Featured image taken by Ivan Castaneira/Agencia Tegantai

For Ecuador’s Amazonian Indigenous, the largest oil spill in 15 years in April 2020 seemed like the last straw. Little did they know that by November they would be facing a second huge spill, leaving them without safe food or water during the global pandemic.

On the night of April 7 2020, Ecuador’s biggest oil pipelines burst. The spill, estimated to have been the largest since 2004, tore apart the lives of the 27,000 indigenous people who live in the surrounding area. Many suffered severe health problems, such as dermatitis caused by contact with harmful chemicals, and many more were forced to travel miles each day just to secure basic provisions for their families. 

Right on the front lines of the fight for justice amidst this tragedy was the Kichwa community. After an injunction against the oil giants brought jointly by the Kichwa and human rights organisations was thrown out, the Kichwa hand-delivered 14,000 letters of global support to the Ecuadorian court, saying that “the World demands justice.”

Faced with this kind of global pressure, the judges have granted the Kichwa an appeal hearing. However, events moved faster than the justice system and a second huge spill broke in late November, this time in the Shiripuno River. This spill decimated vital resources that the Waorani, and the isolated Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes, needed for survival.

Just a few months before this disaster, the Ecuadorian government had ratified its commitment to protecting the environment at an international presidential summit for the conservation of the Amazon. “What we need is action, not empty words,” said a Waorani spokesperson after a peaceful protest on the Shiripuno river bridge.

The protesters complain that more than two weeks after the spill, still no action has been taken by the government or the oil companies. 20 days after the incident, Gilberto Nenquimo, the president of the Waorani, told The Oxford Blue that he has lodged a formal complaint. “I had a seven hours long negotiation with the government and companies involved until we finally reached an agreement,” he said.

It was agreed that, from the 22nd of December, food rations would be delivered to affected families. However, the portions were only enough to feed a family for a few days, and Nenquimo was forced to appeal to NGOs for further food support and shelter.

On the 23rd of December, Petrobell, the company responsible, started a clean-up but only in the most affected zone. Nenquimo has demanded that the company and government carry out a full impact assessment to see the scale of the damage. “The government is very inefficient,” he complains. “They didn’t even know about the incident.”

The workers of Petrobell first raised the alarm after the spill. The cause is under investigation, but it is believed by the community that the break was intentional and done by someone from the outside. “They wanted to provoke damage to the company, they did not consider how this was going to affect us,” said Nenquimo.

Shiripuno River after the oil spill on the 27th of November. Image taken by Gilberto Nenquimo

The oil spills are just one part of the issue 

On the 2nd of February, 2020, the San Rafael Waterfall, the highest in Ecuador, collapsed. Hydrologists warned that a phenomenon known as ‘regressive erosion’ could affect upstream infrastructure. On the 7th of April, the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources announced that the pipelines broke due to landslides in the San Rafael sector, which caused the oil spill.

“There was plenty of forewarning, but they did nothing to prevent the catastrophe,” said an official statement from the indigenous communities.

However, the spills are not the only problem. “The territory has to be prepared and cleared, roads have to be built for the trucks to circulate and during this process, many communities are affected as a result,” Ian Vargas, biologist director of the Environmental Activism Ecuador NGO, told The Blue.  “Deforestation, which is part of the process, is one of the biggest issues, as it produces the erosion of the soil. The habitat is destroyed, not just affecting the species of the area, but all other species that are part of the same ecosystem.” 

History repeats itself 

Oil was first discovered in Ecuador’s northern Amazon region in the 1960s.  Since then, 70 percent of the territory has been leased to oil companies, which has led to the heavy contamination of the rainforest.

“The spill is not a new incident, it happens every year and the government never holds the companies to account,” says Vargas. “I have visited communities where kids’ feet are covered in what seems to be mud, but it’s petrol.”

“The Ministry of Environment (MAE) does not regulate the impact caused by the oil companies. The only ones exposing constantly the damage of the oil companies are the NGOs,” says Vargas.

Institutional reports estimate that there have been approximately 464 oil spills between 2001 and 2011 in the northern region of the Amazon.

“We are in 2020 and although people are getting more conscious about the damage to nature, the incidents still happen at the same rate as they did 5 years ago,” says Vargas. 

