A Leak in the Ecuadorian Oil Adventure

While rivers are being polluted, rainforests cut down and the health of citizens severely threatened by the oil industry, this black gold continues to flow through Ecuador. I am in the northern part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, visiting oil fields and researching the contamination of rivers, soil and forest in order to gain insight into what problems confront the Amazon. The area is ruined. Where there were once primary rain forests there are now oil plants, oil roads and a myriad of pipelines.

At several places, my driver and guide keeps the engine of the 4WD running, in case the military or security guards spot us and we need to leave. Armed with cameras and admonitions to quickly return to the vehicle, I crawl across a hill to survey yet another oil plant where hundreds of small and large pipelines lead oil, gas and wastewater to and from the oil station.

In the Upper Oriente, oil exploration, alone, has led to the deforestation of approximately two million hectares (20.000km) of rain forest. Here, history demonstrates that between 400-2400 hectares of rainforest are colonized for every kilometer of new oil road built.

"We would like to inform the rest of the world about the consequences of oil production for us," tells Fidel Aguinda, the coordinator of the Young Cofan Indians.

The Cofanes were especially exposed to oil contamination and lack of land during the Texaco era and many communities have been completely demolished.

"We would like to tell foreign countries but it’s just as important to inform other youngsters in Ecuador about what the oil industry causes our culture", he says.

Black experience

Since the beginning of the oil era in 1971, the oil industry in Ecuador has had free rein. The international and national oil companies operate without control or inspection by the authorities. The industry owns approximately 18 percent of the Ecuadorian mainland.

This is very disturbing when you consider that Texaco (now ChevronTexaco), the first operating oil company in the country, dumped at least 460 million barrels of oil and chemical wastewater during the 20 years of the company’s oil extraction. The results of this criminal pollution have been contaminated water, loss of plant and wildlife, as well as health problems for the local population, such as rising cancer-rates, birth defects and miscarriages.

Flaming Oil According to local residents, Texaco hasn’t paid to clean up the damage it had done to the local environment. Yet, the company insists that it had in fact paid when it spent $40 million in 1995 as part of a deal it cut with the Ecuadorian government.

There is currently a lawsuit working its way through Ecuador’s court system to settle the dispute. The case, filed on behalf of 30,000 local residents, is seeking $6 billion in damages. Despite overwhelming evidence, the outcome is still unknown since there are no Ecuadorian rules or guidelines concerning oil contamination and clean ups. In the meantime, Petroecuador, the state-owned oil company, has maintained the working procedures of Texaco and continues to direct highly toxic wastewater to the rivers and ecosystem of the Amazon in the Upper Oriente.

Catastrophe, Cancer and Corruption

Wastewater from oil production contains a high variety of chemicals, ph-controls, heavy metals and other toxins. The highly polluted wastewater is dumped into open wastewater ponds before entering the waterways. Gases and waste oil are burned off from either chimneys or directly from the ponds. The salinity of the wastewater is up to 6 times higher than the concentration in the Pacific Ocean and with the content of heavy metals and chemicals it is tantamount to pure poison to vegetation and wildlife. According to a 2003 study conducted by the Ecuadorian NGO Acción Ecologica, content of harmful hydrocarbons (TPH) in rivers was measured to 2,9ppm. The European Union only permits 0,01ppm.

Of a production of 400.000 barrels/day, a minimum 32.000 barrels of crude run directly into rivers and estuaries every year due to leaks in pipelines, accidents and discharge of wastewater. In comparison, the Exxon Valdez shipwreck in 1989 leaked more than 260.000 barrels of crude outside the North American west coast. In Ecuador, at least 650.000 barrels of crude have poisoned ecosystem, which corresponds to oil spills of the same size as the Exxon catastrophe happening every 8 years.

One consequence of the oil industry is higher mortality rates for populations living in oil-producing regions, in contrast to people living in untouched areas. Research shows that the risk of dying of cancer in oil areas is more than 260% higher than in the capital, Quito. Several studies have shown that the contamination is permanent and accumulative.

"To live in an oil and chemical exposed area in 30 years will more than triple the risk of contracting leukemia and other cancers," tells Doctor Adolfo Maldonado, who works for Acción Ecologica.

One of the research sites is the affected village of San Carlos. The village is situated down the Napo River from Coca. More than half of the inhabitants living less than 50 meters from oil stations and wastewater ponds are suffering from cancer, while the number is ten times less when the inhabitants live more than 250 meters from the ponds. The reason for the alarming cancer rates in the town is the oil station Sacha Sur, which has existed for more than 20 years. The station and its 30 active wastewater ponds surround the village. The oil plant releases highly toxic wastewater into estuaries and rivers that provide the village with drinking, bathing and cleaning water.

PipelineThe village of Comuna el Descanso is situated close to San Carlos and is equally affected by contamination. I visited the village early one morning to learn about the effects of the oil. But I was not the only one visiting this day. Petroecuador representatives had arrived before me to conduct a meeting with local residents, which I was forbidden to attend. Often, small communities are offered compensation for lost or polluted land, but usually the compensation is completely out of proportion with the damage caused by the oil production and the value of the land. In El Descanso, Petroecuador financed the school’s two classrooms. Paradoxically, several pupils have died due to the oil contamination surrounding the village—a steep price to pay for two classrooms.

The study from 2003 also found that 75% of the population in the researched areas use contaminated water in the household. The small Huaorani village of Pamihua, situated near the highly polluted lagoon Taracoa, has no access to clean drinking water. Despite the attempt to collect rainwater in butts, water is usually collected from the Napo River.

"Our children are malnourished, but what can we do to help them?" asks the community leader Alfredo when I visit the village.

For the residents, the land around the village used to be rich and plentiful. Now, the harvest is very limited and provides only one daily meal.

"We love our children, but our land is polluted with oil and toxins and the water is undrinkable. We have no chance to give our children the life they deserve," said Alfredo.

Alfredo and his wife Maria lost their young daughter a couple of weeks before my visit. None of them can inform me what illness the girl suffered from since the village couldn’t afford to get her examined and treated in the hospital of Coca.

International responsibility

The unsustainable oil projects are the direct consequences of an economic strategy, which primarily favors foreign oil companies and international banks over local communities. The Ecuadorian government is heavily indebted to the International Monetary Fund, and as a result it is forced to open remaining unspoiled rain forest areas in the East and Southern Amazon for oil exploration. The environmental, social and health consequences for local residents can be expected to be as dire as it has been for those in the Upper Oriente. The international community has to accept its responsibility for the destruction and suffering economic projects such as these causes and take action to ensure similar projects and policies aren’t carried out. If alternative, sustainable economic policies and models are not created and implemented, the people of Ecuador will continue to suffer from catastrophic and irreversible loss.