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Amazon quagmire

Ecuador natives who say they are reaping the pain of oil development with none of the benefits await a court ruling in their lawsuit over pollution

By Tom Knudson - Bee Staff Writer

Published Monday, November 3, 2003

RUMIPAMBA, Ecuador -- Tromping in black rubber boots through the jungle near his home, Patricio Aguinda stopped at the edge of a swamp.

At eye level, he peered into a forest that glistened a thousand shades of green. But at his feet, clumps of crude oil floated in a shallow pool of water.


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"This pollution is hurting a lot of people," said Aguinda, whose home is a simple wooden shack. "We have a lot of fever, headaches, rashes, even a few cases of cancer."

Guillermo Grefa clutches a stick that he poked into the ground to expose oil-saturated soil beneath in Rumipamba, Ecuador. Villagers say pollution left behind by oil crews threatens the natural beauty of the rain forest.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

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An indigenous Quichua farmer, Aguinda and his family live without electricity or potable water in a remote part of Ecuador's Amazon rain forest. In his front yard is a pipeline, and nearby an oil well, linked to the busy freeways of California and the largest energy-consuming nation on Earth, the United States.

None of that oil wealth touches Aguinda, his wife or six children. Instead, they are the beneficiaries of the dark side of oil development, the side most Californians never see: pollution, poverty, cultural decay and awkward assimilation.

"It's hard to feel comfortable knowing our use of resources provokes so much disparity, pain, suffering and contamination," said Suzana Sawyer, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Sawyer was in Ecuador last week documenting a trial in Lago Agrio that accuses oil giant ChevronTexaco of polluting the region and threatening the health of 30,000 rain forest residents. Today, Aguinda and his family are at the center of that legal drama, which experts say could change how oil companies do business in Latin America.

The suit alleges a subsidiary of Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001 to form ChevronTexaco, knowingly dumped vast quantities of petroleum wastes into the rain forest here in the 1970s and '80s, leaving a toxic footprint that continues to poison the land.

ChevronTexaco, for its part, denies it is responsible. Texaco left the country in 1990 and turned over control of its operations to the government-run oil company, Petroecuador, two years later.Texaco returned from 1995-98 to clean up 250 of the 627 pits in its former oil-drilling concession.

Lawyers for rain forest clients "have chosen to ignore the other factors that could affect health and environment, including Petroecuador's sole proprietorship of the concession over the last 13 years," Ricardo Reis Viega, a ChevronTexaco vice president, said in a statement during the trial.

Following the public testimony phase that ended last week, an Ecuadorean judge must determine how much waste, if any, ChevronTexaco must clean up. In a region where contamination is widespread, that is no simple task.

For many of the people who live in the Amazon, the ChevronTexaco case is not just a long-awaited opportunity to bring a multinational oil company to court in a Third World nation but a chance to speak out about what they say is a legacy of abuse and injustice in oil development.

One angry community, an indigenous Cofan village, clings to the banks of the Aguarico River. Reachable only by canoe or foot, its dirt paths, wooden huts, and small jungle garden offer a glimpse of a world now mostly gone.

Dressed in a bright blue tunic with his black hair combed straight down over his forehead, village shaman Fernando Criollo spoke of life before petroleum.

"When I was a boy, all the water we drank was clean, even from the Aguarico," he said. "But now it tastes oily, like soap. I want to live as before, without contamination."

Oil did more than pollute the Amazon and no amount of cleanup -- now estimated to run as high as $6 billion at former Texaco oil fields alone -- can erase the damage. No matter how much is spent, fear of pollution, and distrust of oil companies, will linger here for generations.

"Besides environmental damages, there were psychological damages, too," said Hugo Camacho, a schoolteacher in the tiny village of Pimampiro, in the heart of Ecuador's oil-drilling region, east of the Andes.

"Oil workers never gave us even a small favor," said Camacho, among the first plaintiffs named in the suit. "They were friends with the presidents of the municipalities. Small farmers and indigenous people were garbage to them."

Across the Ecuadorean Amazon, oil development also has led to broad cultural changes that have fallen most heavily upon the region's 200,000 or so indigenous people. First came social problems, such as dislocation and disease, according to Sawyer, who has written a book about oil and indigenous cultures in Ecuador -- "Crude Chronicles" -- scheduled to be published next year.

What followed was a more subtle upheaval: assimilation into Latin culture and a cash economy.

"Probably every extended indigenous household has one male who has worked in the oil industry, usually in the nastiest kinds of work," Sawyer said.

"They usually go off for three-month stints," she said. "That interrupts agricultural practices... . And that interrupts household economies, consumption patterns, nutrition. It makes them more dependent on having to buy things, which makes them more dependent on money."

Today, when an outsider arrives in an indigenous village, some residents rush to their homes to fetch souvenirs -- necklaces, bracelets and mesh bags -- to offer for sale. Some ask for money just to have their picture taken. After talking to visitors in his Cofan village, Criollo, the medicine man, asked someone for a cigarette.

Texaco first perforated the Ecuadorean Amazon in the 1960s and began producing oil in 1971. In doing so, it opened a door to more petroleum development and to waves of land-hungry settlers who streamed in from other parts of the country.

Settlement devastated natives. "There is one indigenous group, the Tetes, who have disappeared. They were all killed," Sawyer said. "Other tribes -- the Cofan, the Secoya -- have been horribly reduced."

One of the last roads built by Texaco before it pulled out of the Amazon snakes south from the town of Coca on the broad, brown Napo River. Mile after bone-jarring mile is lined with wooden shacks, their metal roofs rusty from the rain, most built by peasant settlers.

The gravel road reaches deep into indigenous territory, so deep that its name is Via de los Aucas -- "Way of the Savages." Follow it about 40 miles south to reach the small village of indigenous Quichua residents: Rumipamba.

It is a ramshackle place, lacking basic amenities -- electricity, water, phones -- common in the United States. Even today, big trucks loaded with pipes and other oil drilling gear rumble south, even farther into the jungle.

Cristobal Bonifaz, the lead U.S. lawyer for the rain forest residents, first traveled this route in 1992. What he discovered in Rumipamba prompted the lawsuit.

"I found this woman with one inch of tar on her feet," he said. "I walked into her house and she put her feet into a tank of gasoline to wash the tar off. The kids were the same way."

"At that point, I said 'I am going to do something about it,' " Bonifaz said.

That woman, Maria Aguinda, is Patricio's mother, and the suit Bonifaz filed bears her name and those of her family members. Today, the Aguinda family still struggles with the aftermath of oil exploration.

"The forest here is full of petroleum," said Guillermo Grefa, Maria Aguinda's son-in-law. "A lot of animals drink from the swamp -- and they die. Even a tapir. One week ago, he drank the water and died. We get our water from a well. But honestly, everything is contaminated here."

To make his point clear, Grefa led a visitor a few yards downhill to the swamp, jabbed his machete into the shallow water and pulled it out covered with oily muck.

Then -- like Maria Aguinda a decade ago -- Grefa cleaned himself with gasoline.

The source of the pollution lies just uphill from the swamp and the village: a former Texaco waste pit that still contains oily waste. Standing on top of a thin cap of soil covering the pit, Grefa jabbed a stick into the ground.

It came out covered with tar-like muck, reeking of oil.

Oil has left another mark on Rumipamba, one as obvious as the emerald and turquoise rain forest: a pipeline that slices through Grefa's front yard.

"Thousands of millions of dollars of oil run through this tube -- to the people of the United States," Grefa said. "They get the petroleum. And we get nothing -- only the pollution."

About the Writer

The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or


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