After April’s huge spill, there has not been any cleanup or remedial action. “Now it could reach Peru and Brazil, the damage is already done, but the longer it takes, the more difficult it is to clean up,” he continues. “At least they should clean up the indigenous affected zones.”

Even a thorough clean-up cannot guarantee that water is uncontaminated.  Ecuador is now in rainy season, which makes work in the jungle more difficult. “They should have done it during the dry season, which is during the summer, but they did not take any action. Clean-ups take at least a year,” concludes an exasperated Vargas.

Moreover, Ecuador does not have adequate contingency planning for oil spills. “They should react within two days, not in 20 days as they did, and they must assume responsibility for the damage they caused,” said Mr Nenquimo.

Fighting coronavirus

Contamination from oil companies can be seen all over Ecuador. It affects everyone, but the indigenous communities are the most vulnerable as they rely directly on the water supply and soil to produce food. The coronavirus pandemic compounds a threat especially for indigenous elders, who have years of ancestral knowledge about the rainforest and how to protect it. Indeed, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights identifies indigenous people as an at-risk group, as historically, viruses have been one of the most potent factors in obliterating indigenous peoples in South America.

Faced with the pandemic, many indigenous communities had decided to live in voluntary isolation. The oil spills thwarted this plan as many find themselves having to visit towns or other communities for a water source. This involves an economic strain, as money needs to be spent on transportation, which often takes the form of more expensive taxis in these areas where public transport doesn’t reach. Worse still, travelling to seek water puts community members at risk of contracting Covid-19. In early October, various indigenous communities complained about a lack of protection from the government during the global pandemic before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The representatives of indigenous organizations emphatically pointed out that the indigenous people in Ecuador “face a situation of unprecedented lack of protection and discriminatory treatment, even more so if we consider that there is a historical debt from the State.”

Long-term health damage

“In the short term there is a water shortage, but in the long term there will be health damage,”  Darien Castro, a biologist working on environmental damage studies in the Coca and Napo rivers, told The Blue. “The Napo River is the most devastated, it is the most important as it is a key artery in terms of slopes and flow. There is a direct connection from the Napo River to the Amazon river. Therefore, it affects many communities.”

April’s oil spill was first noticed by locals when drinking water and swimming in the river. After that, many developed dermatological problems caused by direct contact with harmful chemicals. Humans are also at risk of contamination via inhalation, direct ingestion and indirect ingestion via the food chain.

Indigenous woman with a dermatitis reaction on her back. She affirms that the reaction happened after the Coca River Oil Spill. Picture taken by Ivan Castaneira/Agencia Tegantai

Indeed, epidemiological studies in Ecuador between 1985 and 1998 report higher levels of cancer among those living near crude oil production activities. However, a study published this year on “public health issues from crude-oil production in the Ecuadorian Amazon territories” showed that high environmental pollution in the Ecuadorian amazon territories was not correlated to the significant increase in cancer in the zone. However, they affirmed that this conclusion could be attributed to the limitations of the investigations due to the remoteness of the region. Mr Nenquimo says: “I have to be honest; I asked the medical brigade to enter the zone to perform a health check in the communities, but some of my people denied them access as they do not trust people from the outside.” He adds, however, that due to the severity of the situation, he will have to force his communities to allow the entrance of medical assistance.

Two sides of the same coin 

There are frequent conflicts between community members, as some of them are hired by oil companies or make a living selling food, provisions or sex to oil workers, and it becomes hard to choose a side. “Many workers do not work safely, the companies do not pay even minimum wages either, but they think that is the only way they can support their family,” said Castro.

The coronavirus crisis has revealed the vulnerability of the country’s economy and its dependence on export commodities. Some communities are demanding a different economic model, based on ecotourism, international inversion, with the activation of national parks and the conservation of nature. “I had a meeting with the advisers of the candidate for President, Lasso [Mendoza], where I proposed this model, they were very interested and said they were definitely going to consider it and try to go ahead,” says Vargas. The vulnerability of the people of the Ecuadorian Amazon region impacted by the oil spills has been even more severely exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and whether the government will take a step towards a new model and leave oil extraction behind remains to be seen.

The author interviewed three individuals for this article: Gilberto Nenquimo, Ian Vargas and Darien Castro.