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Jiyukam Irar Miik of Peru visits the Athabasca oil sands area of Northern Alberta. (Caroline Bennett for The Globe and Mail/Caroline Bennett for The Globe and Mail)
Jiyukam Irar Miik of Peru visits the Athabasca oil sands area of Northern Alberta. (Caroline Bennett for The Globe and Mail/Caroline Bennett for The Globe and Mail)

The age of extreme oil: 'This used to be a forest?' Add to ...

Brazil's much-vaunted offshore deposits are just as deep. So are the Arctic deposits that Big Oil is eyeing now. Shell, for instance, has spent $4-billion preparing to explore off the shores of Alaska, without yet producing a single barrel. Further north, the federal government opened the bidding this week on 905,000 hectares of the Canadian Arctic sea floor, adding to the leases being explored in the Beaufort Sea by companies that have already spent billions in a region once thought forever out of reach.

These extremes go a long way to explaining why oil is at $100 a barrel, which in turn helps explain why Talisman is now keen to start pumping in Peru's Amazon. The Achuar who visited Alberta have the mixed fortune to live above 41 million barrels of light crude, six kilometres beneath their feet. At that depth, it takes 200 days and up to $80-million just to drill a single exploratory well, which may not find its mark. The quantity is globally slight – the world goes through 41 million barrels every 10 hours – but the $4-billion it's worth at today's prices makes it significant indeed to a mid-level energy corporation from Calgary.

‘Big money, big problems'

On Friday, Mr. Deranger took the Achuar to Gregoire Lake Reserve, half an hour south of Fort McMurray, where his friend Brian Bird lives, along with 500 Cree in houses of various states of decay. It was snowing, but Mr. Ayui insisted on keeping the window rolled down for the entire drive, for an unobstructed view of the brown surroundings.

A hardened patch of ice coated the earth in front of Mr. Bird's house, and Ms. Antich, who had never seen snow, spent a few minutes stomping over it. But soon the cold overcame her wonder and everyone went inside.

“You know how they say ‘big money, big problems'?” said Mr. Bird, a father of 10 with a boxer's build and a shaven head, after the introductions. “That's what happened here. Fifteen years ago, when there were only two oil plants, moose would wander into the front yard and the lake was full of fish. Now, there are 20 oil plants and everyone has a job, but there are no more fish in the lakes and we haven't seen a moose here in years.”

“How do you eat?” asked Jiyucam Irar Miik ( he-YOU-cam ear-ARE Meek), who founded the 44-village federation that Mr. Ayui now leads. He's now in his 50s.

“We go to the store.”

“Has your economic situation improved?”

“Money is there,” Mr. Bird said, “but we fight over it non-stop. … Nobody trusts each other.”

“Do your children get a better education?”

“Good enough to work for the oil companies.”

This is the conundrum for native people around Fort McMurray: Most of them work for the oil sands, even as they complain about the impacts. To some people, that's hypocrisy. To Mr. Deranger, it simply confirms their role as economic hostages.

“Everyone has to eat,” he said. “If you look at the history of first nations here and everywhere in Canada, we've been marginalized to the point of starvation for generations. The land and water around Fort McMurray is so contaminated we can't hunt or fish any more. If you starve someone long enough, even crumbs will seem nourishing.”

Before the Achuar left, Mr. Bird showed them the water drum he had made from a round of cottonwood, its hollow bowl half-filled with water he had collected on a trip to the Sonora desert. They listened, rapt, as he explained how the skin represented the animal kingdom, the wood represented plants and the water that beaded up when he struck it symbolized rain. The sound it made was thunder.

Thumping the drum's moist skin, he sang a Cree song composed by a veteran of the Vietnam War. “He was the only one in his battalion who survived the war,” he said afterwards, “so he wrote this song about how beautiful it is to be alive.”

From there, it was a short drive to the Fort McMurray First Nation band office, where chief Ron Kreutzer was waiting to give the Achuar some advice.

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