In the footsteps of oil companies
The dirty oil town of Lago Agrio in North-East Ecuador does not really belong to the touristic highlights of the country. The life here is all about the black gold, the oil.
Gasoline stations, construction vehicles, service stations and black pipeline tubes running along the street shape the character of the town.
On an improved road we follow the numerous thick and thin tubes eastward to the extraction areas. A participant of the reality tour of Global Exchange wonders what the small notices every 50 metres along the road mean. They are a warning against the contaminated soil, explains fellow traveller Alvaro. Leaking oil and other toxic substances have polluted large strips of land around Lago Agrio.
The American organization Global-Exchange organizes worldwide tours into regions that got into social penury due to American foreign policy or due to businesses operating abroad.
This includes, besides the communistic Cuba, on which economic sanctions have been imposed, also Ecuador, rich in oil reserves. American oil concerns such as Texaco in the past and Occidental today extract oil in the Amazonas lowland of this Andes state. The environmental damage can be seen after three decades everywhere.
At a "reality tour" interested young people can get information on the spot and talk with environmental organizations and affected people.
Meanwhile, we left the road and now continue on a narrow stone road towards Sushufindi, another town that emerged in the era of the oil boom.
The pipeline is our steady companion. The black tube emerges alternately right and left from the dense bushes, disappearing soon in the thicket again.
"Texaco built roads into regions that had been intact so far in order to lay the pipeline tubes. The settlers came with the road. Whoever exploited the forest for agriculture, received the land from the state," shouts David, the reality tour guide, from the first seat.
The small wooden houses of the farmers stand often right behind the tubes. Not all of them chose this neighbourhood voluntarily. We make a stop halfway at a small wooden cottage.
Pedro is a farmer and has been living with his family for 20 years right next to the tubes. In the distance, we can hear a dull roaring. "The refinery," answers the short old man our inquiring looks. "It is every day like this, we don't really hear it anymore."
On the way to his modest home six black tubes cross the entrance. They transport oil from the distant drilling derricks to the neighbouring refinery. Under our feet, the tubes vibrate under high pressure and we can feel radiating heat.
"I have problems with my fields," adds Pedro. "The bananas and yucca do not grow as they used to. I can't sell my coffee anymore. Everything is contaminated. The soil and water and there are almost no animals left." The cause of the bad state of his soil is not far away.
After a 20-minutes walk across small plantations and dense bushes we get a surprising view of a clearing with a large reception basin of about 30 to 50 metres.
It is one of the 339 toxic relics of Texacos. The oil pond gleams pitch-black in the hot sun and two high gas burners reflect scarily beautiful in the lethal mixture. The banks of the pond are covered with dead insects.
At the time of heavy rainfalls, the pond overruns its banks. The mixture of oil and toxic waste spreads in the surroundings and to Pedros fields. Many people in the Sucumbios province on the Columbian border are in the same situation like the father of six. Diseases and falling agricultural yields complicate the lives of the farmers.
We are on the way to Limoncocha, a protected area at the Río Napo. The whole region belongs to Block 15, an official extraction area of the American company Occidental.
The representatives of the business expect us. At an informative meeting, Occidental is going to explain the technology applied and talk about their co-operation with local population.
The passes of all 16 passengers are closely checked at the heavy armed entrance and compared to the list of registered visitors. Only those that are registered are admitted.
1996, Occidental received as the first oil company in Ecuador an ecological certificate of the Norwegian organization DNSV.
Pollutants that Texaco used to pump regardless to the numerous rivers and store in open reception ponds are processed here with the state-of-the-art technology. Oil rests and gas are brought back to the refinery as power sources and toxic salt water is pumped into a depth of 3,000 metres.
Occidental tries to reduce the needed infrastructure to the minimum. Thus up to seven drilling derricks are set up on a small platform, drilling first sideward down in order to reach various oil fields.
Occidental is particularly proud of its good co-operation with the indigenous communities living in Block 15.
Together with the Secoya the employees of the oil giant devise development projects for the communities. This way, Occidental planned, financed and together with the Secoya established a health centre, schools and a water supply station.
An additional training offer for carpenters and mechanics makes it possible for the indigenous to find work in the industrial world. It is a major progress in comparison to Texaco, which exploited the resources without any co-operation with the communities from 1964 to 1993.
Other oil companies operating in Ecuador are by far not as co-operative as the Los Angeles-based business.
Nevertheless, the indigenous communities are bereft of their traditional lifestyle. In the past the Secoya, Shuar, Cofan and Quichua lived in isolation from the civilization in the primeval forests of the Río Napo. During the industrialization the number of the Cofan fell to several hundred people. The preservation of this culture is endangered.
Whether the Secoya and other indigenous groups really want to have the Internet access provided by Occidental and work as mechanics for oil companies seems after the talks with the people rather dubious.
After a two-hours boat journey on the Río Napo we arrive at Block 14 of the Coca town. In this former Texaco area the state business PetroEcuador has been operation for ten years. We are invited to a small informative meeting of the Quichua in San Carlos.
Jose Luis is an ecologist and comes from a village of 480 inhabitants.
He is engaged in an action against Chevron-Texaco and files serious accusations against the American business. "For many decades, Texaco was polluting water and the soil on which we, the Quichua had been living for centuries. Many people live here on fishing. In the past, there were plenty of fish, so than a fisherman took home up to 300 kilograms fish on a single day. Today the fishing is not sufficient anymore for us to live on and to sell a part to the market." By estimates the fish richness of the Río Napo has fallen by 80 per cent in the past 25 years.
Like around Lago Agrios the plants do not grow hear either. Yucca, rice, bananas and cocoa are difficult to sell on the market. Besides the economic and health problems the Qichua considers also his cultural identity damaged.
"The colonists came with new roads and brought alcohol to the Quichua. Social frictions emerged in the indigenous communities. In the whole Block prostitution has become a major problem."
Jose Luis expects finally a compensation and redress from the upcoming trial against Chevron-Texaco. "Texaco has to remove the toxic reception basin, set up health centres and pay damages to the many ill."
In his opinion, in the event of a victory before court the indigenous communities cannot spend the assigned funds on sustainable development projects in an optimal way. "The people cannot handle so much money. They will buy boats with powerful engines and spend a lot of money on alcohol and feasts. Cash today means for us poverty tomorrow."
He calls therefore for support of oil companies in the implementation of forestry projects or in hen and pig farming.
Occidental in Block 15 took the right way with its co-operation.
It is still unclear whether other oil companies will help the indigenous communities and colonists build an economic future in the polluted Amazonas lowland. The outcome of the action against Chevron-Texaco will affect the future.
Jose Luis predicts bleak future for the Quichua without development projects. "What happens when there is no oil left, the rivers are contaminated and the firms have left the polluted and exploited country and we (the indigenous) have not found any sustainable economic perspective by then?"
to the pictures of Lago Agrio