Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Global Exchange Environmental Justice Trip: Ecuador, A Microcosm of Environmental Justice and Injustice: Part II

An Eco-success Story

From my friend Fran Gilmore:
So if Junín represents a partial and maybe temporary victory, Yunguilla is a success story, albeit of a different kind. A small community of about 50 campesino families, nestled in the mountains north of Quito, Yunguilla used to support itself by raising cattle, farming and cutting down trees to make charcoal. In 1995, a small group of 15 families (the 15 crazies, as they became known), suggested they try to find a more sustainable way to make a living.

People were doing fine, and so there was initially a lot of resistance to change. But gradually new enterprises were introduced. In 1996, a group of 18 women, mostly wives of the crazies, began producing jam, using organically grown fruit, grown on site. Later a cheese making process was added. We saw both enterprises, which are small scale, each in a room no more than 15 feet square. The community is also running a large nursery aimed at reforesting the areas with native trees and plants. Finally, in 1998 the United Nations sponsored their first ecotourism project. Their facilities were quite attractive, but we didn't stay overnight, so I can't speak to the details.

Germán Collaguazo, the leader who spoke to us, said one of the biggest obstacles they had to overcome was people's feelings of inferiority or incompetence, as mestizo campesinos--an attitude some of us would call internalized racism. But eventually, 38 of the families came around, the remaining 12 being mostly elders. Only three or four families chose not to participate.

Most interesting was how the governance of the community changed. Initially they created the Yunguilla Corporation, but soon decided that this capitalist model wasn't adapted to their highly participatory community. So they created their own development model, which stated that the company is community-owned, and that work teams would be created with different responsibilities. There is no one leader; they feel it is more important to keep creating new leaders. Governance is done by a General Assembly with decision-making power. The teams implement the decisions.

Germán said that self-esteem and solidarity have gradually increased, though it is hard to maintain a high level of participation among all the families, because people are very busy. But many youth are taking leadership roles, which gives hope for the future.

Chernobyl of the Amazon.

I've saved the bad news for last--the rape of the Amazon by Texaco, and later other oil companies. The drilling began in 1972 and continued for nearly 20 years, in primary rainforest along the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. The government of Ecuador at the time was corrupt in the extreme, and also inept, insofar as it permitted the oil exploration while gaining only about 5% of the profits. The story has had some news coverage in the US press, and so may be known to readers, so I won't attempt to recap it, but to just point to a couple of important aspects. (For those who want to read the gory details, there is an excellent article in Vanity Fair , May 2007, called Jungle Law, by William Langewiesche.)

First, the scale of the damage is monumental, leading some to refer to the whole debacle as the Chernobyl of the Amazon. According to the Vanity Fair article,

over the 17 years that Texaco operated...the pipeline suffered 27 major breaks and spilled nearly 17 million gallons of oil, much of which was not cleaned up....For comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons. More to the point, over the first quarter-century of its life...the 800 mile Alaskan pipline spilled only 1,675,000 gallons--almost all of which was cleaned up.

Even these large numbers are dwarfed by the BP spill, which was of upwards of 100 million gallons. In addition to the spills, what they call "produced water"--a mix coming up from deep in the earth with the oil and usually quite toxic--was simply left in pits. (In the US, the produced water is re-injected deep into the ground). Does this remind you of the fracking process for natural gas, now being foisted on our own state by a government in the pockets of the oil and gas industry?)

Texaco "remediated" some of these pits--by covering them with soil! At least one pit was left completely alone
unremediated pit

The "remediated" pits are a big problem. When it rains, the oil bubbles up to the surface and continues to cause health problems and foul odors. In my small knowledge of environmental remediation, the term 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.

Oh, did I forget to mention--this whole area was populated while the drilling went on. The polluted waterways were the drinking water, fishing grounds and laundromat for many indigenous communities. As you might expect, health problems have skyrocketed in this population: there are high rates of cancer, abortion, and skin and respiratory problems. All in all, 30,000 people were affected.

We went to one remediated site, with the old closed off well head still on it, as well as the house of Mercedes Jimenez. It is a small, apparently 1-room house, with no glass in the windows. Fortunately, the porch has been fitted with a large 2-tank water purification system, so the family doesn't need to drink polluted water. In the picture, you can see our group in front of the house, and a guide has just dug up a blob of gooey black stuff, from less than two feet under the surface.

So what has been done? A coalition of indigenous groups has been fighting in the courts for 18 years. First they sued Texaco in the US, but a judge ruled that American courts didn't have jurisdiction over the case. So they sued in Ecuador. The case became complicated, as Chevron since bought up Texaco, and drilling has continued to this day under Petroecuador (though with better environmental controls in the latter case). It has been a very long struggle, during which the next generation of Amazonians were aborted, born with birth defects, or subject to their own illnesses as adults. We saw a documentary, which included an interview with a middle aged woman and her daughter, both of whom have cancer. The daughter was diagnosed shortly after getting married, and subsequently had a miscarriage.

Finally this past February, an Ecuadorian court in Quito ruled in favor of the indigenous groups, and required Texaco (now Chevron) to pay approximately 8 billion dollars for reparations. Chevron has sworn it will not cough up a penny (they've already done remediation!) and has appealed. If history is a predictor, they never will. The plaintiffs have also appealed, saying the amount is not enough.

And so it goes on. If you follow environmental injustice around the world, you will know that there are few victories against corporations. Shell Oil, for example, managed to pollute the Niger Delta and force an entire ethnic group, the Ogoni people, from their homeland. Like the Amazonians, they lived from the land and water, making their living primarily form fishing. Post oil pollution, this was no longer possible. To my knowledge, there have been no consequences for the company, though indigenous leaders have been persecuted for fighting back. I read in the paper in late July that the Republo-fascists have reported a bill out of committee aimed at emasculating the EPA. So as corporations gain further ascendancy here, we can expect some of these environmental disasters at home.

It's time to get together people!

1 comment: