Issue of February, 09, 2004
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Accents
Advance of Oil Companies Alarms Indians
By Lidia Hunter

Foreign companies are restarting oil exploration in Nicaragua, a process that was interrupted in 1979. Indigenous communities along the Caribbean coast are worried about the potential for environmental damage.

MANAGUA, (Tierramérica).- Four U.S. companies are to move forward this year with petroleum and natural gas exploration in Nicaragua after wrapping up negotiations with the government for a five-year concession for some 25,000 square km -- covering land and sea. The indigenous groups in the area oppose the move.

Exploration is slated to begin when the environmental impact studies are complete and will determine whether the resources "are easy to extract, if there will be difficulties or if it will be very expensive," Fernando Ocampo, director of fossil fuels for the Nicaraguan Energy Institute.

If the results are positive, preliminary calculations are for daily output of 50,000 barrels (159 liters each) of petroleum, and some 83,000 liters of natural gas, generating revenues of around 300 million dollars a year for Nicaragua.

The two Central American oil producers currently are Guatemala and Panama, putting out 24,700 and 1,000 barrels a day, respectively, according to 2002 figures.

The latest technical investigations, carried out by Japanese scientists using the latest technology, found petroleum in a basin of the Caribbean in Nicaraguan waters, with a 50-year potential, according to the Nicaraguan Energy Institute.

The four companies based on U.S. capital that won the September concessions bids are Infinity, MKJ Explorations, Oklanicsa and Hellen Greathouse.

There is a 50-percent advance to sign the contracts, and before continuing exploration the firms must conduct environmental impact studies, which must be approved by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

Those studies, which are to begin in September, are to describe in detail the area of exploration, the lives of the nearby communities, and the marine flora and fauna that are susceptible to extinction, said Ocampo.

The concession area extends to the limits of Nicaraguan waters in the Caribbean (excluding Corn Island, the Miskitos and Perlas keys and other islets in the area) and in the Pacific (excluding beaches), a land area on the Caribbean coast and another area between Managua and the department of Rivas, to the south.

Ocampo said that protected areas had been excluded, such as the Miskitos keys and the beaches where sea turtles nest in Chacocente and Flor, on the Pacific coast.

But many in the Caribbean communities doubt that the Nicaraguan government has the economic or technical resources to monitor and regulate the foreign companies or to prevent environmental damage.

Miskito indigenous leader Humberto Thompson, member of the environmental group Oil Watch Mesoamerican Network, recalled the destruction caused since 1930 by foreign companies looking for oil in this country.

Thompson predicts that the use of explosives to open underwater oil wells will kill fish and sea turtles.

And petroleum is not the only thing that will come out of the oil wells, he said. There will be gases that contaminate the sea, and on land, rivers and freshwater wells will be polluted.

Wild animals, like deer, iguanas and birds will flee the area, and the local population will lose its means of subsistence, said the indigenous leader, based on the experiences from 1930 to 1975 on Nicaragua's Caribbean and Pacific coasts.

The country closed its doors to foreign oil companies in 1979, when the leftist Sandinistas came to power, but the doors were opened again in July 2002 by President Enrique Bolaños.

Ocampo argues that modern technology, such as ultrasound, allows oil exploration without threatening marine life, and that the use of explosives will be on land and controlled, and in areas far from the sea turtle nesting areas and other wildlife.

"The government says there will be more jobs, that this will be the solution to poverty, but the history of others, like Ecuador and Guatemala, doesn't support that. The Indians who live in areas near oil fields continue to be poor," said Thompson.

In the Nicaraguan Caribbean, there are some 140 indigenous communities, a total of 70,000 to 80,000 people amongst the Miskito, Sumo, Rama and Garífuna groups.

In that region, geographically isolated from the rest of the country and with limited infrastructure, an estimated 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, making their livelihood from fishing and small-scale farm activities.

The Indians fear that the transnationals will prevent them from using their traditional fishing areas, because the first thing they do "is hire military protection to restrict access," says Thompson.

* Lidia Hunter is a Tierramérica contributor.

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