Pollution: Victims Of 'Toxico'
Andrew Gumbel, April 27, 2005
estimate around 2.5 million acres of rainforest were compromised
or destroyed in Texaco's
search for oil in Ecuador. It is a disaster that has left
the jungle ravaged and its people dying of cancer.
Maldonado is a woman acutely aware that every day she is slowly
poisoning herself to death. She lives on a tiny farm in the
Ecuadorian jungle with her husband and her elderly mother, where
the only water source is an outdoor well that has long since
been contaminated by oil and oil by-products.
uses the water to cook, to wash and to drink, not because they
want to, but because there is no alternative. Since moving about
a year ago to the community of Virgen de la Merced on the western
edge of the Amazonian rainforest, Rita has been suffering acute
skin problems - irritation, redness and regular eruptions of
boils and abscesses. She walks uncertainly, has difficulty breathing
and is severely limited in how much she can do to help raise
the animals and perform the daily chores.
goes through the painful ritual of washing clothes on a bare
plank of wood in the garden, and hanging them up to dry on the
strips of corrugated iron that serve as a washing line. She,
too, suffers from skin problems. Rita's husband, meanwhile,
pushes two pieces of corrugated iron to one side to reveal the
well. It neither looks nor smells remotely clean.
experience of their neighbours is any guide, the outlook is
chilling. Half a dozen studies have demonstrated that they are
exposed to an unusual degree of toxicity, bringing with it an
elevated risk of cancer - of the stomach, rectum, kidney or
skin in men, of the uterus and the lymph nodes in women.
do fall seriously ill, they will somehow have to find the money
for a proper biopsy and course of treatment in Quito, the Ecuadorian
capital, which is an 11 or 12-hour bus ride away. There is no
nearer hospital. Most likely, they will go to Quito infrequently
or not at all, relying instead on a thinly spread team of local
team nurses with only antibiotics and painkillers. Rita Maldonado's
grim demeanour is partly, no doubt, prompted by awareness of
what might await her. Yet her options are slim-to-non-existent.
"We can't go anywhere else," she says plaintively,
"because it is contaminated everywhere." Everyone
in this part of Ecuador knows people who have died - often in
horrible pain - and everyone blames it squarely on the shocking
legacy of 20 years of oil exploration by a subsidiary of Texaco,
in a joint venture with the Ecuadorian state oil company.
dumped their heavy sludge in more than 600 unlined open pits
and flushed as much as 20 billion gallons of waste water directly
into the area's once pristine rivers and wetlands. Environmentalists
estimate that some 2.5 million acres of rainforest - half of
the original oil concession, covering an area from just below
the Colombian border down to the Napo river, a tributary of
the Amazon, and beyond - were either compromised or effectively
destroyed in the search for the jungle's very own black gold.
executives didn't bother with the now-standard industry practice
of re-injecting the waste products into the earth. Even after
they pulled out, they bequeathed to the area an infrastructure
of outmoded machinery and creaky, rusting pipes prone to further
left Ecuador in 1992, which might seem a long time ago. But
the devastating impact on the area becomes more apparent with
every passing year. "This is as bad as Chernobyl because
over time people are getting sicker and sicker," said Nathalie
Weemaels, a Belgian agricultural engineer based in Quito who
has been very active in resisting oil exploration in the Amazon.
"The impact is cumulative - the cancer comes out with time."
is an overwhelmingly agricultural area, where small farmers
keep pigs and chickens around their houses and coconuts and
starfruit grow in abundance in their gardens. Now the fruit,
and the livestock, are as poisoned as the humans. Animals and,
occasionally, children, stumble into the waste pits. The produce
is as suspect as the water supply. Sometimes, when locals cut
open slaughtered animals in preparation for cooking, they say
they can smell the hydrocarbon fumes on the raw flesh.
experience in Ecuador has become notorious in the oil industry
for a couple of reasons. First, because it has become a textbook
case of how not to go about extracting energy resources from
an area of Third World wilderness. And second, because it has
become the subject of an extraordinary lawsuit that started
in US courts more than a decade ago and has now moved to Ecuador,
where the authorities are slowly gathering evidence of contamination
at more than 120 wells and sludge pits and listening to arguments
from the two sides on the validity and competence of their respective
and other activists working to defend the Amazon against incursions
by multinational energy companies, what has been perpetrated
in the Ecuadorian jungle is a form of slow-motion genocide.
Indigenous tribes have seen their numbers shrivel to almost
nothing, either because their people have fled the area or because
they have succumbed to disease and death. They say the spillages
amount to the equivalent of two Exxon Valdez disasters - a reference
to the oil tanker that ran aground off Alaska in 1988 - and
will take at least $6bn (£3.1bn) to clean up. That is
the figure they are seeking to retrieve by way of compensation
in the courts.
first time I got off the bus in Lago Agrio [the area's main
town], I stepped right into oil that was running through the
streets. I knew then that I had to fight against this outrage,"
said Luis Yanza, now a leading voice in the locally-based Amazon
Defence Coalition. "It may take us many more years to achieve
justice, but we're not going to back down until we have it."
