Indigenous Brazilians Push Back Against State Oil Drilling Plan

    25 April 2024

    Brazil's state-run oil company, Petrobras, wants to look for oil near the nation's northeastern coast.

    Ibama is Brazil's environmental agency. The agency denied Petrobras' first proposal to do exploratory drilling last year over environmental worries. The indigenous people who live in the area also objected. But some political leaders, including President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, seem to support the oil company's appeal.

    Last September, the president said the company should be able to "research" the oil possibilities in the area. He said it was a national interest. Energy minister Alexandre Silveira recently said Brazil should "know the potential" of what exists along the northeastern coast.

    A Petrobras worker stands at the Oiapoque airport, near the mouth of the Amazon in Oiapoque, State of Amapa, Brazil, March 20, 2024. (REUTERS/Adriano Machado)
    A Petrobras worker stands at the Oiapoque airport, near the mouth of the Amazon in Oiapoque, State of Amapa, Brazil, March 20, 2024. (REUTERS/Adriano Machado)

    The support has energized Petrobras' leader Jean Paul Prates. Prates talked about the area, known as the Equatorial Margin, as "perhaps the last frontier of oil for Brazil."

    The company wants to start looking for oil in the area called Foz do Amazonas. It has that name because it is in the area of the mouth of the Amazon River. The area is thought to be similar to places off the coast of the South American country of Guyana, which is being explored by the Exxon oil company.

    The head of Ibama is Rodrigo Agostinho. He said the agency would make a decision about giving Petrobras a license to explore the area early this year, but the decision has been delayed.

    Reporting by Reuters news agency describes a growing indigenous campaign against Petrobras's appeal.

    Funai is Brazil's agency for indigenous protection. Last December, the group asked Ibama to carry out studies on the effects of drilling in Foz do Amazonas. The studies must happen before Ibama can give a license to Petrobras.

    In addition, an indigenous group called the CCPIO representing 60 villages in the area asked Brazilian federal government lawyers to look into the potential drilling license. They said their rights were being violated.

    In 2022, the government lawyers, or prosecutors, slowed down the process. They said Ibama needed to consult the local communities. Documents seen by Reuters show the CCPIO asked the prosecutors to oversee 13-months of talks starting last December.

    If the process continues without a change, the soonest Brazil could permit Petrobras to drill would be 2025. However, the country will be hosting the COP30 climate meeting, and it is unlikely Brazil would want to announce a new drilling plan at the same time.

    Petrobras said a decision needs to be made and the time for talks with indigenous people has passed. The oil company said the consultations should have happened at the beginning of the process. However, CCPIO and federal lawyers said a consultation must happen before drilling is permitted.

    Balancing promises

    Da Silva's government promised to protect the Amazon area and indigenous groups. However, the president also knows the value of oil development. Reuters says he is trying to balance both sides.

    Silveira, the energy minister, said a single successful drilling area could produce 5.6 billion barrels of oil. The discovery would be Brazil's biggest in more than 10 years.

    Petrobras argues that a drilling area 175 kilometers off the coast will not affect the indigenous people of northern Brazil. But activists say drilling could hurt the water environment and limit the native peoples' ability to fish and make a living.

    The CCPIO noted that it is not opposed to the search for oil, but it wants to be consulted before the exploration begins. Brazil signed an international agreement that says governments must talk with native groups before starting a project that might change their lifestyles.

    Changes ahead

    The news of a possible oil project starting next year has gotten the attention of migrant workers. A lawmaker in Amapá state, Inacio Monteiro, said workers are arriving in the town of Oiapoque looking for jobs in the oil industry although there are no jobs yet.

    Monteiro said he talks with indigenous leaders all the time about the good oil could bring, including better social programs, more infrastructure like roads and bridges, new jobs and money from taxes.

    However, local people like 25-year-old Luene Karipuna are concerned. She told a group at the COP28 climate meeting in Dubai that politicians and Petrobras are trying to silence her people. She said her people are worried that an oil spill could bring in polluted water.

    Indigenous leaders also worry that the support for protecting their land and waters is disappearing. They point to a 2023 hearing that Monteiro called just days after the first denial of Petrobras' license. Top leaders in Amapá state came together in Oiapoque to push again for the license. There were reports that a man wearing a white shirt and a traditional indigenous head covering said the native people supported drilling. However, CCPIO leaders said the man did not speak for them.

    CCPIO's coordinator, Cacique Edmilson Oliveira, said: "This is very concerning. That's why we are saying that we already feel threatened." He said Petrobras misreports the statements of Indigenous leaders. "We never sat down and reached an agreement for approval," he added.

    I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Gena Bennett.

    Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by Reuters.


    Words in This Story

    indigenous –n. people who come from a place and have lived there a long time

    potential –adj. something that could happen but that has not happened yet and might never happen

    frontier –n. a place that is at the edge of civilization or at the edge of what is known

    license –n. a document given by a government that gives the holder legal permission to do something

    consultations –n. (pl.) a series of talks between two or more sides in which they share their opinions and thoughts

    infrastructure –n. roads, bridges, power plants, and all the structures needed to have a modern society