Choosing Profit Over People, Oil Development at the Cost of Indigenous life in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador

By Brenda Gonzalez, SFSU, 2017

Living within the amazon basin of northern Ecuador are thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians whose lifelines are intertwined with that of the forest[1]. These indigenous people who call the rainforest home use its water, its land, its vegetation, and its animals to survive[2]. When the rainforest is put in jeopardy so are they. For the past 22 years the indigenous people of the communities within the amazon basin, or oriente, have been fighting Chevron, the company that acquired Texaco in 2001, to make it pay for the environmental degradation and resulting health issues that arose from the oil development that occurred in their home[3]. Development in areas such as the amazon basin are often plagued by what is referred to as the resource curse, and a result of energy colonialism.

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Hand Covered in crude oil from the Open-Air Pits in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador

Environmental Impacts

 

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Indigenous member of the Cofan nation of the Ecuador Amazonian Basin smalls the petroleum laced water of the region. 

 

During their time in Ecuador, Texaco introduced about 18 million gallons of toxic waste water in the waterways of the Oriente[4], waters that the indigenous people use to navigate, bathe in, drink, cook with and hydrate their animals. Although Texaco left the rainforest in 1992, in the wake of their absence they left behind hundreds of pits[5]. These pits were left out in the open, and unlined[6]. This has allowed the crude and toxic sludge that they are filled with to seep into the soil, and during times of rain to overfill and pour into the surrounding waterways[7]. It is found that at one point Texaco was dumping roughly 5 million gallons of toxic waste water into the water ways every day[8].

Health Impacts

4858081503_2cf4b5e84c_b
Carmen Melanie Chamba, 54, lives in her home near an open pit in the Ecuadorian Amazon Basin for 39 years. In that time she has had 5 abortions and health related complications that could be a result of spending so much time living near toxic waste.

Numerous studies have been conducted on the health impacts of the Chevron oil dumping, and what living near these oil fields has done to the people of the region. One study found that the children ranging from ages 0-14 were more likely to have developed leukemia, when compared to children of other regions not within close proximity of an oil field[9]. Another study found an increased likelihood of spontaneous abortions in pregnant woman within the region[10]. A study that took water samples of the region found excess exposure to TPH (petroleum hydrocarbons), which was linked to a higher expectancy of all types of cancer among adult men as well as death[11].

The Resource Curse laced with Energy Colonialism

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Member of the Cofán nation whose community, which resides within the Amazon Basin, has been affected by the toxic waste left behind by Texaco, now Chevron.

The theoretical concept referred to as the resource curse explains that countries with the greatest amount of natural resources are often those that have high levels of inequality,  staggered economic growth, and poverty[12]. Energy colonialism, on the other hand, describes a new type of colonialism that models a dichotomous relationship between the global north and south where the energy resources of the global south are used to the benefit of the north[13]. Thus, the resource curse and energy colonialism can both be used to explain why the extraction of Ecuador’s resources have helped pave the way for the injustice in El Oriente.

In 1967 when Texaco and Gulf Oil Corporation, both owned by Chevron since 1983, found oil in the Amazon Rainforest the large commercial supply was believed to be what would finally pull Ecuador and its people out of poverty and lead them to development[14]. Since this time, it was found that policies for national and economic development were linked with policies for petroleum[15]. Yet despite these initiatives and attempts to lift Ecuadorian people out of poverty it was found that the poverty level of Ecuador only increased in the years after oil boom[16]. Despite the people of Ecuador holding voting patterns that reject foreign intervention, the Ecuadorian government continued to offer lax policies and laws that made Ecuador more appetizing for foreign companies in hopes that they would invest in Ecuador[17].

Government policies in the 70s and 80s pushed for the colonialization of the Ecuadorian Amazon[18]. The government offered land to people who would migrate to the region, cut down the rainforest and develop it, completely ignoring the presence of indigenous people in the region[19]. It is important to note that the government of Ecuador did not formally recognize the land rights of the indigenous people until the nineties[20]. So, during the time of oil development, communities of people that lived within the region were displaced either willingly or by force, and some of these groups no longer exist today[21].

Texaco took shortcuts that cut costs for them which maximized their profits. In their absence, they left behind unlined open-air pits which they filled with toxic and crude sludge. They also dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste water in the water ways that the indigenous people used which had long been known as a harmful practice. The complete disregard on the part of Texaco and negligence of the Ecuadorian government encouraged the devastating impacts that are now being realized by the indigenous people of Oriente while the profits are reaped today by Chevron.

Works Cited

[1]
Amazon Watch. Chevron’s Chernobyl in the Amazon: Retrieved from: http://amazonwatch.org/work/chevron

[2]
Amazon Watch

[3]
Chevron Toxico: The Campaign For Justice In Ecuador. Environmental Impacts. Retrieved from: http://chevrontoxico.com/about/environmental-impacts/

[4]
Environmental Impacts

[5]
Environmental Impacts

[6]
Environmental Impacts

[7]
Environmental Impacts

[8]
Environmental Impacts

[9]
Hurtig, Anna-Karin. San Sebastian, Miguel. (2004) Incidence of Childhood Leukemia and Oil Exploitation in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. Int J Occup Environ Health 10: 245-250

[10]
San Sebastián, Miguel. Armstrong, M. Stephens C. (2002) Outcome of pregnancy among women living in the proximity of oil fields in the Amazon basin of Ecuador. Int J Occup Environ Health; 8:312-9.

[11]
San, Sebastian, Armstrong, B., Cordoba, J., & Stephens, C. (2001). Exposures and cancer incidence near oil fields in the Amazon basin of Ecuador. Occupational and Environmental Medicine58(8), 517–522. http://doi.org/10.1136/oem.58.8.517

[12]
Patrick, Stewart (2012) Why Natural Resources Are a Curse on Developing Countries and How to Fix It. The Atlantic.

[13]
Batel, Susana. Devine-Wright, Patrick (2017) Energy Colonialism and the Role of the Global in Local Responses to New Energy Infrastructures in the UK: A Critical and Exploratory Empirical Analysis. Antipode 49:1.

[14]
Kimerling, Judith(2006). Oil development in Ecuador and Peru: law, politics and the environment. International Law and Politics. Vol. 38:413

[15]
Oil development in Ecuador and Peru: law, politics and the environment, 2006

[16]
Oil development in Ecuador and Peru: law, politics and the environment, 2006

[17]
Oil development in Ecuador and Peru: law, politics and the environment, 2006

[18]
Oil development in Ecuador and Peru: law, politics and the environment, 2006

[19]
Oil development in Ecuador and Peru: law, politics and the environment, 2006

[20]
Oil development in Ecuador and Peru: law, politics and the environment, 2006

[21]
Oil development in Ecuador and Peru: law, politics and the environment, 2006

 

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