Thursday, December 6, 2012

Lingering pollution in Ecuador's rainforests

By: Rebecca McKinsey 
Produced and edited by: Kaylyn Hlavaty

Indigenous tribes in Ecuador’s Amazon Rain Forest may have won a victory in 2011, but the toll of years of oil pollution that damaged both their environment and their health will take much longer to erase.

For almost 30 years, oil operations within the rain forest by Texaco Inc. — which Chevron Corporation bought in 2001 — caused such extensive pollution that it resulted in severe health problems, including cancer, for the indigenous tribes living there, who had no way to protect themselves, activists say.

And although a long, drawn-out legal battle between the tribes, activists and the oil company resulted in a $19 billion payout by Chevron in 2011, healing for the indigenous people within Ecuador’s rain forest is still far away.

An Ecuadorian child stands beside a Texaco barrel. Photo credit
Although the battle was drawn out for years, many groups, including Amnesty International and Survival, remained staunchly in support of justice for the indigenous groups affected in the rain forest.

One group that advocates for the health rights of the tribes is punto&coma, which works toward defending the environment, human rights, economic development and the fight against poverty.

Punto&coma is a small company dedicated to creating publications for NGOs about topics such as the environment, human rights, et cetera,” said Luisa Toribio, a representative from the organization. “On a personal level, there are topics (such as pollution in the Amazon Rain Forest) that interest us greatly, and for that reason, we follow and support them.”

The tribes, many of whose members had no access to the world outside of their lives in the rain forest, were not prepared for the pollution or equipped to deal with its effects.

“We lived upon the river of rich, clear waters, but with the arrival of the contamination, my brothers are now dead,” said one indigenous woman featured in Joe Berlinger’s documentary, Crude. “I am the only survivor of my family.”

Crude outlines the pollution problems that manifested themselves in the forests over the decades and the legal battle that continued for years.

Wildlife was not spared by the pollution, but the documentary primarily shows translated interviews with members of the tribes who came forward — described as “some of the most marginalized people on Earth” — and described the health problems they were experiencing as a result of the pollution, including one woman whose young daughter had liver cancer. Not even their drinking water was spared from oil pollution. “What was once paradise now has just been left in destruction,” one indigenous man said.

Throughout the documentary, oil company representatives were shown providing protests that the health problems were a result of poor sanitation rather than oil pollution.

“This is not contamination,” said one activist shown in the documentary. “This is industrial exploitation permitted by the law.”
The National Cancer Registry for Ecuador showed more than 1,200 cancer cases in oil-producing areas in the country between 1985 and 2000, according to the Eurasia Review. The numbers are expected to be even higher because they don’t specifically pertain to the Amazon Rain Forest, the report states.

The types of cancer reported to be affecting people living in oil-producing areas in Ecuador varied widely and included cancer of the stomach, rectum, soft tissue, kidneys, cervix and lymph nodes as well as skin melanoma, according to the Eurasia Review.

Still, Chevron denies its oil production efforts caused any adverse effects.

“Chevron has thoroughly investigated the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ claims of social, health and environmental harms,” states the oil company’s website. “… There is no scientific support for the claims. To the contrary, all of the legitimate evidence presented to the Ecuadorian court demonstrates that… operations present no risk to residents’ health.”

Polluted water from oil. Photo credit  Rainforest Action Network

The book Savages by Joe Kane provides an in-depth, long-term look at one of the tribes — the Huaorani Indians — who are most secluded and were most affected by the oil pollution.

It describes them as a group of people who “so fearsome that they had driven off generations of invaders” — until oil was discovered in their region.

When a company came in to clear seismic lines and recruited members of the tribe for manpower, their treatment provided an almost shocking insight into outsiders’ views of the tribes — one activists argue also promoted the problems with the oil companies.

Enqueri, one of the tribe members profiled in Kane’s book, described the treatment to Kane:

“I worked with other Huaorani Indians; we all slept together,” he said. “There was a lot of malaria, and someone was always getting hurt — cutting off a finger or getting chopped by a machete or ax. But if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid.

“When we asked for better treatment, the company said we didn’t deserve it, because we were uncivilized.”

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