Climate, crude, and COVID devastate Ecuador’s Amazon
An Ecuadorean oil worker wears a t-shirt with a skull design while working to clean up an oil waste pit owned by state petroleum company Petroecuador in Shushufindi, some 410 km (254 mi) east of Quito. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

Unprecedented flooding, the COVID-19 pandemic, and catastrophic oil spills are wreaking havoc in Ecuador’s Amazon and its Indigenous communities, one of the groups hardest hit by the climate-related emergencies fueled by unbridled drilling for oil and mining for minerals.

In April, as COVID-19 began to overwhelm the healthcare system, both of Ecuador’s transnational oil pipelines ruptured, dumping thousands of barrels of oil into the Coca river and its tributaries that provide fresh water and livelihoods to native communities. Regarded as Ecuador’s worst spill in a decade, the collapsed pipelines are still not fully repaired, and the government remains tightlipped over the incident. A similar environmental disaster was caused by an oil spill linked to Chevron-Texaco in Aguarico in Sept. 2013.

Caught between the pandemic, historic flooding, and governmental negligence, Ecuador’s Indigenous people have launched an international appeal to crowdsource rebuilding efforts, and a COVID-19 monitoring platform with help from international environmental groups. As of early August, nearly 2,000 Indigenous people have tested positive for COVID-19, and almost 40 deaths have been recorded in the monitored territories.

A country of 17 million inhabitants, Ecuador’s fortunes have nosedived in the combined wake of the pandemic and recent environmental catastrophes. The country’s confirmed COVID-19 cases now stand at nearly 85,000, with the total number of deaths approaching 6,000. But the actual number could be fifteen times higher, according to one analysis, with bodies reportedly littering the streets of Quito, the nation’s largest city.

Beset by the coronavirus pandemic and crude-contaminated waters, the Indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon are entirely left to fend for themselves. With little or no government healthcare support, similar to the situation TRNN previously reported in Brazil and Peru, the native people of the Ecuadorian Amazon are struggling with food security, access to drinking water, and sanitation supplies.

The government in Quito recently moved to reopen businesses, allowing the oil, gas, and mineral industries to restart operations. Workers and equipment have been brought back into Indigenous land, considerably elevating communities’ exposure to COVID-19. The acute lack of essential items has also forced native people to venture out to nearby towns. In some cases, those who leave also bring back COVID-19.

Around the same time as the pipeline rupture, global oil prices dipped below zero as worldwide demand faltered under pandemic fears, sending Ecuador to the brink of default on foreign debt. The country is heavily dependent on oil revenue, and much of its $65 billion public debt comprises oil-backed loans from China. Despite the uncertain global oil market amidst surging COVID-19 cases, the government in Quito has announced plans to expand oil production.

And then came the floods. In April, Bobonaza River—located in Ecuador’s central Amazon—swelled to historic levels, leading to unprecedented flooding. Community bridges collapsed and water swept away homes and crops providing livelihoods to hundreds of families. The Kichwa tribe of Sarayaku are among the hardest hit. Water leveled with the roofs of traditional communal houses, destroying everything in its path, according to Amazon Watch. Within weeks came a second wave of floods, dealing a blow to rebuilding efforts that were underway.

Talking to The Real News from her native town, Patricia Gualinga, leader of the Indigenous Kichwa community of Sarayaku, said: “What we’ve seen over the last several months, mostly due to climate change, is a series of floods, tremendous rain that has been happening in the Ecuadorian Amazon. and it’s affected the waterways, the rivers and the basins of the Andes and the Amazon. Those rivers have swelled and created massive erosion along the Napo river, and as a consequence tremendous amount of water came down the waterways.”

Gualinga, who is at the forefront of the struggle for the rights of Indigenous people in Ecuador, added that erosion caused the two (transatlantic) pipelines that run alongside the river to rupture, spilling crude right into the water. “And as you can imagine, this has had a very huge impact on Indigenous people that live along these rivers and depend on them. We have incidents of children that have skin rashes, communities that don’t have potable water to drink, crops that have been damaged. So, you have tremendous contamination,” she lamented.

