by Fran Gilmore
One of the most heartbreaking encounters of my life occurred in 2011 when my husband and I were on a Global Exchange environmental justice trip to Ecuador. One stop on our trip was to the area of a former oil drilling town called Lago Agrio (“sour lake”) in eastern Ecuador. We met a family that lived close to a toxic waste pit from an oil drilling site of Texaco, which drilled there for twenty years beginning in 1972.
While we were talking through a translator to a middle-aged woman, Mercedes Jimenez, we learned she had cancer. Our guide had just shown us how the supposedly remediated waste pit a few yards from her house was only thinly covered with soil. He dipped a long stick about eighteen inches into that soil and brought it up with a black, gooey mess dripping off it. When it rains, the oil waste, so close to the surface, bubbles up, emitting foul odors and contributing to health problems.
In the course of our conversation a pregnant woman about twenty years old approached. She was a recently married daughter of Ms. Jimenez. She had just returned from a hospital in Quito where tests revealed she also had cancer.
The pits were formed by “produced water,” a mix of usually toxic chemicals coming up from deep in the earth with the drilled oil. Not only does produced water contain heavy metals and other toxins, but it is hot when produced and harmful to aquatic life.
Texaco claims to have remediated some of these pits, but all they did was cover them with soil. Environmental remediation usually means carting away all toxic material to some burial site and replacing it with clean soil and/or water—not sprinkling soil on top, like powdered sugar on a cake, a practice that is unacceptable in the United States. In their US operations, Texaco injected drilling waste deep in the earth, and in fact had some patents on injection technology. The picture shows an unremediated pit.
Oil exploitation and health effects in eastern Ecuador
The extraction of oil in Ecuador began in the late 1960s after oil deposits were found in the eastern part of the country. Texaco was invited by the government to drill in a million-hectare area of the Amazon, despite the fact that thousands of indigenous people made their home there and relied on the rivers for drinking water, fishing, bathing and laundry. Texaco was also authorized to build a 498 mile trans-Andean pipeline to transport oil to the coast for export. The Ecuadorian government was not only extremely corrupt, but so inept that Ecuador received only 5% of the profits. It sold its indigenous out for a nickel.
The scale of environmental contamination from both pits and pipeline spills is monumental:
It has also been estimated that the company deliberately dumped tons of toxic drilling and maintenance wastes and >19 billon gallons of produced wastes into the environment without treatment or monitoring…. In addition to routine deliberate discharges, accidental spills were common. During the time that Texaco operated the main trans-Ecuadorean pipeline, spills from that line alone sent an estimated 16.8 million gallons of crude into the environment. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons…. Hundreds of toxic waste pits, used by Texaco, scattered near local communities, rivers, and streams were abandoned. A recent report has shown that nearly 200 open waste pits from the Texaco period are still open.
Several studies conducted shortly after the waste was deposited have documented elevated levels of health problems ranging from moderate to lethal. A local research center found in that in 1997 there was a 2.5-fold higher risk of spontaneous abortion in women living in communities near oil fields compared to controls. The same study revealed various symptoms, including skin rashes, sore throats, headaches, red eyes, ear pain and diarrhea. Other studies have found elevated cancer rates in men, women and children in oil contaminated areas. Specifically, women were found to have elevated risk for cancers of the cervix and lymph nodes, and men for cancers of the stomach, rectum, skin melanoma, soft tissues and kidneys. Children of both sexes under 10 were at increased risk for hematopoietic cancers.
A 2016 study was done at the request of the Union of People Affected by Chevron-Texaco (UDAPT). The study was done by Adolfo Maldonado, an environmental health specialist from the Ecuadorean organization, Environmental Clinic. His team members conducted interviews with settler families who live the closest to the environmental problems, as well as with neighboring indigenous groups. Among the 1,579 families interviewed, 479 people from 384 families had cancer of various types. In other words, approximately one in four families had a member living with cancer. Sixty-five families had two people with cancer, and 15 families had three people with cancer. Eighty-two percent of the families also said the water they had access to was contaminated.” The cancer rate was found to be three times higher in families living near the contaminated area than in those farthest away in the study population.
The disastrous pollution of indigenous areas in Ecuador is an example of environmental racism. The term generally refers to polluting industries or waste projects sited in areas where poor people of color are most affected, and have little political power to defend themselves.
While people living with pollution and its health effects have always known about environmental racism, a movement for environmental justice developed in the United States in the 1960s and 70s. Protests against toxic waste dumping in African-American communities in Warren County, N.C. were the first to draw a national spotlight. In response, the Council of Environmental Quality, in its “Annual Report to the President” in 1971, was the first governmental agency to draw a relationship between race, income and exposure risk. Subsequent studies and reports verified that the relationship was widespread. Government policy has, not surprisingly, not kept up with the discoveries of environmental racism. The first major policy against such racism was President Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order directing agencies to develop strategies to manage environmental justice. Many agencies never did, and Congress never turned the order into law. Some states were spurred to action, while the federal government went back and forth from president to president: Bush tried to remove racism from the premise of Clinton’s order; Obama tried to spur the EPA to action, and of course Trump has tried to bury the concept.
