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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Valdez Oil Spill in Ecuador's Jungle

Air Date: Week of

Producers Sandy Tolan and Nancy Postero report on the environmental legacy of Ecuador's 20-year-old oil industry. Since the early 1970's, more than 10 million gallons of oil have been spilled into the country's Amazon rainforest, and millions more gallons of toxic waste have been poured into the region's rivers.


CURWOOD: Since oil drilling began in the Ecuadoran Amazon twenty years ago, the area has been contaminated with more crude oil than that spilled by the Exxon Valdez. So says a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Ecuadoran government and Texaco have recently commissioned another study of the area. Texaco ran the oil operation for almost twenty years, and Ecuador expects the company to pay for any damage to the jungle.
But as producers Sandy Tolan and Nancy Postero found, the responsibility for Ecuador's oil troubles goes beyond just Texaco.

(Fade up radio sound)

TOLAN: Three miles off Ecuador's Pacific coast, black and yellow hoses rise from the sea and run up the hull of a ship as big as a city block. Oil flows from a huge underwater pipeline, up through the hoses, and into a 400- thousand barrel tanker, bound for the US. This has been modern Ecuador's dream: an oil industry that's raised the country's standard of living, its literacy and nutrition rates, built high rises, and helped Ecuador shed its image of a poor country that exports nothing but bananas.

(Jungle bird sounds)

The dream began at the other end of the 300-mile pipeline, across the Andes, in Ecuador's remote Amazon rainforest. This is where, 25 years ago, Texaco began prospecting across five million acres of forest. Helicopter airlifts brought a massive infrastructure to the Amazon: exploration wells, a great metal spider web of pipelines, and hundreds of miles of roads. It was all part of a master plan: the wells would bring dollars to the country, and new frontiers would be opened for tens of thousands of poor settlers, who came down the oil roads, slashing the forest in their path, searching for a new life.

(Sound of brush being cut; woman speaking in Spanish)

F. MARTINEZ (translation): This is where the crude oil comes out. The oil company workers came with their tankers, and dumped it here. Every time they come, we beg them not to dump any more, because it affects our water.

TOLAN: Flora Martinez came here with her family to homestead a small patch of jungle in the center of Amazon oil country. They cut the forest, building a house, planting corn, manioc and coffee at the edge of a clear jungle river. Now, standing a few feet from an oil pump, Flora looks down at a still eddy in the stream. Everything is black: bushes, tree trunks, and the dead fish floating atop the pool, thick as tar. The family's coffee and corn stocks are stunted and stained black. Since the government oil company started dumping waste oil here two years ago, the Martinezes' cows have had seven miscarriages.

F. MARTINEZ (translated): What you see is horrible, just horrible. It's ugly. It makes you sad to see this, and we have to drink from this water -- it's the only water we have. When we bathe in it, it gives us bumps and makes us itch, especially the children. We wish we could leave, but we sold our land there to come here, and who would buy this land?

TOLAN: A generation after the oil industry began, the dreams have gone sour for thousands of people in the Ecuadoran Amazon -- homesteaders, like the Martinezes, as well as the original Indian inhabitants of the region. Scores of rivers have been poisoned. One spill flooded the subsistence crops of more than five hundred colonist families. A series of spills devastated an internationally reknowned wildlife reserve, also home to several Indian tribes. In all, a billion and a half gallons of oil have been extracted, and more than ten million spilled. Millions more in toxic wastes have been pumped directly into the rivers.

ROMAN : We developed these fields in a hurry.

TOLAN: Luis Roman is president of Petro Ecuador, the state-run oil company.

ROMAN: Because our prices were going down, and exports were declining, and we needed to repay the foreign debt. And I have to be very honest with you, we had even money from the World Bank to develop these fields in a hurry. We probably were not very careful with environmental problems.

TOLAN: The Ecuadoran government blames the ecological disaster in the Amazon on lax industry standards that were a hallmark of much of the oil development in Latin America in the 1970's. Some officials blame Texaco. Texaco officials insist they operated responsibly, within Ecuadoran law and proper environmental standards. Now, control of the industry has shifted to Petro Ecuador, which has subcontracted much of the exploration to foreign oil companies. Company president Roman says the country has learned from its legacy of contamination.

ROMAN: I think we ought to be very honest and say, yes, we've done things very badly and what we're trying to do now is correct whatever damages we've done in the past. From now on, we're not going to make those same mistakes.

TOLAN: Ecuador, under pressure from international environmentalists, has implemented strict new laws that promise harsh penalties for polluters. There's a new ministry to oversee the oil industry. But the new environmental ministry has no budget for enforcement or investigation. It must rely on a voluntary gentlemen's agreement with foreign oil companies who promise not to pollute. And government critics say Petro Ecuador is responsible for many of the spills that are still going on.

SANTOS: I see an attitude of hypocrisy.

TOLAN: Fernando Santos is former minister of Ecuador's Department of Energy and Mines.

SANTOS: If Texaco is guilty of causing harm to the environment, Petro Ecuador is ten times worse. For the new companies, they have been very strict, demanding guarantees that the environment will be protected. I can assure you that Petro Ecuador will not follow these rules; they operate under no rule of environmental protection.

TOLAN: Some environmentalists in Ecuador do not believe the government is learning from its mistakes. They question whether oil development can ever be done responsibly in a rainforest. Fifteen years from now, they say, when all the oil is gone, Ecuador's dream may give way to a nightmarish vision: a graveyard of rusted pipes and poisoned waters, and no new industry to bring in foreign dollars. Esperanza Martinez, of the group Ecological Action, is joined by international environmental groups in demanding a ten-year moratorium on oil development in Ecuador.

E. MARTINEZ (translated): People thought oil will allow us to live like the rich countries. But now after all the terrible oil spills, many people are asking: To what extent does oil make things better? Because for petroleum, we have sacrificed the most beautiful thing we had: nature.

TOLAN: Yet Ecuador's leaders believe they have little choice but to keep bringing oil out of the jungle. Ecuador finds itself increasingly wedged between foreign creditors who want dollars, environmentalists who want to save the rainforest, and consumers who want oil. Manuel Navarro is head of Petro Ecuador's environmental division.

NAVARRO: All of a sudden we have pressure from organizations from Europe, from the States, claiming that Amazonian jungle has to be untouched. In the same way, they are demanding we pay off the debt; they're still getting cheap export goods. I think it's a little unfair, the pressure we have from different sides. This is, don't use this, don't touch this -- but do we have an alternative?

(sound up and under)

TOLAN: With Nancy Postero, this is Sandy Tolan, for Living on Earth.



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