democraciaAbierta: Opinion

A triple pandemic strikes the Ecuadorian Amazon

A year on from a devastating oil spill, many Indigenous communities are still without clean water, and contaminated soil means they cannot grow crops

Andrés Tapia
26 April 2021, 2.33pm
Monitoring of oil pollution on the Coca River
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Ivan Castaneira, Agencia Teganta / Lanceros digitales

On 7 April 2020 in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Napo and Coca rivers flowed dark with oil and fuel.

The spill, caused by three ruptured pipelines, triggered the worst environmental disaster to hit Ecuador in the past 15 years. Some 15,000 gallons of oil and fuel spilled into the rivers, affecting 35,000 people directly and more than 120,000 indirectly, many of them Kichwa Indigenous people from 105 communities.

“We can see oil coming down the riverbed, help us report what is happening,” Olger Gallo, president of the Kichwa community of Panduyaku, told me at the time.

“The young people went out fishing in the early morning and when they returned their bodies were covered in oil. We need urgent help,” he added.

The Ecuadorian government did not immediately admit what had happened and it took several hours for it to be made official, but through our own reporting, we already knew about the oil spill in detail. Testimonies from community members allowed us to spread the word and the story was picked up by national media via our digital platforms.

Months earlier, several human-rights organizations had warned the government about a sinkhole in the San Rafael waterfall, in the upper basin of the Coca River, but their voices were given short shrift.

Experts had warned this erosion could occur on multiple occasions during the construction of the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric dam. “We had been telling the Ecuadorian government that it could bring us these problems, but the government never listens to us and now here are the consequences. Now let the president tell us who is going to answer for what happened, especially when we are living through this pandemic,” said Gallo, who watched with frustration as the disaster affected the community.

Indigenous communities were not told about the spill and went out fishing as normal. Now they are affected by skin disease and stomach problems

The spill affected more than 2,000 Indigenous families living along the Coca and Napo rivers, contaminating their food source and their cultural and spiritual way of life. The Indigenous communities were not told about the spill and went out fishing as normal. They used the river water for everyday tasks and are now affected by skin disease and stomach problems.

Children from 60 communities have such issues with their skin. “The oil stains are for life. We demand that the state repair the damage it caused by its lack of attention. Those who are paying the price are the members of the community. No more impunity or injustice!” said Carlos Jipa, community leader and president of the Federation of United Communes of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Jipa contacted me because he wanted the world to know about this disaster, and was also seeking legal and organizational support. His organization has decided to file a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian state to demand a clean-up operation and reparations for what was the second-largest spill in Ecuador’s history.

On 29 April 2020, we filed the lawsuit in view of the damages suffered by several affected people and the Kichwa communities in the province of Orellana. We also specifically requested that the state implement precautionary measures to stop future damage like that has already occurred in relation to rights such as access to water, food, physical and emotional health, integrity, a healthy environment and the rights of nature.

“We have come to demand justice, because we are tired of our rights being violated every time there are oil spills that affect our communities,” the filing said.

“The state has never assumed its responsibility, and that is why today we have come to present this lawsuit to the government so that once and for all it accepts the consequences of its lack of action and lack of attention given to the demands of communities.”

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In the commune of Sani Isla, Damary Mayerli Grefa shows the skin problems she has due to contact with water contaminated with crude oil | Ivan Castaneira, Agencia Teganta / Lanceros digitales

We built the claim from Jipa’s testimony and dozens more from community members, including Verónica Grefa, a young community leader from the Kichwa community of Toyuca, which was affected by the disaster. “As president of the Toyuca community, I am telling you that at no time has there been any repair of the environmental damages caused by the spill, much less timely attention to our families, women and children,” said Grefa.

“We are completely neglected and you come here to manipulate us by offering a can of sardines, a bag of noodles, when we have lived for millennia with the food source that the river gives us. Now, we can’t even harvest yucca and plantains from our farms, because even the soil is contaminated with oil,” she added.

All of this occurred against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis. We are really talking about a triple pandemic: a health emergency, oil extraction and its consequences, and the historical marginalization of the Amazon region by successive governments.

“Just imagine. We are in the middle of an emergency due to the new coronavirus, confined to our community. But now with the spill, how are we going to feed ourselves if our vegetable gardens are also contaminated, and if we can’t go fishing? We have had to look for food in nearby towns, risking getting infected,” Olger told me on the morning of 7 April last year, shortly after the disaster.

We are completely neglected and you come here to manipulate us by offering a can of sardines, a bag of noodles

Olger’s account shows the neglect hundreds of families faced during the most critical phase of the pandemic, between the months of April and October, but also reveals the historical marginalization of communities in the Amazon rainforest. This is paradoxically the corner of Ecuador from where the oil that sustains the country’s economy is extracted, and has been for more than 40 years in the north-eastern Amazon. Nonetheless, they are still leaving us to deal with the second-largest spill in history in the rainforests of Ecuador.

The communities have been without water and a safe food supply for many months, with their health affected by contamination from the oil, by the pandemic, by a dengue fever outbreak and by the inadequate actions of those responsible for the oil spill. The communities affected by the 7 April spill are at imminent risk of new catastrophes, since the process of regressive erosion has accelerated and has already produced new landslides. There is still no early-warning plan in the event of another disaster.

Despite this injustice, the communities will not stop their pursuit of truth and justice. On 1 September, the Ecuadorian courts rejected their petition for protection as “inadmissible”, but on 15 October, the Kichwa communities filed an appeal against this unjust and absurd decision of the Orellana provincial court.

The appeal was delivered with 15,000 signatures in support of the process, including from people from all over the world. The communities also held dozens of protests, not only in Orellana, but across Ecuador and the whole world.

“We urge we be given a fair and transparent legal hearing where the voice of those affected is heard. The justice system must face 27,000 affected Kichwas. The world is watching #SOSSpillAmazon. National and international celebrities, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, have criticized the state and the judges in order to achieve justice and give a fair hearing to the victims,” said Carlos and Verónica, together with Indigenous leaders and human rights lawyers.

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Presentation of 15,000 signatures in support of the victims of the spill to request reparation from the judges of the Provincial Court of Justice of Orellana, on 20 December 2020 | Ivan Castaneira, Agencia Teganta / Lanceros digitales

A year has passed, but 120,000 people, including 27,000 Indigenous people, continue to face the pandemic without clean water or food that is safe to eat. The rivers, their crops and even their own bodies have been horribly affected. Many of us have joined the struggle of the Amazonian Kichwas for justice and full reparations, and we ask the new court sitting to break the historical cycle of impunity.

It is in the judges’ hands to act fairly and give the victims their livelihoods back, while demanding full reparations from the state and the companies responsible. This violation of the rights of communities and nature by unscrupulous oil companies cannot go unpunished.

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