Home to One of the Worst Cases of Oil Pollution Ever
Table of Contents
Ecuador is indeed “a place where major South American environments converge” (ref. 2), representing one of the world’s megadiverse regions.
The country’s 3 distinct geographical regions (apart from the Galapagos Islands):
- El Oriente: Amazon part of Ecuador rainforest in the east
- La Costa: western Pacific Coast, and
- La Sierra: Andes mountains – middle of the country
all have their own share of forest cover.
It is El Oriente that is home to a true tropical rainforest, Ecuador Amazon rainforest, whereas La Costa and La Sierra both host other different types of forests such as moist, montane (cloud) and dry forests.
For the purposes of our discussion, we refer to all of them as Ecuador rainforests.
A Few Statistics
Ecuador’s total land area is around 25.5 mln ha. (Ref. a)
By one estimate as of 2000, total Ecuador’s forest cover is around 15.4 mln ha. (Ref. b) By another estimate as of 2005, its forest cover is 10.8 mln ha. (Ref. c)
• El Oriente region’s total land area is around 8.9 mln ha. (Ref. d) The Amazon part of Ecuador rainforest covers around 7.5 mln ha, (ref. e) or 85% of El Oriente’s land area (30% of Ecuador’s total land area).
• La Costa’s land area is 8 mln ha (ref. f), and its forest cover is around 3.3 mln ha (ref. g), or 41% of its territory.
• La Sierra’s land area is 8.6 mln ha (ref. h), and its forest cover is around 4.5 mln ha (ref. i), or 52% of its territory.
As of 2005, 77% of all Ecuador forests are in public ownership. (Ref. j)
22% of all the forests have been designated for protection of soil and water. (Ref. k)
44% (including the previous figure for protected forests) – for the conservation of biodiversity. (Ref. l)
The last 2 figures clearly indicate the importance that Ecuador attaches to its rainforests, and their protection through numerous national parks and ecological reserves in all parts of the country (the country has 24 areas protected by the State (ref. m)).
These figures for Ecuador are some of the highest as compared to other Latin American countries.
Ecuador Rainforest – Biodiversity
You can find a truly great variety of animal and plant life in Ecuador rainforests!
Typical rainforest animals such as the jaguar, green anaconda, poison dart frogs, monkeys, tapirs, peccaries, caimans, many species of rodents and many others can all be found here.
Ecuador is specifically known for its diversity of bird species, such as parrots, condors, and hummingbirds.
Ecuador is famous for its number of endemic species (that is, the ones which are only present in this country) many of which are also endangered.
Ecuador is host to 1,640 species of birds, 4,500 species of butterflies, 345 species of reptiles (learn more about rainforest snakes here), 358 species of amphibians, 258 species of mammals (ref. a) and more than 16,000 species of plants (with 4,000 species of orchids alone) (ref. b). Isn’t that impressive!
For example, Ecuador rainforests are home to a total of 447 amphibian species (the 3rd largest number of amphibian species in the world losing only to Brazil and Colombia), of which:
- 163 species are threatened, and
- 159 are endemic. (Ref. 3a)
In another striking example, researchers have recently found more than 100 species of bats in just five acres (two hectares) of Ecuador rainforest! This is the highest number of bat species ever recorded in one place. (Ref. 3b)
The country’s rich biodiversity should bring it home to all, just how important this region is from many different points of view, including the opportunities that it holds (like most other rainforests) for discovering many new foods and medicines.
What Exactly Did the “Oil Boom” Do to Ecuador Rainforest?
Many articles have been recently written about the legal case undertaken by 30,000 Amazonian inhabitants against the oil giant Chevron. And many fights have already been fought.
But we still felt compelled to highlight, once again, the major points of this case.
From the humanitarian point of view, this case is certainly one of the worst cases of oil pollution we have ever experienced.
Let’s go back in history to the 1960s …
Our focus is on El Oriente, Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest in the east.
In spite of serious environmental concerns and previous disasters, oil companies continue building new pipelines in Ecuador rainforest
Photo: Gunther Grill
Before the 1960s, El Oriente was pretty much an unexplored land isolated from the rest of the country, mainly due to limited efforts to integrate it into the country’s economy and, consequently, lack of infrastructure. (Ref. 4)
But the discovery of oil by Texaco (recently acquired by Chevron) by the end of the 60s brought with it the construction of roads leading straight into the then-untapped rainforests and bringing crowds of migrants with them.