now part of ChevronTexaco, does not deny that contamination
may have occurred. But it argues it has more than met its obligations,
particularly in the wake of a $40m payment it made to the Ecuadorian
government in 1995 to cover remediation costs. Any further problems,
it says, are the responsibility of PetroEcuador, the state oil
company which has managed all assets in the protected area since
their joint agreement was dissolved.
sides will confront each other today in what has become an annual
ritual at the ChevronTexaco shareholders' meeting in San Ramon,
California. Community leaders from the Amazon, along with Bianca
Jagger and a clutch of other activist celebrities, will be in
the forefront of protests to denounce the company they refer
to as "Toxico" and to demand meaningful reparations
as quickly as possible so that people don't keep dying. Until
now, all they have received are aggressive denials of responsibility.
the prospectors first came to the region in the early 1960s,
they told the local populations that oil would bring them unimaginable
wealth, but it didn't work out that way. Locals were certainly
employed, and earned modestly above the average subsistence
wage, but they were restricted almost entirely to unskilled
jobs, and then predominantly in the early seismic testing phases
of exploration. The technicians and engineers were brought in
from Ecuador's cities on the other side of the Andes, or from
oversaw a road-building programme, but it was designed exclusively
to meet oil extraction needs. The asphalt abruptly stops where
the oil trucks and tankers do not need to travel. Of all the
billions of dollars pumped into the region, not a cent was spent
on improving communications with the rest of the country. Much
of the revenue Ecuador generated from the oil went towards paying
off its foreign debt, leaving little or nothing for education,
health or other essential local services, much less environmental
literally took over the jungle. The roads are lined with anything
from a single pipe to a cluster of more than 20. Most people
have had to build gravel ramps to get over the pipes into their
property. In the early days, the company not only showed no
signs of caring about leakages and contamination. It even sprayed
the streets and roads with oil to keep the dust down.
Piaguaje, a leader of the tiny Secoya tribe, remembers running
barefoot on oil-slicked streets as a child, a radical change
from the old life of the rainforest in which no hint of modern
life penetrated. "The rainforest had it all," he recounted.
"It was our market, our pharmacy, our home. The souls of
the great spirits of the rainforest protected us. When I was
four years old I saw trucks and helicopters for the first time.
We didn't know what was happening or what this portended for
the future - they told us oil was a form of wealth. But we thought,
how is it possible they are taking the blood from our ancestors
living underground in the forests?"
the contentions of Texaco's lawyers, there is nothing subtle
about the way the contamination occurred. Above the small town
of San Carlos, a rudimentary barbed-wire fence rings an unlined
pit set among the trees. From there, it is a clear downhill
run to the Huamagacu river, where the women of the town do their
washing. Children often come here to swim, too.
per cent of the children here have skin problems - abscesses
and pus spots and raw, itchy skin," said Rosa Moreno, one
of four field nurses in the town. "Plenty of others have
skin or respiratory problems. Some of them lose their hair.
We've had 12 people here die of cancer." San Carlos, not
far from a well and pumping station centre called Sacha, has
been the community most intently studied by medical professionals,
thanks to a European couple, Miguel San Sebastian and Anna-Karin
Hurtig, who have meticulously gathered data on the town.
almost impossible to make a definitive link between environmental
blight and a cancer cluster - a point Texaco has rammed home
in court at every opportunity - but the two doctors have demonstrated
over and over that San Carlos's cancer rates are dramatically
higher than in similar communities untouched by oil pollution.
Conditions such as childhood leukaemia were all but unknown
in the area until the oilmen arrived. Now the leukaemia has
taken on the proportions of a small epidemic, with 91 confirmed
cases and counting.
have many very sick people," Ms Moreno said. "We don't
even know what is wrong with them because in many cases they
are not able to see a doctor. For the most part, there are no
confirmed diagnoses." She explained how she routinely warns
new mothers not to bathe their babies. If they do, their skin
becomes angry and red and breaks out in spots. The babies develop
hacking coughs, as well as diarrhoea and fever.
of the publicity generated by the medical studies, San Carlos
now receives piped water for about one-eighth of its 3,000 people
- an improvement, for sure, if not a totally satisfactory one
because the piped water is contaminated by raw sewage. The water
situation remains dire almost everywhere else, Ms Moreno said,
and the remediation effort undertaken in the mid-1990s is laughable
because the pits were not cleaned at all, merely concealed.
"If you dig just a little you find oil again," she
oil fields are not the only places in the Ecuadorian Amazon
which face ecological and humanitarian disaster. Already, a
clutch of foreign companies is pushing to open up areas deeper
in the jungle - including areas theoretically protected by the
state because they are inside the Yasuni National Park which
stretches over hundreds of thousands of acres in south-eastern
Ecuador. Already, members of the Huaorani tribe, living under
the shadow of a project overseen by a large European company,
are complaining of gastro-intestinal disorders, breathing difficulties
and dermatitis - because of what they and environmental activists
have reported as leaks into the groundwater.
inspection team which went into the Yasuni National Park last
summer, with full permission from park authorities, to look
at fields operated by the Spanish company Repsol, was intercepted
by private security guards and thrown out. Repsol, like almost
every other oil company in Ecuador, has a policy of keeping
all outsiders away from its operations. "Indigenous life
is being snuffed out," said Mr Piaguaje, the Secoya leader.
"We are tired, but we have to keep fighting. We have to
fight for the lives of our generation."