AUSTIN, Texas — Oil pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon has caused major damage to Indigenous communities, polluting water and food sources. Oil operations have also led to deforestation and settlement in Indigenous territory. Yet, with few options, Indigenous communities must choose to sell their land or fend off oil goliaths through small-scale industries like ecotourism.
Indigenous Groups of the Ecuadorian Amazon
The Amazon — the largest rainforest on Earth — covers more than a billion acres, spanning eight South American countries and French Guyana. It contains a tenth of the world’s species as well as some 400 indigenous tribes, where about 60 choose to remain isolated. However, many have had contact with the outside world, utilizing guns for hunting and accessing western medicine and education.
About a quarter of Ecuador’s 1.1 million Indigenous people live in the Amazon, making up 10 Indigenous nationalities, including the Cofán, Siona, Secoya and Waorani. Ecuador has taken some progressive measures in protecting Indigenous rights, yet inequities remain. According to the World Bank, Ecuador’s Indigenous households are 16% more likely to live in extreme poverty than non-Indigenous households. While the Ecuadorian constitution gives land ownership to Indigenous groups, energy resources like oil are state-owned.
The Search for Black Gold
In Ecuador, companies began searching for oil in the early 20th century, but peak oil extraction began in the 1970s. U.S.-based Texaco Petroleum Co. — now known as Chevron — arrived in Ecuador in the 1960s, and remained its primary oil company through the early 1990s.
A team of lawyers sued Chevron in 1993 for irresponsible waste management, affecting 30,000 Ecuadorians. The lawsuit accused Chevron of storing 18.5 billion gallons of wastewater in unlined pits. It also claimed Chevron dumped 16 million gallons of oil into the open. Following this scandal, Chevron capped more than 200 oil pits and built schools and medical facilities in the area. The plaintiffs, however, argued this was insufficient. They claimed the oil spills caused long-lasting environmental damage and harm to human health – including skin conditions and cancer.
An Ecuadorian court ruled in 2011 that Chevron should pay $9.5 billion in damages. Three years later, Chevron appealed to a U.S. federal court, which found the verdict fraudulent. The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration also ruled in favor of Chevron, which has argued it never owned any assets in Ecuador, and signed a settlement with the country in the late 1990s absolving it of any further responsibilities there.
Nearly 30 years later, Chevron still denies liability and has paid nothing from the original ruling.
Ecuador’s Oil Production Today
Ecuador is still highly dependent on oil extraction to pay off debts to China as well as for state revenue. Yet, while oil is omnipresent, Michael Cepek — an anthropologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of “Life in Oil” — believes oil companies today use better practices than Chevron did. He tells The Borgen Project companies are more careful about responsible waste management and use safety valves along pipelines.
Yet, he does not discount that damaging spills are inevitable in an earthquake-prone country like Ecuador. “Until you totally rebuild the Trans-Ecuadorian pipeline, or do something to make pipelines impervious to seismic activity, you’re just gonna have oil spills,” he said.
According to the advocacy organization Amazon Frontlines, there are now more than 950 oil wells in the Amazon where — between 2005 and 2015 — there were nearly 1,170 oil spills in Ecuador alone. As recently as April 2020, broken pipelines from Ecuador’s Petroecuador and the private company OPC Consortium spilled more than 15,000 gallons of oil. The spill affected more than 100,000 people, including more than 100 Indigenous communities. Both oil companies claim to have cleaned up the spills. Yet, recent tests reveal heavy metals are still present in the rivers.
The ITT Initiative: A Call to Save the Rainforest or Cynical Criticism?
Ecuador’s then-president, Rafael Correa, created an international trust fund in 2007 through his Yasuni-ITT Initiative. The goal was to raise half the value of the oil reserve — some $3.6 billion — under Ecuador’s Yasuní Park by 2023. If the initiative met its goal from international donations, the 796 million barrels of oil would stay underground. The plan ultimately failed, raising less than half of 1% of its goal six years into the initiative.
Ecuador’s foreign debts continued to lurk, and Correa ended the initiative in 2013, allowing oil companies to drill.
Cepek doubts Correa ever expected the international community to save Yasuní. He believes the initiative served as a lesson to hypocritical developed nations. “He put it at the ball in their lap, saying, ‘(If) you don’t want us to do this kind of extractivism … put your money where your mouth is,” Cepek said, adding that many others genuinely believed the plan would work and were devastated by its failure.
Caught Between A Road and a Pipeline
Indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon often find themselves in a difficult position. They can strike a deal with companies to sell their land for oil, or risk losing everything regardless.
For 20 years, Cepek conducted research in a Cofán community in Dureno where he witnessed those living there fighting off oil for years before finally giving in. They lost faith in western environmental activists, he said, who seemed dismissive of their lack of resources. For many Indigenous communities, working with the oil companies equals money for necessities like health care. “The poverty is so extreme,” Cepek said, “it’s hard to say ‘no’ when you have no other ways to get money.”
Ecotourism in Ecuador: Sani Lodge
The Sani Isla community consists of about 600 Kichwa people from Ecuador’s Napo and Pastaza provinces. The Sani community built Sani Lodge for guests in 1999 where, according to Javier Hualinga — a Sani Lodge guide at the time — the community was resisting two threatening proposals. One was to build a road through their community. The other was to allow Occidental Petroleum Corp., to run a pipeline through instead. In the end, Occidental won, Hualinga told The Borgen Project, and the Sani community felt powerless because Ecuadorian law declared such energy resources are government-owned.
The Sani community built Sani Lodge to create jobs and consolidate greater power against encroaching oil companies. One of Sani Lodge’s primary goals today, Hualinga said, is to conserve the land. Sani Lodge “is a perfect excuse to fight the oil companies,” he said, “and has become our armor or shield.” At Sani Lodge, guests can take personalized tours through the Amazon, led by community guides. Guests also have the opportunity to visit Kichwa homes, eat traditional meals, and learn about Kichwa customs.
Sani Lodge is Ecuador’s only Indigenous-owned and managed ecolodge, according to its website. All of the lodge’s profit stays within the community, Hualinga says. Money goes toward expenses such as health care, education and the preservation of Kichwa culture. Sani Lodge also partners with the Sani Warmi project, which supports Indigenous women in small businesses.
The Instability of “Sustainable Tourism”
While Sani Lodge has provided the Sani community with some degree of autonomy, it has not made life easy for its Kichwa residents. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sani Lodge struggled financially. With increasing pressure from oil companies, the community is not in consensus about whether they should maintain their ecolodge, or allow in oil.
The global pandemic has added to the lodge’s financial challenges, Hualinga says. Sani Lodge closed for months. While Sani can normally accommodate 20 guests, it is currently at just half-capacity.
Last year’s oil spill, which affected the Napo River, also made it difficult for the community to operate its lodge — to the point where Hualinga says reopening feels like starting “from zero once again.”
Light at the End of the Pipeline
At Sani Lodge, guests can witness hundreds of species of birds, as well as spider monkeys, giant otters, and occasionally, jaguars. On his guided hikes, Hualinga says he allows visitors to formulate their own opinions about what they see. Yet, he hopes that their immersion will impact the way they understand the Amazon and the Indigenous communities that inhabit it.
The lodge has the potential to “show (guests) how important (it) is to protect the Amazon,” he said, “which is home not only for the diversity of flora and fauna, but also the diversity of … culture, and their abilities to live with it.”
– Annie Prafcke