Environmental racism is really a subset of colonial racist exploitation and white supremacy, and exists within our own borders and all over the world. Corporations from the global north have massively polluted countries in the global south, in their quests to extract resources on the cheap. In an operation similar to Texaco’s in Ecuador, for example, Shell Oil carried out an oil operation in Nigeria in the 1990s that robbed the Ogoni people of their rivers, their primary food and water source, displacing entire communities. Shell and the Nigerian government cracked down hard on leaders of the Ogoni resistance, torturing and executing nine leaders, including esteemed playwright, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, encouraged the burning of huge tracts of the Amazon in 2019 so corporations could profit off of cattle ranching, mining and other industries, and destroy the land of entire indigenous communities.
The destruction of indigenous lands worldwide is a threat to all of us, to the planet. Of course, drilling for fossil fuels not only pollutes, but drives climate change as the fuels are burned. In addition, damage to ecosystems reduces biodiversity, degrading the ecosystem. This is particularly problematic when it occurs in indigenous lands, because indigenous people are such excellent stewards of the land. Studies in Australia, Brazil and Canada have shown that indigenous management of lands preserves biodiversity as well or better than management of other lands deemed as “protected,” and always better than lands not managed with protection in mind.
The Ecuadorian Amazon in particular is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, and many studies have shown that oil exploration is destructive to biodiversity in numerous ways: not only from the damage of the drilling waste and spills, but also the building of roads to access the drilling areas, and subsequent clearing of land and agriculture that the roads attract.
A record legal victory for the indigenous and a massive counterattack
Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001 and inherited its terrible environmental legacy, as well as a lawsuit filed in 1993 against Texaco on behalf of 30,000 indigenous plaintiffs by American lawyer, Steven Donziger. The case was brought to court in Ecuador on Chevron’s request, likely because there are no juries there. The lawsuit went on for 18 years, and resulted in a record victory for the plaintiffs. In 2011, an Ecuadorian court ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion in compensation, an amount that was later reduced to $9.5 billion.
Chevron was determined never to pay a penny of the reward, and never has. The company moved its assets out of Ecuador, making the judgment unenforceable in Ecuador. In addition, Chevron decided to destroy Donziger. They initiated a smear campaign against him, and alleged that Donziger had bribed the judge and that the decision against Chevron had been ghostwritten, among other allegations. The whole case hinged on the testimony of the Ecuadorian judge, Alberto Guerra, who was extensively coached and paid at least $300,000 by Chevron. Chevron won the suit in an American court against Donziger, and essentially destroyed his life, causing him to be disbarred, his bank accounts frozen, forbidden from earning money, subject to a $3.4 million judgment and confined to his home on house arrest with an ankle bracelet.
The Ecuador oil debacle can be considered an example of environmental racism from at least three points of view. First, it involves the global north dumping wastes in dangerous ways on the global south. Second, the targeted communities are indigenous. So, while the north regards all South Americans as people of color worthy of extra exploitation, the indigenous in those countries are minority people of color within their societies. Finally, the legal battle demonstrates that the oil corporations, in collaboration with the lackey courts, will spend virtually anything to prevent an economic or political victory of indigenous groups or global south countries that would hold them accountable or threaten their power.
Indigenous Fightback: Losses, victories, urgent needs
Oil drilling has continued in the eastern Ecuadorian Amazon by foreign and domestic oil companies. Currently, 70% of Ecuadorian Amazon land is leased to oil companies, and the Ecuadorian Minister of Hydrocarbons plans to lease even more. There was no successful fightback from indigenous groups during the Texaco/Chevron years, but there have been efforts since then. Inhabitants of the village of Sucumbios in the Lago Agrio area filed a lawsuit in 2005 against the state-owned oil company, Petroamazonas, over the pollution caused by its activities. The community members won the lawsuit, but the 2013 ruling ordering that reparations be paid was later dismissed at the request of the government under then-president Rafael Correa. The lawsuit has since been taken up at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Several tribes in the same Lago Agrio area are working to prevent further oil drilling. In 2018, Waorani tribe leaders led a toxic tour of the area, and saw the same pits we saw, and the damage to wildlife. They saw that the land was essentially dead. The Waorani people took the Ecuadorian government to court in April of 2019 to defend against continued oil drilling. Finally, they won, thereby protecting a half million acres from drilling. They were supported by the group, Amazon Frontlines.
In Canada, indigenous groups in February of 2020 won a big victory when Teck Resources, a giant Canadian mining company, withdrew its plans for a $15.7 billion tar sands mine, just days before the Canadian government was to decide whether to approve the project.
