A Leak in the Ecuadorian Oil Adventure
A Leak in the Ecuadorian Oil Adventure
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.
"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 itâ€™s just as important to inform other youngsters in
Since the beginning of the oil era in 1971, the oil industry in
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 companyâ€™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.
According to local residents, Texaco hasnâ€™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
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
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
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 AcciÃ³n 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.
The 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 schoolâ€™s two classrooms. Paradoxically, several pupils have died due to the oil contamination surrounding the villageâ€”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 couldnâ€™t afford to get her examined and treated in the
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