An Oil Spill and the Coronavirus Are Creating a Crisis in Ecuador’s Amazon

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12 mins read

Imagine being told to shelter at home due to a global pandemic, only to have your home, drinking water, and food stores destroyed. It would be a nightmare, but that is exactly what happened for indigenous people in the Ecuadorian Amazon after a massive oil polluted two major rivers.

Indigenous leaders told Earther that attempts to contain the oil has been inadequate as has aid sent to impacted communities, forcing them to leave their territories in the midst of a pandemic in search of food and water. In response, they are suing the Ecuadorian government and oil companies responsible.

In early April a dramatic landslide in Ecuador caused a riverbed to collapse and two oil pipes to rupture, followed by a liquified natural gas pipe, spilling fuel into the Coca and Napo rivers. Within a few days the oil had spread to Peru, 300 kilometers (186 miles) away. Around 120,000 indigenous people are affected; the pollution means they have no water to drink or wash and no fish to eat.

As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, this disaster raises the risk of communities affected by the oil spill contacting as they travel to buy food. Worryingly, the respiratory virus has already infected people in a nearby indigenous nation.

“Before the spill, we felt safe from the pandemic in our territories,” Carlos Jipa, leader of the Kichwa communities of Orellana Province in Ecuador and president of native organization FCUNAE, told Earther. “Now, we cannot live normally surrounded by this pollution.”

Four weeks later, the river is still heavily polluted. Holger Gallo, leader of the Panduyaku Kichwa communities of Sucumbíos Province, told Earther that “it is the largest spill we have seen here. The river Coca is devastated; we have found dead fish, frogs, and snakes washed up on the banks.”

Jipa said his communities have been affected at every turn by oil exploration. The spill is only the latest injustice.

“We used to fish and hunt, but little by little the oil companies invaded our territories, and the animals have been scared away,” he told Earther. “So, before the disaster we were living from fishing. Now, we can’t fish either. We went to a gully where there were some live fish. But when we cooked them, they tasted of diesel, so we couldn’t eat them.”

The Ecuadorian government initially estimated that the two oil pipes—one owned by the state-run Petroecuador and one by private Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados (OCP)—had leaked 4,000 barrels into the rivers. They have revised the figure up to 15,000 barrels, but even that number may be too low. Carlos Mazabanda of AmazonWatch told Earther that while the group hasn’t conducted on-the-ground measurements of the spill’s extent, that “reports from the community affirm that this was the biggest spill they have ever seen. Prior spills in the area have been upwards of 20,000 to 30,000 barrels.”

The spill did not come without warning. In February, Ecuador’s highest waterfall disappeared. Geologists thought that this was due to erosion caused by the Coca Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Dam, and that further landslides were likely. The dam traps sediment upstream, and has left the river downstream “starved” and prone to accelerated erosion along the channel and banks. This led, in this case, to the complete collapse of the surrounding river beds into the eroded ravine.

The warning came well before February, though. Environmental groups warned that disturbances to sedimentation and erosion were likely in 2010, six years before the dam even came online. Gallo told Earther that the dam had caused profound and dangerous changes to the river ever since it was built, with the river dragging up new sand and rocks and changing course. Despite these concerns, no action was taken to reroute the pipelines or stop using them altogether before the landslide that caused the pipes to rupture.

Indigenous leaders told Earther that after the spill, containment measures were late and inadequate. Gallo said that barriers were put in place 100 kilometers (62 miles) downstream of the ruptured pipes, meaning that the oil was cordoned into, not out of, his territory. Jipa criticised the delayed response as well.

“At six in the morning on the dot (on April 8, the day after the spill) I called all the relevant institutions to ask them to take immediate action,” he said. “I also contacted the company (Petroecuador) to ask them what their contingency plan was. But they let the oil flow for 12 hours more. They didn’t do anything until the oil had almost reached Peru.”

While the flow of oil from the pipes has now stopped, the banks of the Coca and Napo rivers are still clogged with oil, and the ecosystems disrupted over large areas. These impacts could last years; Jipa said that fishing had only just recovered to normal levels after a spill of 11,000 barrels in 2013.

Gallo’s biggest demand was for the river ecosystems to be properly restored. Though he said work has begun in recent days, it’s almost certain to be a long road to full recovery. He wanted independent NGOs to assess whether the remediation work is adequate, something which oil companies are not exactly known for in the Amazon. So far, both leaders were frustrated by the lack of suitable aid from the government and oil companies and are calling for outside help.

:We need water, food, face masks, alcohol for cleaning; nobody is giving us these,” Jipa said. “We haven’t had the help that the companies have promised. They sent some water, some food, and some photographers (to document the aid) to a population center that has nothing to do with the affected communities.

“They publicized that they are sending food kits, but we spoke with about 150 families and they haven’t had them. Some of the communities on the banks of the river got water. But they got just four bottles of water per house. That house can have three or more families inside, that water will last one day. They say they will give us more water in 15 days. What do we do for the other 14 days?”

As if the thirst, hunger, and health problems brought on directly by the oil spill weren’t bad enough, it is exposing vulnerable communities to a global pandemic. The leaders told Earther that due to the lack of aid, members of their communities were travelling to towns to buy food and water; exposing them to coronavirus in one of the worst hit countries in the world. 

“As directed (by the government), we were taking refuge in our communities because of the pandemic,” said Gallo, “But now we cannot support ourselves here.”

Coronavirus is threatening to decimate indigenous communities across the Amazon, and this week reached the Siekopai people who live in Gallo’s province. Dealing with coronavirus has proven tough everywhere in the world, but it is much harder in remote communities. The Siekopai did not get the testing kits they asked for from the government even after one of their elders died from suspected covid-19. After one test was conducted, they waited 14 days for a result during which time, another elder died. When they finally got tests from NGOs, they discovered that 14 people were infected.

With public transportation shut down and a strict curfew in place, Gallo’s Kichwa communities have had no contact with medical providers despite their pleas. Meanwhile, without testing, the disease could spread rapidly among people who live in multigenerational houses. With community members entering towns without masks in the search for food and water, the isolation that was one the thing protecting the Kichwa from coronavirus has been brought to an end by a toxic oil spill.

With the latest spill, Ecuador’s indigenous peoples are once more on the front lines of an environmental war that has been raging for decades. There are almost 3,500 oil wells in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which has seen almost 1,000 registered spills in the last 13 years. Clean up efforts have typically been, to put it mildly, pathetic.

Andres Tapia, of the Indigenous organization CONFENIAE which is joining Jipa in suing the government and oil companies over the latest spill, is calling for an end to extractive industries in the Amazon altogether.

“We stay firm in rejecting the extractivism of the mineral, oil, and hydroelectric industries,” he told Earther. “We denounce the impacts oil drilling has had across the Amazon.”

Jipa echoed these sentiments. “People say oil is helping Ecuador to come out of its poverty. But where does that oil come from? From our Kichwa territories,” he said. “They come and take the oil and leave us in the same poverty. The oil companies are in our territories, without our prior consent that is our right according to the constitution. In Orellana province we haven’t protested or taken action against the state or the oil companies. Today, that stops.”

Claire is a tropical batgirl turned science and practice interface explorer, now freelance science consultant and writer. She’s into environmental justice, civil disobedience, and human-wildlife co-existence.

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