The oil blocks invade indigenous community living territories, which is why community members have attempted to organize themselves, taking grassroots and legal action against oil firms.

“The Shuar and Achuar peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon want it to be known that the position of our communities is ‘no’ to oil exploration, ‘no’ to dialogue and negotiation, ‘no’ to deforestation, ‘no’ to contamination, and ‘no’ to all oil activities,” says Bosco Najamdey, President of the Shuar Federation on, a website dedicated to depicting indigenous community efforts against oil firms ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Hunt Oil and others.

In a November 2009 letter issued to Hunt Oil CEO Ray Hunt, tribal leaders sent a fervent message:

“The area in dispute, besides being a declared nature reserve, crosses the headwaters of several important river basins, and lies in the buffer zones of Manu and Bahuaja Sonene National Parks, two of the most biodiverse national parks in the world...

Ten indigenous communities live around and benefit from the reserve. It is their ancestral territory. They were never consulted by the Peruvian government or Hunt Oil and are opposed to the operations. FENAMAD (the Native Federation of the Río Madre de Dios) has repeatedly protested the company’s operations and recently filed an injunction against the company based on the potential damage to the watershed and the lack of consultation.

Thus far Hunt has refused to cede to any of FENAMAD’s demands and the government has sent only low-level officials to talks and armed forces to patrol the area rather than hold meaningful talks with the indigenous communities.”

Whether oil firms like Hunt operating in the region will acknowledge tribal voices and leave the rainforest in tact, or whether they will press on with exploration projects, potentially leading to future fatal clashes between protesting locals and the government’s armed forces, remains to be seen. But clearly, the Amazon’s indigenous communities have a rigorous battle ahead of them.

From a legal perspective it isn’t clear which side has the upper hand. According to Save America’s Forests, local governments claim the authority to manage natural resources located on or below indigenous peoples territories for the public interest. Thus far, when the government has concluded that opening the rainforest to extraction projects benefits the public – generating energy, tax dollars, jobs and so forth – they have done so without prior informed consent from indigenous communities. On the other hand, indigenous communities protest the lack of consultation. They claim that their existing property and territory rights allows them the right to free, prior and informed consent regarding proposed extractive projects on their lands.

As tapping into the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves becomes more costly and difficult for corporations, tension in the rainforest builds. Do indigenous communities stand a chance against the will of governments supported by Hunt, Chevron and ConocoPhillips? What will it take to save the most priceless real estate on earth?

Expanding Worldviews
The Achuar, Shuar, and Kichwa peoples have one thing that oil companies don’t: ancient wisdom. If effectively leveraged, it is hypothesized that such wisdom could translate to a groundswell of public support for the ‘save the rainforest’ cause. Ancient wisdom could potentially build bridges of mutual understanding between indigenous communities and mainstream Western culture. Ultimately, it could help win the ongoing “Amazon oil war” in a way that benefits all humanity.

The Amazon rainforest’s indigenous leaders, along with strategic partners here in the United States, envision a sweeping wisdom-sharing mission to be carried out. The Pachamama Alliance, a San Francisco-based non-profit group dedicated to preserving the rainforest by empowering indigenous communities, has stepped in to carry this wisdom-sharing process forward.

“Hundreds of organizations have formed and are doing important work addressing virtually every level of the (rainforest destruction) problem. And yet, rainforests continue to fall, by some estimates at the rate of 10 million trees per day,” says Pachamama on its website. “Our goal is to successfully combine the best elements of worldviews into a single global vision, an alloy that blends the intellectual and scientific prowess of the modern world, with the deep and ancient wisdom of traditional cultures. This is the commitment which underlies all of our work.”

Pachamama co-founders Lynne and Bill Twist recently announced the formation of an “Urgency Coalition” campaign planned for 2010, which aims to “wake up, motivate and inspire” people around the world through communications that impart bits of ancient wisdom. Portland-based advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, creator of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, has been tagged as the creative force behind the initiative.

“The next four years [are] critical if we are to reach the tipping point in human thinking that will be necessary to achieve environmental sustainability and social justice on the planet in our lifetimes,” says Pachamama. According to Pachamama, the Urgency Coalition campaign will set a high bar, aiming to transform the way people see the world.