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She blames the Ecuadorian government for being neglectful in managing the erosion, saying the consequences are immense. “You know, the Navajo River is a river that’s connected to not only Ecuador but also to Peru and waters of Amazon River. So crude oil flowing down this river is going to get further into the Amazon and continue to have a major impact on us.”

Amazon Watch’s analysis calls the oil spill the worst in a decade. Indigenous tribes sued the government and oil companies for criminal negligence, but trust in the justice system is at an all-time low because of the historic injustices and inequalities native people have endured over many decades. “It’s very exhausting because we always have to be suing the government because they continue to enact policies that violate our rights, like the illegal commissioning of oil blocks on our territory, without prior consent, like the case Sarayaku has brought. We had to go to international forums to try to see justice,” Gualinga added.

Executive Director of the Pachamama Foundation in Ecuador Belén Paéz agrees that government agencies ignored geological assessments pointing at future catastrophe. Talking to The Real News from Quito, Paéz said geological studies clearly showed 20 years ago that the area was prone to erosion, and any kind of infrastructure was at risk of collapse.

She said the consumers of Ecuadorian crude should share responsibility for the widespread contamination: “The consumers are especially in California. This oil is going from Ecuador to Pacific Ocean and then into the United States. And then they are [shipped] by the Chinese tanks, and Chinese ships. But also, the companies that are operating in this area of the Amazon are local companies”. She added that the responsible oil companies kept mum about the spill rather than warning communities as soon as the incident occurred. “They [communities] only realized when native people went to swim and came out drenched in oil, or developed rashes and fever because of the oil in the water reaching the food.”

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Paéz, too, is skeptical about the local courts, saying the judge announced on Twitter he cannot proceed with this case because he is COVID-19 infected. “And after two months of this Twitter announcement, the government has not been able to react or come with answers for this situation.” She lamented the government continues to turn a blind eye despite the severity of the situation, and is instead interested in pushing to resume drilling and mining.

Meanwhile, back in Sarayaku, Gualinga is convinced the floods and soil erosion are climate-linked. “I’m very surprised and disturbed that the government is not connecting this extreme weather and climate change phenomena with the extractive industry. We’re seeing deforestation happening related to oil mining, but also to illegal and legal logging. Right now, what we’re seeing is all kinds of tropical hardwoods, but particularly right now, balsa wood, which is being extracted and cut and being shipped to China.”

In a pleading and passionate tone, Gualinga said Indigenous elders have been warning this will happen if we don’t respect nature—And their words have been ignored. “We continue to see unfettered extraction of oil and gas despite what we know are climate consequences of that. And that will bring, you know this extreme weather, more pandemics. Chaos will ensue if we can’t live in balance with nature”.

Notable climate scientists such as Brazil-based Carlos Nobre agree with Indigenous peoples’ assertion that certain ecosystems like the Amazon are vital for the balance of our planet and should be off limits to any type of resource extraction. “Clearly, what we’re talking about and calling for is a really profound change,” Gualinga continued, “and this is not what’s being talked about at the COPs [UN climate conferences] where they’re trying to improve a flawed system. We’re talking about a bigger system change.”

She cautioned there is a dire need for this kind of larger view and realization that everything is connected, and that “we are not divided by countries and borders and continents. We are all connected. The reality is that the earth is losing its balance and heading towards destruction. So we need to have almost a rebirth about our viewing the planet and the role of humanity.”

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Climate Change Reporter (former)

Aman is an experienced broadcast journalist with multimedia skills and has more than a decade of international reporting experience. He has previously worked with globally recognized news media brands, including BBC World Service and VOA. Aman brings with him several years of reporting experience covering political, and diplomatic affairs.