The History of Block 24
The Atlantic Richfield Corporation (ARCO) received drilling rights for the 200,000-hectare Block 24 concession from the Ecuadorian government in 1998. Block 24 comprises part of the ancestral homeland of the Shuar and Achuar peoples, who call the region Transkutuku after the mountain range that traverses it. Legally recognized indigenous federations known by acronyms, FIPSE and FICSH for the Shuar (now consolidated into one federation, NASHE), and NAE for the Achuar, represent the majority of the region's indigenous peoples. This region is one of the last large tracts of lowland rainforest in Ecuador that is still virtually undisturbed. The Achuar only came into contact with the outside world at the end of the 1960s. They have managed their lands for millennia, combining hunting, fishing and gathering of forest products with traditional cultivation of small clearings. To date only 3% of all Achuar territory has been deforested for their use, and they seek a strategy to maintain this area intact in perpetuity.
The Shuar and Achuar made their opposition well know to ARCO by holding protests and marches, thwarting company employees from entering their territories, and filing a legal injunction aimed at stopping company officials from dividing communities and bribing leaders. ARCO failed to properly consult the federations, in violation of internationally recognized indigenous rights, and in 1999, a provincial judge ordered an injunction preventing attempts by ARCO officials to dialogue with non-authorized members of the indigenous federations. Unable to move forward with oil activities due to the widespread resistance, ARCO sold the block to Houston-based Burlington Resources in 1999.
Beginning in 2000, Burlington pursued an aggressive community relations strategy in hopes of manufacturing consent for the project. Dubbed by the indigenous federations as "divide and conquer" tactics, they repeatedly denounced Burlington's controversial approach and called on the company to respect indigenous peoples' rights and halt its divisive activities. The indigenous federation FIPSE again filed a petition to keep Burlington from using the types of tactics that were previously outlawed under ARCO's tenure in the block. The court ruled that the injunction also applied to Burlington once it took over the concession. Despite this, Burlington officials continued to attempt to by-pass the legally recognized federations, in violation of the injunction. In violation of both Ecuadorian and international law, the company repeatedly entered indigenous ancestral lands without prior consultation with recognized tribal authorities while also attempting to manipulate and divide the indigenous residents.
International covenants and widespread recognition of indigenous rights enshrines the right of indigenous peoples to decide their own development as well as the right to 'free, prior and informed consent' for projects that affect their territories and cultures. Despite these legal concerns and the opposition of the majority of indigenous peoples to be affected by the company's operations, Burlington continued to pursue a discredited and unethical strategy with the local indigenous peoples in its efforts to drill for oil.
Indigenous opposition paralyzed any Burlington oil extraction activities throughout the company's ownership of Block 24. In August 2002, Achuar and Shuar federations filed a complaint to Ecuador's Civil Anti-Corruption Commission demanding that the Ecuadorian government terminate Burlington's participation contract for the block. The termination of the contract would prohibit Burlington from entering into any new contract with the Ecuadorian state. Under this contract, the company was obligated to carry out exploration and to develop an exploration plan by May 2002. However, community resistance forced Burlington to declare force majeure and prevented it from fulfilling the terms of the contract. An assessment of the original contract carried out by Ecuadorian armed forces noted that the Burlington contract entitled the Ecuadorian government to only 12.5% of the profits generated by the block—the lowest percentage of any participation contract granted to foreign oil companies by the state. In November 2002, the Commission ruled that Burlington, in waiting 28 months instead of 10 days to declare force majeure, indeed had broken its contractual obligations and called on the Ministry of Energy and Mines to cancel the company's contract.
In light of the ongoing stalemate, the Ecuadorian government threatened to militarize the region in an effort to quell resistance and proceed with oil prospecting. But a civil uprising in 2005 forced out President Lucio Gutierrez, bringing in a new national regime. This, combined with international and shareholder pressure on Burlington spearheaded by Amazon Watch which forced the company to commit to not moving forward with Ecuadorian military assistance, helped relieve immediate pressure on the Shuar and Achuar within Block 24.
In 2005, Burlington resources was bought by ConocoPhillips, who is now the sole owner and operator of Block 24. At a 2007 shareholder meeting, CEO James Mulva, said the company is currently "reviewing" its plans for the block, but has legally moved forward with plans to leave Ecuador. The government has expressed interest in continuing attempts to open up the area to new drilling if the company leaves.