Since the 1960s, Ecuador has been trying to drill its way to prosperity. In the past 15 years, the Ecuadorian government, staggering under the weight of international debt, has registered over 4000 new oil wells in 68% of the Amazon. That's an average of five new wells drilled each week.
So is that working out for Ecuador? Not so much. The pittance the government and the people receive from oil companies is dwarfed by oil's hidden costs: higher cancer rates, biodiversity losses, toxic loads in fish and medicinal plants, destruction and contamination of ancestral rainforest homelands, and the loss of traditional cultures, customs, and wisdom.
The failure of the drilling-to-prosperity strategy is illustrated by the latest environmental disaster in the Ecuadorian Amazon: massive pipeline ruptures on April 7, 2020. Those ruptures, however, catalyzed lawsuits that may help lead to systemic, sustainable changes.
The Ecuadorian Amazon: habitat, not extraction
The Ecuadorian Amazon is an astonishingly beautiful panorama of mountains, jungles, rivers, and waterfalls. It's home to thousands of indigenous people and one of the largest, most diverse concentrations of flora and fauna on Earth. But this spectacular area is spectacularly unsuitable for the pipelines needed to transport crude oil.
The area's epic mountains, canyons, and valleys were formed by natural processes that are still at work. These processes result in highly unstable soils and massive mudslides that affect any type of infrastructure, including pipelines. Three of the most important processes that can impact infrastructure are:
- High volcanic activity: The main active crater of the Reventador volcano is less than 10 kilometers away from the pipelines. Reventador is active sporadically and shows no signs of settling down. All told, the Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline (known by SOTE, its Spanish acronym) runs close to six risk-prone volcanoes.
- High seismic activity: The SOTE and another major pipeline, the OCP, cross 94 seismic fault lines. In 1987, earthquakes triggered large landslides and the rupture of the SOTE along 40 kilometers.
- Frequent flash floods: The shape of the Coca River watershed, its steep slopes, and sporadic torrential rains (up to six meters per year) often lead to flash floods.
Pipeline ruptures and toxic waste
Given the ever-changing dynamics that impact infrastructure in the Ecuadorian Amazon, it's no surprise that its oil pipelines have a history of rupturing. The SOTE pipeline ruptured 47 times from its opening in 1972 until 2003.
And that's just the SOTE, one of three main pipelines. Hundreds of smaller pipelines traverse the jungle, and those pipelines break, too. According to the Environment Ministry, Ecuador reported more than 1169 oil spills from 2005 to 2015. The vast majority of those spills (81%) occurred in the Amazon. Since then, the government has stopped compiling data because so many spills are never reported.
Ecuador has an appalling record of oil spills due to the damaging practices first used by Texaco (now known as Chevron) and other oil companies. An estimated 714 million barrels of oil and toxic wastewater were dumped in the Amazonian Ecuador from 1971 to 1993.
Those hundreds of pipelines don't just suffer from breakage; they also help break up natural habitats. The fragmentation leads to smaller population sizes that aren't viable in the long term.
Another way oil companies damage the Amazon is by carving trails through it. As these trails widen into easily passable roads, they allow settlers easy access to timber and new land. Poachers may also sneak in and smuggle endangered animals, dead or alive, out of the rainforest.
When oil money started flowing freely in the '70s, the Ecuadorian government also did its part to hasten deforestation. It used some of its windfall to build roads and subsidize cattle ranching and agriculture.
Harm to indigenous people
The mind-boggling number of oil spills in the Ecuadorian Amazon translates into misery for indigenous people. They suffer from a lack of water that's unfit for human consumption or for growing plants. Skin problems and cancer abound in the areas hardest-hit by drilling. One study reported that one in four people in those areas suffered from cancer.
With infiltration from oil companies as well as palm oil plantations, indigenous culture is crumbling. Twenty-seven-year-old Jimmy Piguaje, a member of the Siekopai community, doesn't know what it's like to live the way his ancestors did. From tales told by his elders, he knows that contamination began when oil spilled into their rivers and lands. The pollution caused death, food shortages, and undrinkable water. Piguaje says the oil industry also caused fights within indigenous communities, alcoholism, drug addiction, and prostitution.
What's the solution?
With over half of its total exports consisting of crude oil, Ecuador is unlikely to stop oil production anytime soon. It only took the oil companies a month to repair and slightly re-route the broken pipelines. However, in light of the worldwide oil glut and the relatively high price of extracting oil from the Ecuadorian Amazon ($39.00/barrel), at least drilling should cease for the foreseeable future.
Some indigenous people are open to working with oil firms as long as they share a larger piece of the pie. Others, however, think that's akin to dancing with the devil. They file lawsuits against the oil companies and the government, and they work to keep oil companies out of undrilled areas.
Indigenous leader Manari Usigua is one of those who want the Ecuador’s oil to remain in place. Usigua led the Sápara people in 2018 protests that forced a Chinese consortium to stop searching for oil.
"Oil . . . sustains the earth's equilibrium," says Ushigua. "Below the oil, spirits live. The land has life."
The problems in the Ecuadorian Amazon have been brewing for decades, and there are no easy solutions. However, it's clear that Ecuador should try to wean itself off of oil, clean up the mess oil's created, and work toward a post-extractive future.
At OMA, we want to be part of the post-extractive future and provide sustainable opportunities for indigenous people. When you buy a grown-and-made-in-the-rainforest OMA bracelet, your purchase pays a fair wage to an indigenous artisan, plants a tree, and protects an acre of rainforest.
Our goal is to protect one million acres (OMA) of rainforest. Together we can do it—one acre at a time!