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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 ...

“This used to be a forest?” Mr. Achui asked. The region now resembles the Sahara – fine sand left behind by evaporated tailings ponds stretching into a treeless horizon.

“Where are all the birds?” asked Mr. Miik, genuinely bewildered.

Mr. Deranger explained that the cannons they heard every few seconds were designed to scare birds off, to prevent them landing in the oily ponds that settled like mirages between the dunes.

If the Achuar had believed in hell, this would have been it. It made little difference to them that Block 64's oil is light crude instead of bituminous sand – the risks they saw were just as great.

Their world, unlike Alberta, is composed of running water: Block 64 is two days by river from the nearest town, and days farther from the nearest major port where barges with serious cleanup capacity can moor. A major spill would spread far and fast.

This was no idle concern: Just across the border in Ecuador, oil production by Texaco and Chevron over the 1980s and 1990s saturated local waterways with billions of gallons of toxic sludge, leading an Ecuadorean court to rule, last January, that Chevron owes $18-billion in damages. (It has so far refused to pay.)

“All human technology fails,” said another of the visitors, Ampush Ayui Chayat, his long black hair tied back. “Talisman has insisted their new technology will change everything. But if this is how Canadians let oil companies operate in their own land, how can we trust them in ours?”

Even if Talisman's safeguards prove effective, the pipeline it plans to build to transport the oil to market will almost certainly attract more oil companies to a region studded with deposits. The Achuar homeland would become a hub for oil exploration.

Three days in Fort McMurray, which epitomizes everything known about boom towns, was enough to convince the visitors it was not a model to emulate.

The other side of the river

The Achuar were no more heartened by seeing Fort McKay, their final stop before their return to Calgary for the Talisman meeting. Mr. Deranger had a friend there named Cecilia Fitzpatrick, the granddaughter of the chief who signed over the band's land with a treaty in 1899.

“The government initially put us on the other side of the river,” Ms. Fitzpatrick told the Achuar, gesturing across the Athabasca from her porch. “But it's bog land over there, totally uninhabitable, so we moved here. Our people lived here as squatters for the early years, until the government gave in.”

She offered the group some bottled water, apologizing that the tap water was undrinkable.

“There are 22 companies operating all around us,” she went on. The local leadership kept making concessions, while the companies provided annual payments to every resident. “But we'll probably have to move again soon, since the only land we have left to sell is right below our houses.”

Ms. Fitzpatrick sighed. “It seems like we're always waiting, and I wonder what we're waiting for. We think it's going to get better, but it never does.”

Everyone fell quiet for a long moment. The Achuar stared out at the Athabasca, where the last chunks of winter ice were melting against the banks. The river and the land, Mr. Ayui had said earlier, were dead; therefore, in his eyes, the people were dead.

“I wish you luck with your struggle,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said at last. “Just remember, once you let one company in, the rest will be quick to follow.”

Calgary-based Arno Kopecky is the author of The Devil's Curve , an account of Canada's free-trade agreements with Peru and Colombia, due out in September.

Editor's Note: Talisman Energy Inc. allocated $3-million to a fund for Amazon villages. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article, which has been corrected.

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