What Lies beneath the Rainforest the Rainforest vs the Oil Giants

Article excerpt

You want the Amazon to survive? Then pay us not to pump the oil, says Ecuador. Huw Hennessy in Quito reports on a bold initiative

The tropical rainforest in the eastern lowlands of Ecuador assaults the senses: the sunlight dazzles the eyes, the heat is so fierce that within seconds one's clothes are soaked in sweat. Then there are the sounds: a hypnotic symphony of frogs, crickets and other insects and birds which continues unabated day and night. There are sudden glimpses of the jungle's abundant wildlife: a spectacular flash of a blue morpho butterfly at the river's edge, a flock of green parakeets screeching.

This stunning region, which covers more than a third of Ecuador's area, almost the size of England, and which is one of the world's richest biospheres, with a huge diversity of animals and plants, some found nowhere else on Earth, faces a double threat: from the logging industry, which would strip it bare, and from the oil industry, which for nearly 40 years has been exploiting the huge resources of crude beneath the soil. Now, however, Ecuador is betting it can keep what is left of the oil in the ground and hang onto its biosphere into the bargain.

The South American country has learned the hard way that oil brings human misery and environmental devastation along with billions in export earnings. Every new oil field is an invasion that brings tens of thousands of outsiders into the forest's heart, polluting the air, soil and water, destroying wildlife, and assaulting the support systems of indigenous tribes, which can lead to their extermination. And the damage is not confined to the immediate vicinity of the wells.

The Via Auca is the main highway cutting through the Ecuadorean Amazonia region, and it has been a lifeline of the oil industry for nearly 40 years, slicing through the countryside like a badly healed wound, the roadside lined with hellish flares, murky waste pits and corroded pipelines. Accidents involving the pipelines are frequent, and their consequences harrowing. On the far side of the town of Dayuma, which sprang up as an oil workers' shantytown and is still riddled with crime and prostitution, one of the ageing pipelines has ruptured, sending a jet of oil shooting 30 metres into the air, staining the vegetation black all around.

The sickly stench of crude oil is overwhelming in the midday tropical heat. A house and a field across the road have also been soaked by the filthy gusher. Sebastian Ortiz, whose elderly father owns the simple wooden house by the roadside on the edge of the jungle, points out where the oil has drenched the field and seeped into the ground. Petrobel, one of many oil companies now operating in the region, has said it will pay his father US$5,000 (3,000) towards the clean-up costs. But Ortiz says: "I don't know when he will be paid, or even if it is still safe for him to carry on living here."

Pollution is only one of the many ills that the oil business brings with it. Fernando Moreno, an anthropologist with the Ministry of the Environment, has been monitoring the oil industry's effect on the local community for years. "The people have become beggars" he says. "They have become accustomed to demanding whatever they need and more from the oil companies, just because they are in the same territory. Weighing up the benefits and drawbacks of the oil companies, I think it would be better not to have them. They lead to many bad habits, they make people avaricious, they increase the differences between people - and they are a source of contamination: for the land, the water and the people themselves."

For the last 16 years Ecuador has been embroiled in a bitter battle over a huge $27.3 billion environmental damages claim brought against US oil giant Chevron by 30,000 Amazonian inhabitants. The plaintiffs accuse Texaco (which Chevron acquired in 1993) of dumping more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest between 1964 and 1990, and claim that 1,400 deaths occurred in the region as a result of the contaminated soil and water, which brought unaccountably high levels of cancer, skin and breathing conditions. …