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Hill Dispatches: Will Talisman get to pollute indigenous lands?

In the good old days of the 1990s Preston Manning's Reform Party not only advocated reduced social spending and public services, it also wanted to virtually eliminate federal subsidies to business.

Government's role, Reformers used to say, is to get out of the way and let the private sector do its thing. Government should not be trying to "pick winners" in the economy.

That is what Liberals do, not true small-c conservatives.

The current Conservative Government, however, is happy to carry on with the time-honoured practice of handouts to private, profit-making businesses.

Almost every day, journalists who are members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery get a slew of news releases announcing this Conservative Minister or MP or that visiting a company (usually in the MP's riding) and handing out a nifty, Government of Canada cheque.

During the period of Canada's so-called "economic action plan" the Conservatives made an art form out of this practice, complete with giant, cardboard cheques of the kind you see on telethons or lottery winner announcements.

Government supports company at odds with indigenous people in Amazon

One of the many corporate beneficiaries of Canadian Government largesse is Calgary-based Talisman Energy.

That company has benefited from a generous letter of credit to the tune of $100 to $200 million from the Canadian Export Development Corporation (EDC) for nearly six years now. The EDC's mission is to encourage exports from Canada and Canadian investment abroad.

One country high on Talisman's priority list is Peru.

There are apparently significant undeveloped oil deposits in the Peruvian Amazon region, and Talisman would like to start exploiting them.

The company started by doing "seismic" testing. This involves cutting straight-line pathways through the bush (the Mackenzie Delta region of Canada's north is covered with these) and then inserting underground sonic devices and conducting explosions.

Talisman then went to the next step: drilling exploratory wells.

The company is doing all of this in the face of a significant degree of resistance from the people who live in the region, the Achuar people.

Now, Achuar representatives have come to Canada to make their case -- urge Talisman to, quite simply, "leave us alone!"

Lucas Irar Miik is an Achuar schoolteacher who also hunts, fishes and harvests medicinal herbs. This Amazon homeland is, at once, his pantry and his medicine chest. He believes that Talisman's activities will cause irreparable harm to his peoples' environment.

The Achuar have had bad experiences with Occidental Petroleum's activities in their region, which involved dumping toxic "produced waters" into the watershed, and they don't want a new, hitherto  unexploited area to suffer the same fate.

"We have had 40 years of trouble with Occidental," Lucas says, "we don't need more trouble with Talisman. We have heard about their bad record in the Sudan and we don't want to have to live with cadmium and lead poisoning in a region that has never been exploited."

Why do they need the oil so desperately?

The Achuar's situation will be familiar to Canadian First Nations' people.

They seek to find a balance of their own choosing between the benefits of education, science and technology -- Lucas, after all, trained as a teacher at a post-secondary institution far from home --  and their traditional way of life.

But the Achuar have the misfortune to be sitting on top of oil. The corporate world's haste to suck out a resource that is going nowhere makes no sense to them. When the oil is all gone, what will the Achuar have? Nothing but a despoiled environment, they say.

Talisman's strategy will also be familiar to Canadian First Nations' people. It is an ancient one called "divide and conquer."

The Calgary-based oil company knows that you cannot simply walk into indigenous peoples' territory, unannounced and uninvited, these days.

Talisman's problem was that it could not get agreement of the larger Archuar community. The company's solution was to convince some notional "leaders" and a few communities close to the actual development site to sign on in exchange for a benefit or compensation package.

Peas Peas Ayui, leader of the over-arching Achuar organization known by its Spanish acronym FENAP, says that most of the so-called "leaders" who signed on with Talisman are actually ex-leaders, some of them discredited as a result of corruption scandals.

"It is a very fragile situation now, because of the interference of Talisman," the FENAP leader says. "We even came close to violence when Talisman helicoptered armed supporters into a meeting and hid them in the forest. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and nobody was hurt!"

Lobbying and visiting an Algonquin sweat lodge

The Achuar delegation to Canada met with a number of Opposition Members of Parliament in Ottawa -- including the NDP's Craig Scott and Hélène Laverdière and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May -- and with people from the Assembly of First Nations, which is supporting their effort. They also visited an Algonquin First Nations' community near Ottawa, where some of them took part in their first sweat lodge ceremony.

"I spent four hours in the sweat lodge and it was very good," Lucas Irar Miik reports. "It is the same thing as our Achuar grandparents used to do!"

They will be in Calgary on the first of May for Talisman's Annual General Meeting.

On its website the Calgary oil company displays a rotating series of mottos, one of which says: "doing business in an ethically, socially and environmentally responsible way."

That's encouraging.

But then the words on the website change and there are newer, more bottom-line associated mottos, such as: "creating value with global exploration and development."

Enough said.

Talisman's website is available here.

You can find Amazon Watch, a group supporting the Achuar at: http://amazonwatch.org/

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