In contrast, the situation in the Brazilian Amazon is increasingly alarming. The widely reported massive fires, unleashed with the support of the right-wing Bolsonaro government, are seeking to replace indigenous communities who protect the jungle with ranchers and others who will exploit the land’s resources The fires are not only wiping out the precious biodiversity of the Amazon, but adding huge amounts of climate-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In late February, leaders of the largest indigenous movement in Brazil, APIB, (Portuguese acronym for National Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil) have put out an urgent call for help, as Bolsonaro has threatened to give guns to ranchers, in an effort to open the rainforest to new oil drilling, mining and logging.
On February 10, 2020, APIB cosigned with 23 other indigenous and environmental groups a declaration against Bolsonaro’s proposed law regulating the Amazon. Here are a few excerpts:
“…Once again Bolsonaro has shown his disrepect for democracy, the rule of law, human rights, the Federal Constitution, and international treaties recognizing indigenous rights that Brazil has historically respected. Bill 191/20… proposes to open up indigenous territories to the exploitation of minerals, water resources and even agriculture…. The President and his supporters’ real intent, however is to open indigenous lands up to exploitation by Brazilian and international capital. This project would sentence thousands of indigenous peoples to death. Under this proposal indigenous territories would no longer be recognizable. It would lead to the violation of indigenous peoples’ rights and autonomy, which are secured by law in the Brazilian Constitution and in international treaties. The bill would irreversibly damage indigenous peoples’ exclusive sovereignty over their territory…. This bill is authoritarian, neocolonial, violent, racist, and genocidal…”
Which way the future?
The insatiable capitalist drive for profits is rapidly accelerating climate change and the destruction of the environment. The frontline victims of these changes are the poor and darker peoples of the world. It is good that many in the imperialist world are committed to fighting racist oppression and supporting indigenous struggles. But still many in the richer nations do not see the danger or the destruction that is still far from their doorsteps. Unless and until a unified movement of people of the global north and south succeeds in a struggle to overthrow capitalism and create a sustainable world of equality, the environmental cataclysm will continue to unfold and will give rise to wars as desperate capitalists vie with one another for the remains of the earth’s abundance.
Organizations for more information or donation
Amazon Frontlines, amazonfrontlines.org . An international group of human rights lawyers, environmental activists, forestry specialists, environmental health scientists, filmmakers, journalists, anthropologists, and farmers, defending indigenous rights to land, life and cultural survival in the Amazon rainforest. They live and work in the western Amazon.
Amazon Watch, amazonwatch.org A nonprofit organization founded in 1996 to protect the rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin. They partner with indigenous and environmental organizations in campaigns for human rights, corporate accountability and the preservation of the Amazon’s ecological systems.
APIB, Portuguese acronym for The Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation, http://apib.info/apib/?lang=en . A group of regional indigenous organizations, with the mission of promoting indigenous rights and defense all over Brazil.
Indigenous Climate Action – Canada, https://www.indigenousclimateaction.com/ Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) is an Indigenous-led organization formed in 2015 that inspires action for climate justice by supporting Indigenous communities to build power and drive solutions to climate change. They work to equip Indigenous communities with the right tools, education, and capacity needed to ensure Indigenous knowledge is a driving force in climate solutions.
Rainforest Action Network, www.ran.org A global network that works closely with frontline communities to take action against companies and industries driving deforestation and climate change, and offering cutting edge research.
Support Steven Donziger. To contribute to his legal defense fund, go to https://s-donziger.webflow.io/. To sign a petition demanding Chevron clean up the mess, go to https://www.makechevroncleanup.com/support-steven-donziger
 Human Rights Impacts of Oil Pollution: Ecuador, Business and Human Rights Resource Center,
2 A.K. Hurtig and M. San Sebastion, Epidemiology vs epidemiology: the case of oil exploitation in the Amazon basin of Ecuador, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 34, Issue 5, October 2005, https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyi151
3Several studies are summarized in A.K. Hurtig and M. San Sebastion, op. cit.
4 Hurtig AK1, San Sebastián M., Geographical differences in cancer incidence in the Amazon basin of Ecuador in relation to residence near oil fields, Int J Epidemiol. 2002 Oct;31(5):1021-7. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12435778
6 Shuster, Germain, Rio, Bennett and Arcese,Vertebrate biodiversity on indigenous-managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada equals that in protected areas, Environmental Science and Policy, vol 101, Nov, 2019.
7 Lessmann, Fajardo, Muñoz and Bonaccorso, Large expansion of oil industry in the Ecuadorian Amazon: biodiversity vulnerability and conservation alternatives, Ecology and Evolution, 2016 Jul; 6(14), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4979723/
8 Sharon Lerner, How The Environmental Lawyer Who Won A Massive Judgment Against Chevron Lost Everything, The Intercept, Jan 29, 2020, https://theintercept.com/2020/01/29/chevron-ecuador-lawsuit-steven-donziger/
9 Sharon Lerner, Ibid.
Fran Gilmore has an MA in Industrial Hygiene. Her goal in that field was to arm workers with health and safety knowledge so they could fight for their own protection. She is currently an activist and organizer focusing on mass incarceration and healthcare.