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Though the high-profile court case that has brought Texaco back to Lago Agrio has sought to hold the company accountable for its past actions, other struggles taking place now will decide the future of oil in Ecuador. Many of these conflicts have pitted Ecuador's native peoples against the combined interests of the state and big businesses wishing to tap the estimated 4.6 billion barrels of oil that lie beneath the nation's soil.

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Government troops were brought in to keep the peace outside the trial in Lago Agria.
One hotspot of activity can be found in the Sarayacu region located in the Amazon Basin area in the country's east. The state auctioned off Sarayacu's territory to Argentina's Compania General de Combustibles (CGC) and Houston-based Burlington Resources Ltd. for oil exploration in 1996. But the Quichua and other Indian tribes who live in Sarayacu have thus far been successful in keeping the firms from drilling on their ancestral lands. Ecuador's native tribes make up nearly 50 percent of its population and, with the aid of international watchdog groups, their campaigns to protect their lands and secure more of Ecuador's oil wealth for their communities have grown more sophisticated. The Quichua and others in the Oriente region point to their budding ecotourism industry as proof that the Amazon's rainforests can both benefit indigenous Ecuadorians and turn a profit in a non-destructive manner.

On July 16, 2004 the Quichua won a symbolic victory when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights decreed that the Ecuadorian state should protect the communities of Sarayacu from exploitation. But there is great pressure on Ecuador's government to develop its oil resources. The IMF has insisted that new funds from oil be used to service the nation's debt while the state-owned oil company Petroecuador saw a decrease in oil output in 2003 due to lack of investment and corruption. Perhaps Carlos Arboleda, former minister of energy and mines, summarized the government's hard-line position best by stating, "The oil does not belong to them. The oil belongs to the state." President Gutierrez's government has vowed to use force, if necessary, to assert the rights of oil companies to drill on native lands.

Though the development of Ecuador's oil industry is still unclear, there is little doubt that heavy crude will continue to play a significant role in the country's future. The difficult challenge ahead for oil-rich developing nations such as Ecuador will be to find a way to turn oil profits into tangible benefits for its people while avoiding the corruption and dependence that easy petrodollars often bring in their wake.

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