Where Rivers run Black

Where rivers run black

With my own eyes I’ve witnessed streams and rivers running black with heavy crude oil, butterflies coated in this toxic substance struggling to move their once multicoloured wings, dead fish floating on the current, others contaminated, but still alive, only to be eaten by indigenous people down-river.

Welcome to the Amazon, the ultimate edge, where the mountainous Andes meet the tropical rainforest. Since the 60’s the oil industry has been drilling here, yet few people are aware of this, or that ecocide and ethnocide take place in what once was paradise on a daily basis.

Lago Agrio in northern Ecuador is the heart of the oil boom, its name, given by Texaco, appropriately enough meaning ‘sour lake’. Shortly after Texaco’s arrival, two local indigenous groups, the Tetetes and the Sansahuari, were reported to have disappeared forever, while the Cofan, Secoya, Siona, Kichwa and Huaorani have been affected deeply by the loss of their ancestral territory.

The Tagaeri and Taromenane are the two last known indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation in Ecuador. They have refused all contact with the outside world and are now threatened by the discovery of oil in their home, the Yasuni World Biosphere Reserve. Yasuni has been deemed the most biodiverse area on Earth, the jewel of our planet. But have you heard of it before? I believe that if we can’t manage to save this place, then there’s little else we can.

In the Amazon people have always drunk water straight from streams and rivers, but the difference now is the added hydrocarbons, heavy metals and radioactive substances which come courtesy of the oil industry. Children swim and play in these rivers, and their skin tells the story in rashes and lesions. In Ecuador doctors report the highest cancer rates and birth defects in the country.
But it’s not just people’s health that’s affected by the contaminated water, air and earth, it’s also their minds and souls. Their beloved homeland, where their ancestors have lived for time immemorial, has been taken from them.  Deforested and contaminated, now in place of jungle grow towns, roads, oil wells, brothels and cheap motels.

And where have the jaguars gone? They once roamed this land, along with the sloths and numerous varieties of monkeys. Brightly coloured birds now have nowhere to nest and the reptiles (once more abundant than anywhere else on Earth) have gone.

This addiction for oil knows no boundaries. Nothing and no one is sacred. The indigenous people are generously told they own only the surface of the Earth, while what’s below belongs to the government. Once oil is discovered, the monster moves in, sucking out the ancient sunlight, which has remained in darkness for millennia. Like a drug addict’s syringe, it perforates the body, sucking out this valuable liquid.

For years local people were protesting, shouting loudly, trying to protect their homes and children, but their voices went unheard. That had to change. In 1994 under the banner of Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia (The Amazon Defence Coalition), 30,000 affected individuals united. They filed a class action lawsuit against Texaco (now Chevron) for deliberately dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic waste directly into the environment and spilling roughly 17 million gallons of crude oil. Texaco had also left hazardous waste in 916 open pits dug out of the forest floor, and many of these pits continue to leak into the water table or overflow in heavy rains, polluting rivers and streams.

After 21 years, this David and Goliath case was won by the Ecuadorian people. Chevron Texaco was ordered to pay $8.6 billion. Of course Chevron appealed, but again they lost. And so it seemed that justice had been served, the Earth and the people had won, and it was time to clean up the toxic wasteland left by this irresponsible corporation. However, Chevron then filed a civil lawsuit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) saying the trial was a fraud. The case continues.

When the law of Ecocide comes into being this will be a different story. But for now the other main oil industry players are supporting Chevron as they know that failure to win the case could set a dangerous precedent for further actions. Valiantly continuing to engage in this battle is Pablo Fajardo, an Ecuadorian lawyer raised in poverty and of native Cofan descent. He became CNN Hero of the Year and recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize; nevertheless his ongoing work is often unpaid, unrecognized and largely unsupported.

How can this be? Perhaps because very few people know what’s going on. After every screening of my documentary film ‘Blood of the Amazon’, I ask the audience to raise their hands if they’ve heard about this ecocide. On one occasion, out of an audience of 200 people, only 4 raised their hands.

When will corporations be held responsible for their actions and for everyone to understand the power they have as a consumer. It really is just about doing the right thing.

If people had heard, would it make a difference? Are people prepared to change? If a Chevron or Texaco garage is most convenient to where they live, would they actually go the extra mile to avoid it, or better still decide to give up their car? When does our conscience kick in and help us decide to boycott the large multinational corporations behind the ecocide we’re all facing unless they change?

Oil v Oil

It is not just the heavy crude oil that threatens the Amazon. Palm oil, the so-called ‘clean green biofuel’ is another threat. Millions of acres have been deforested and burnt. Scientists estimate around 15-17% of annual carbon emissions – more than all the cars, buses, trains and airplanes in the world – are caused by the burning of tropical forests.

And there seems to be no limit to the size of these ‘farms’. As far as the eye can see tropical rainforest once teeming with life has been replaced by monoculture. The multitude of life that once lived there has been driven out, made homeless or burnt.

This oil, which governments seem to think is an answer, only replaces one destructive oil with another. International food giants also use palm oil in their food. Cheap, mass produced junk food, both unnecessary and unhealthy for humans, is also driving the death of the Amazon.

How much more of this burning and destruction can the planet stand? We live in a world of cause and effect, supply and demand. Whatever we ask for is given. So let’s ask for a healthy world. Support small businesses, question our lives and reconsider what we do in fact demand. Let’s think more globally about how our shopping habits are affecting the lives of those on the other side of the planet. Let’s be more compassionate and tell these companies it’s time to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves, and together move towards a fair and just world for all.

Nicola Peel has been working in the Ecuadorian Amazon since 2000. As a filmmaker and environmentalist she has documented Amazonian ecocide with her film ‘Blood of the Amazon’, and continues to directly help the indigenous people she meets. Every year she builds rainwater systems for the families most in need and is the founder of the Amazon Mycorenewal Project (deploying bioremediation, the use of fungi, bacteria and plants, to heal contaminated land). For more information see www.eyesofgaia.com

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