This process gave rise to the “boom towns” filled with migrant construction workers for the big oil company, many of whom were of rural origin.
One of such boom towns was Nueva Loja (or Lago Agrio).
Agricultural development (and therefore rainforest clearance) was taking place alongside oil production in Nueva Loja, and, according to some authors’ estimates, at least 1,400 roadside farms had been set up in this town by 1971. (Ref. 6)
This is how the story of (oil) exploration of the Ecuador rainforest began.
Environmental Consequences of Oil Exploration
Trudie Styler is an inspiring champion of the rainforests’ cause.
We refer to one of her articles to provide some statistics and conclusions about Texaco’s case.
During its operation in Ecuador Amazon until 1992, Texaco spilled 17 million gallons [around 64 mln litres] of oil from its pipeline and dumped 18 billion (!) gallons [around 68 bln litres] of toxic waste directly into the rainforest, and thus contaminating 1,700 square miles [around 442,000 ha] of pristine Ecuador rainforest with extremely dangerous chemicals. (Ref. 7)
Here is what Trudie says:
If the drilling had been done in America, the toxic waste produced would have been re-injected into the ground well below the water table to ensure no environmental damage.
But in Ecuador, Texaco dumped waste water, which contains benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, straight from the pumps into open-air pits gouged out of the jungle floor with no protective lining.
When the pit filled up with the toxic waste, the overflow was piped into the nearest river.
Some of these pits have been covered with earth but many I saw were open, with vertical flares burning off the gas.
The fumes almost knocked me over and within 30 minutes I had a severe headache, a burning throat and felt nauseous.
The soil in this area is so full of toxic oil residues that nothing will grow, rivers are so polluted that the fish have died and all natural sources of drinking water have been poisoned. Cancer rates in the area appear to be rising dramatically. (Ref. 8)
The area has also seen “children born with fused fingers and deformed eyes; teenagers with tumors; amputated limbs; slow deaths from stomach cancers” (ref. 9).
Texaco left behind 600 open toxic waste pits which still continue to leak and pollute rivers and streams used by people living in the area. (Ref. 10)
A team of scientists found out that the levels of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) that were dumped by Texaco in Ecuador exceeded the equivalent US standards by a 1,000 (!) times. (Ref. 11)
The people of Ecuador rainforest are still suffering and the company (now Chevron) has still not been held responsible for their actions.
But finally here comes some good news.
In February 2011 – after years of litigation started by residents of the affected areas against Cehvron – an Ecuadorian court ruled that Chevron was responsible for the widespread contamination of the Amazon rainforest and placed a fine of $8 bln. on the company to cover environmental clean-up costs.
However, the plaintiffs still argue that this amount is not nearly enough to pay for the total assessed damages of roughly $27 bln.
Satellite Images of Open Oil Waste Pits in Ecuador Rainforest
Below is a satellite image of Lago Agrio, as extracted from Google Maps / Google Earth.
You can see a huge dark spot in the middle of the image.
It looks to us (though we cannot, of course, guarantee it) like a typical open-air pit that Trudie was discussing above.
If you zoom out and generally “drag” the map in different directions you will find many other similar open-air pits.
This is what people of El Oriente rainforest have to live with every day.
Future for Ecuador Rainforest?
Like any other rainforest, Ecuador rainforest is under constant pressure for economic reasons.
Of course, its effective protection will require a lot of political will from the government and co-operation from the population. And it is no easy task, by any means.
The country already has an extensive range of national parks and ecological reserves, which is good news.
Ecotourism sounds like a big hope for Ecuador as an alternative to continuous rainforest destruction.
Howard Youth mentions that, over the last years, this industry has grown to become the 3rd largest earner of foreign income for Ecuador. (Ref. 12)
There is also some cautious optimism about the government’s newly proposed ideas offering the preservation of Ecuador rainforests in exchange for the foreign currency used for the country’s social and economic development.
As of 2011 – 2012, we saw the determination of the Ecuadorian government to protect its rainforests but a lack of financial commitment from the international community to help this country achieve its rainforest protection goals.
