Tribe sees how oil industry affects forest on ‘Toxic Tour’

Pacayacu is a village in the administrative region of Shushufindi, in Sucumbíos. It encompasses a relatively small area, but it shows clearly the impacts of oil drilling activity. The village came to prominence after a group of inhabitants filed a lawsuit in 2005 against the state-owned oil company, Petroamazonas, over the pollution caused by its activities. The community members won the lawsuit, but the 2013 ruling ordering that reparations be paid was later dismissed at the request of the government under then-president Rafael Correa. The lawsuit has since been taken up at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In Pacayacu, the Toxic Tour participants meet Armando Naranjo and Sixto Martínez, who were prosecutors in the lawsuit against Petroamazonas. Both share their stories and their advice to the group: “Don’t let the company enter your territory, or you’ll lose your life defending it.”

Naranjo says his farm’s productivity, in addition to his family’s health, suffered greatly after several oil spills in 1988 and 1989. Instead of providing help, the state-run company brought in machinery to attempt to cover up the disaster, he says. “They told me that the ants would eat and decontaminate the oil spills, but 30 years later, I keep living in this pollution,” Naranjo says.

Martínez remembers the death of his wife, at 36, as a result of a cancer that he attributes to contact with crude oil. “I was left with six young children and I almost died,” he says. The impacts of the oil industry have not only persisted, he says, but have also grown worse with the passing of time.

Another problem in Pacayacu, previously reported by Mongabay Latam but that remains unresolved, according to locals, is the lack of water fit for human consumption. “Our families are sick, the cassava plants turned black, the papaya turned hard, and nothing that we grow is useful,” says Jenny España, who has also been active in the lawsuit against Petroamazonas.

España explains to the Waorani people on the tour how the giant waste pools work: “They are about 50 meters long by 40 meters wide, and they’re three meters deep,” or about 164 feet by 131 feet, and 10 feet deep. “Everything that isn’t useful [to the oil workers] is thrown towards the settlers’ farms,” España says. Where they’re now standing, she says, is the Suzuki oil field.

The Environmental and Social Repair Program (PRAS), a part of Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment, identifies Pacayacu as one of the areas of the Amazon most heavily impacted by human activity. As of 2017, there were a recorded 530 sources of contamination in the village, including 128 pools, 272 pits, and 130 oil spills. The villages of Palma Roja and Limoncocha, also in Sucumbíos province, along with Dayuma and Inés Arango in neighboring Orellana province, contain another 1,097 related environmental issues, according to the PRAS. All of these are part of eastern Ecuador’s legacy of exploiting the land for oil. The area’s oil boom began in the 1970s, led by U.S. oil giant Texaco, and saw the country produce a total of 6 billion barrels of oil between then and 2017, according to the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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