by Stephanie Boyd
New Internationalist magazine, November 2000
Transnationals everywhere are attempting to recast themselves
as eco-friendly. But, as Stephanie Boyd discovers, sometimes it's
not the way companies behave but the nature of the business itself
which is at issue.
They promised this time it would d be different. 'Health,
safety and environment' was their motto. A 'green' Shell. A friendly
Shell. And even after losing a bid to f develop the Camisea gas
fields in the Peruvian Amazon, Shell claimed the experience gave
them a revolutionary guide for environmental regulations and social
relations that would 'transform mineral exploration in the new
Not surprisingly, both indigenous communities and environmentalists
are uneasy about the legacy of Shell's brave new world in the
Camisea concessions of the Lower Urubamba Valley - virgin rainforest
just 100 kilometres from the famed Manu National Park. Machiguenga,
Nahua and Kugapakori natives still lead a semi-nomadic life in
this lush and isolated region of biodiversity. Their leaders are
not certain whether a transnational giant like Shell can be trusted,
but at the same time they feel they have little choice.
Camisea's estimated 600 million barrels of liquid natural
gas are worth billions and communities say working with foreign
companies is their only chance to get money for social projects.
Peru's central government has ignored native people in the Urubamba
Valley for centuries - leaving them without schools, health centres
or other services. But environmental groups, like the San-Francisco-based
Rainforest Action Network (RAN), want gas companies out of the
Amazon. They urge Peru to develop alternative energy resources
RAN claimed victory when Shell Oil and its partner Mobil Corp
pulled out of Camisea in 1998 after investing $Y.7 billion over
two years of exploration. But the real reason the company left
was because of a dispute with the Peruvian Government over gas
distribution rights and tariffs. Finally last February the contract
was awarded to PlusPetrol, an Argentine-led consortium with a
bleak environmental record and neither the interest nor the money
to invest in social or ecological concerns.
Lelis Rivera, director of the Centre for the Development of
Amazon Indigenous Peoples, has worked in the Urubamba Valley with
the Machiguenga for 20 years and says local people are prepared
for an uphill battle with the new company.
Rivera recalls a Shell executive patting him on the shoulder
after the company lost the bid, saying: 'Hey, look, it was worth
the trouble fighting all the time because now we have a plan for
working with indigenous communities worldwide.'
Rivera says Shell first came to the region in the 1980s, with
disastrous consequences. Whooping cough and influenza decimated
previously uncontacted groups and sexual relations with indigenous
women, including many rapes, left sexually transmitted diseases
and the ironically named 'baby Shells'. So when Shell returned
in 1996 the communities were prepared. By then nearly all the
land under exploration had been legally titled to the Machiguenga
and they were well versed in their rights under Peruvian and international
Still smarting from the public outcry over its alleged human-rights
violations in Nigeria, Shell decided to engage in a little image
polishing. Big shots like Washington's Smithsonian Institute were
hired, along with a team of Peruvian anthropologists, to handle
contact between the company and native people. Shell promised
no other company employees would come in contact with locals and
agreed not to build major roads, thus preventing an invasion from
land-hungry peasants eager to turn the forest into farmland or
deal in tropical hardwoods. Everything in and out of Shell's camps,
from drill rigs to garbage, was supposed to be transported by
air or water.
But the Machiguenga and their advisors were not so easily
fooled. They chronicled a series of abuses that first year - including
garbage left behind in campsites, abandoned airstrips that were
never reforested and dangerous levels of hydrocarbons, cadmium
and mercury in local water samples. The study convinced a shame-faced
Shell to tighten up monitoring and Rivera says there was marked
improvement during the second year.
But there were still unresolved issues. Shell wanted the Government
to close a reserve protecting Kugapakori and Nahua peoples and
title their land so it could be sold to Camisea. Rivera says this
would have been impossible because, in the Nahua and Kugapakori
cultures, land is shared among semi-nomadic groups and 'ownership'
is not recognized. A sudden introduction to the outside world
would also have been devastating.
Shell's belief that everything and everyone is negotiable
is wrong, says Rivera: 'There are still places in the world that
are not ready to be explored by oil and gas companies.'
Jesus Castro, a young anthropologist who worked as a Shell
community-liaison officer, shares many of Rivera's opinions. 'And
this was just the exploration phase,' says Castro, pointing out
that the construction and operation of natural-gas pipelines have
even greater potential for damage. Shell planned to build a massive
pipeline snaking through virgin rainforest, ending up in Lima.
'One leak in a pipeline and everything within ten kilometres
disappears,' he says. One pipeline explosion in 1989 in Russia,
between the towns of Ufa and Asha, blew up two railroad trains
and killed 575 people.
The harsh reality facing indigenous groups within the Camisea
concession is that although Shell was far from perfect they had
a better plan than other companies - including the Argentine consortium
now in charge.
Pragmatists applaud Shell's attempts, saying environmentalists
need to work with companies in developing greener technology.
But in r the case of fossil fuels, even 'green' extraction, production
and refining can't ameliorate oil's deadly long-term impact on
the planet's environment. And although natural gas may be more
~ environmentally 'friendly' than coal or _ oil, it's still a
In a just world the Machiguenga would not have been forced
into a position where selling their land - and threatening their
way of life - was their only option. And if environmental and
social damages were added to the cost (say in some form of tax),
projects like Camisea would suddenly seem less profitable and
more attention could be focused on developing real green technology.
Wipe away the rhetoric and Shell is still one of the world's
top three oil and gas companies and co-owner of such controversial
projects as the Bolivia-Brazil natural-gas pipeline which traverses
important South American wetlands and forests.
The simple capitalist truism - that corporations exist to
make profits - means companies like Shell will invest in the environment
and social relations only as long as the game remains profitable.
Pragmatists say it doesn't matter as long as the end result is
positive. But a false conversion to the faith of sustainable development
is as fragile as the Amazon, and likely to be blown away whenever
the next consumer fad comes along.
Stephanie Boyd (firstname.lastname@example.org. pe), a former editor
with Latin America Press, now works as a freelance journalist