In addition to executing transformative campaigns, Pachamama also hosts regularly scheduled rainforest trips, where ecotourists undergo total immersion in the Amazon experience and gain a new life perspective. “Become one of a handful of people to experience a direct, intimate encounter with the Achuar,” Pachamama says in its online marketing brochure. “Learn what it’s like to live in harmony with the Earth directly from the elders and shamans of one of the world’s oldest and most intact remaining dream cultures.” Apparently, this trip is as once-in-a-lifetime as it gets. When people see and experience what the Achuar’s have to offer and teach the Western world, their natural instinct is to want to spread the word virally.

“The experience was extraordinary,” says musician and environmental activist Christen Lien, who attended the Pachamama Alliance’s November 2008 ecotour. “What really struck me was the Achuar’s whole approach to life – the way families interact and the way the community functions as a whole. Everything is reciprocal. You take what you give and there is an awareness of the role that everyone plays within a larger system. They don’t even know what a power hierarchy is because to them it serves no purpose.”

Since returning from the Amazon, Lien has herself conducted a press tour, blogging about the experience, speaking to political and business audiences and conducting a series of radio interviews with NPR. “I’m amazed by how receptive and interested people are in what this culture has to share,” says Lien.

According to Lien, Westerners can get a more realistic picture of themselves and their potential fate by stepping outside of their world and seeing things through Achuar eyes. Tearing down million year-old forests to service short-term energy needs? Building petroleum-based products designed to last in landfills for 15,000 years? Not signs of an intelligent, enduring civilization.

The Achuar have lived in the rainforest for thousands of years, but have spent the last few decades integrating themselves into Western society in order to ensure their own survival. As oil companies are intensely organized in their pursuits, social isolation is no longer an option for the Achuar. Having established offices in key cities, they now maintain regular communication lines with the West.

However integrated and familiar the Achuar are with our ways, their mindset remains distinct. For one thing, the Achuar consider themselves guests rather than owners of the land and respect the rainforest’s delicate balance. “They take care of their home in order to better ensure their long-term survival,” says Lien. “It just makes sense.”

The Achuar are natural cradle-to-cradle manufacturers. The products and tools they use to enhance their lives are soon returned to the earth, just the way the earth supplied the raw materials in the first place.

Balance also reigns with respect to social relationships, as the differences between men and women are cherished. In Achuar culture, women are relied upon not only to give life, but also to heal it and to reign in the male desire for conquest. “Achuar women’s role is to say when,” says Lien. “They tell men when they’ve cut down enough trees, hunted enough animals, taken enough from the earth. And the men listen.” Imagine if Western women wielded that kind of power.

Lien says Achuar leaders make some important observations about Western culture, and that we should take heed for our own good and evolutionary benefit. For example, the Achuar perceive that Western world power currently resides with our culture’s de-facto shamans. Those would be the corporate marketers, talking heads, evangelists and politicians dominating the majority of our airwaves and selling the manufactured American dream, which often tempts us into mass consumption. Buying homes with huge mortgages, buying cars with mediocre gas mileage, working in jobs with glass ceilings, eating convenience foods produced in vast quantities are steps along the mainstream track, they observe. But as the Achuar point out, this path helps serve the interests of a chosen few while creating serious implications for the bulk of the world’s population.

The Achuar urge us to consider the implications of our collective dream, because in many ways our dream imposes hierarchies, power structures and tensions. It draws divisions between people. It prompts us to spend our lives chasing specific goals that others have convinced us will produce happiness. But do they?

“They kept saying this over and over,” says Lien. “Don’t give into the nightmare. Don’t feed into the greed. Change your dream, because then you will change your lives.”

Perhaps that is the leap of faith to contemplate this holiday season. If we can successfully transform our vision of ourselves, what we want and what we truly need, then reality will follow. I suspect Weiden+Kennedy, with its powerhouse creative team, will blast this and other Achuar messages through loud and clear. I look forward to that, and to the oil industry’s response to the Urgency Coalition campaign. Let’s hope they come back with something other than bulldozers.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

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