We understand that Ecuador has been trying – in vain – to raise money from international institutions and world’s governments to keep rainforest-based petroleum resources – and therefore rainforests themselves – untouched.
Just as the Ecuadorian government was on the verge of leasing a big chunk of biodiversity-rich Yasuni National Park for petroleum exploration, a “crowd-funding” initiative managed to raise some critical funds at the very end of 2011 to halt this project until more funds become available at a later stage.
A combination of national governments, local bodies and charitable foundations from France, Belgium, Russia, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Georgia, Australia, and Spain, as well as a number of corporate and individual donors have made this possible. (Ref. 13)
As of the end of 2012, the Ecuadorian government is now pushing for new oil drilling in the south-central part of the Ecuador rainforest. If this goes ahead, some of the last pristine old growth forests in Ecuador may be destroyed.
Here is hoping that the international community will realize sooner rather than later that crucial environmental services provided by tropical rainforests should not be taken for granted and should be paid for in one way or another.
Ecuador Rainforest Article references
1. Ministry of Tourism of Ecuador (2007). Flora, Fauna & Ecology. Retrieved November 30, 2007 from http://www.vivecuador.com/html2/eng/ecology.htm#ecosystems
2. Southgate, D., & Whitaker, M. (1994). Economic Progress and the Environment: One Developing Country’s Policy Crisis. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 8. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Questia.com
3a. All three figures derived from the tables in:
IUCN, Conservation International, and NatureServe (2006). Global Amphibian Assessment. RetrievedNovember 30, 2007 from http://www.globalamphibians.org/patterns.htm#endemism
3b. Ravilious, K. (July 21, 2008). Bat Bonanza: 100+ Species Found in 5 Acres of Jungle. National Geographic News. Retrieved July 25, 2008 from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/07/080722-bats-ecuador.html
4. Wunder, S. (2000). The Economics of Deforestation: The Example of Ecuador. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, p. 94. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Questia.com
5. Ryder, R., & Brown, L. A. (2000). Urban-System Evolution on the Frontier of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Geographical Review, Vol. 90(4). Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Questia.com
7. ‘They Took Our Oil-And Left Us with Cancer’; Helping Hand. Trudie Embraces a Child during Her Latest Trip to Ecuador; Call for Action. Trudie and Husband Sting. (2007, July 8). The Mail on Sunday (London, England). Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Questia.com
9. Hearn, K. (March/April, 2006). Big Oil on Trial: In the Ecuadorian Rainforest, Chevron Is Charged as a Major Polluter. E, Vol. 17. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Questia.com
10. ChevronToxico.com (2006). The International Campaign to Hold ChevronTexaco Accountable for Its Toxic Contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Retrieved November 30, 2007 from http://www.chevrontoxico.com/article.php?id=33
11. Switkes, G., & Colvin, J. G. (1994). The People vs. Texaco. NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 28(2), p. 8. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Questia.com
12. Youth, H. (2006, March/April). Ecuador, in Search of Natural Balance. World Watch, Vol. 19. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Questia.com
13. Vidal, J. (December 30, 2011). World pays Ecuador not to extract oil from rainforest. Guardian.co.uk. Retrieved January 2, 2012 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/dec/30/ecuador-paid-rainforest-oil-alliance
a. Wunder, S. (2000). The Economics of Deforestation: The Example of Ecuador. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, p. 102. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Questia.com
c. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005. Retrieved November 14, 2007 from http://www.fao.org/forestry/site/32038/en
d. Wunder, S. (2000). The Economics of Deforestation: The Example of Ecuador. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, p. 102. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Questia.com
j. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005. Retrieved November 14, 2007 from http://www.fao.org/forestry/site/32038/en
m. Ministry of Tourism of Ecuador (2007). Ecuador Nature. Retrieved November 30, 2007 from http://www.vivecuador.com/html2/eng/nature.htm
a. Ministry of Tourism of Ecuador (2007). Ecuador Nature. Retrieved November 30, 2007 from http://www.vivecuador.com/html2/eng/nature.htm
b. Ecuador Portal (August 15, 2007). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 30, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Portal:Ecuador&oldid=151317957