AMAZON: Victims of 'Toxico'

Publisher Name: 
Independent

Rita 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.

The family 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.

Her mother 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.

If the 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.

If they 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.

The oilmen 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.

The oil 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 leaks.

Texaco 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."

This 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.

Texaco's 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 scientific studies.

To environmentalists 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.

"The 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."

Texaco, 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.

The two 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.

When 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 overseas.

Texaco 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 protection.

Oil quite 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.

Humberto 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?"

Despite 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.

"Seventy-five 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.

It is 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.

"We 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.

Because 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 said.

The Texaco 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.

A multi-nation 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."

AMP Section Name:Environment
  • 107 Energy