Ecuador | California

At midday, the fresh spill of crude oil sparkles like obsidian.

Creeping across the floor of the Amazon rain forest, it covers jade-colored plants and lime-green grasses in a thick petroleum paste. Imprisoned on its surface, insects struggle for freedom, then sink slowly into an oily tomb.

A few feet away, on a dirt road stained with oil, Luz Soto points to a festering sore on her arm. "It's from the pollution," said the 40-year-old mother of six.

Journey to the South American nation of Ecuador and you find pollution and misery on a scale that never would be tolerated in California, a state that guards its own majestic coastline from oil development and is home to some of the toughest environmental laws on Earth.

Follow that oil as it leaves Ecuador and you find that between 20 and 40 million barrels a year flow to California, which consumes more gasoline - 38 million gallons a day - than Florida and New York combined.

Yet the link between petroleum consumption in California and environmental damage and human suffering abroad is not well known, in part because such harm happens thousands of miles away, out of view of consumers, policy-makers and many environmental groups.

It also is masked by the generic nature of crude oil, which leaves no fingerprint at the pump, no clue to the landscapes where it is coaxed from beneath the earth, loaded onto tankers and shipped to the United States.

But there's no hiding what oil development is doing to Ecuador. Its signature includes not only pollution, disease, poverty, deforestation and diminishing wildlife but something darker: the decimation of indigenous rain forest cultures.

A few green leaves sprout from land blackened by an oil spill near Dureno.
Sacramento Bee/José M. Osorio

"The discovery of oil brings the promise of great riches," said Terry Lynn Karl, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies who wrote "The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and PetroStates."

"But the reality is it is very closely linked to environmental degradation, the spread of conflict and a wide range of economic problems."

 Interactive Ecuador Map
Launch Interactive Map

In Ecuador, the hardest-hit area is a riot of vegetation and swift-moving streams east of the Andes: the Ecuadorean Amazon. Flanked by Colombia to the north and Peru to the south and east, Ecuador's Amazon is surprisingly rich in petroleum. It also is part of a forest ecosystem second in size only to the boreal forest, which circles the globe across Canada, Alaska, Russia and Scandinavia.

Unlike the austere boreal, South America's fabled tropical Amazon forest abounds in biological diversity. And few parts are as lively as Ecuador's portion, home to an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 species of plants - or up to 5 percent of all plant species on Earth - and an impressive complement of wildlife, from pink fresh.water dolphins to transparent "glass frogs" to the largest raptor on Earth, the harpy eagle.

But since 1972, when the first oil well was tapped, petroleum has siphoned off much of its glory. Tracts of forest that teemed with monkeys, macaws and semi-nomadic tribes now are tattered by roads, rigs and colonist settlements. Tea-colored streams that shimmered with silvery fish now float petroleum scum.

With the recent discovery of additional oil reserves in still-untouched parts of Ecuador's Amazon, many Ecuadoreans fear for the future.

"If the oil companies come in, they will be finishing off with us, and nature as well," said Sabino Gualinga, an indigenous healer who has lived all his 82 years in a remote Amazon village now targeted for oil development.


More than a dozen oil companies from around the world - including the United States and Canada - operate in Ecuador. The largest is Ecuador's own national petroleum company: Petroecuador.

Ivan Narvaez, Petroecuador's chief of environmental protection, said that although Ecuador is taking steps to clean up its petroleum-fouled rain forest, the scope of the problem is too much for the debt-strapped country to handle.

"We do as much as we can," he said, "but it is always too little."

Sabino Gualinga, 82, a healer from the remote Amazon village of Sarayacu, Ecuador, fears the loss of his Quichua culture to oil development. The indigenous Quichua residents are fighting Petroecuador's plans. "If the oil companies come in, they will be finishing off with us, and nature as well," he said.
Sacramento Bee/José M. Osorio

Near refineries and oil fields in the Amazon, even the rain reeks of petroleum. "It smells similar to the exhaust from a car," said Serbio Escobar, who farms near the Colombian border. His wife, Margarita Campoverde de Escobar, added: "Sometimes, when we collect rainwater in pots, the water is black."

Wherever oil goes, trouble seems to follow.

Margarita Campoverde de Escobar and her husband, Serbio Escobar, watch the sun set with 6-year-old Natali at their small cooperative farm in Ecuador near the Colombian border. They say pollution from the nearby oil fields poisons even the rain.
Sacramento Bee/José M. Osorio

Inside a pipeline that snakes westward up the eastern slope of the Andes, through green canyons tinseled with waterfalls and veiled in clouds, crude oil is pumped into the cross hairs of danger. Here, landslides attack it, rip it out of its steel cocoon and send it gushing in toxic black waves down mountain streams.

 Tragedy in Esmeraldas Photo Gallery

On the other side of the Andes, the mayhem continues.

"We sleep in terror here," said Lucia Castillo, whose brother was burned to death when a pipeline break sent waves of fire through the coastal community of Esmeraldas in 1998. As flames roared down oil-soaked streets, devouring cars and homes, frantic parents put their children in wooden canoes and pushed them into the Esmeraldas River.

Then they watched in horror as fire engulfed the river - and the children.

Children play on a quiet street where flames once leaped into the sky.
Sacramento Bee/José M. Osorio

View Gallery: Tragedy in Esmeraldas

"They say petroleum is the excrement of the devil," said Byron Borja, a customs agent who lost two family members in the disaster. "In part that's right, because it's the cause of so many of the world's problems."


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