And The Rainforest Wept: Oil And The Exploitation Of Ecuador’s Indigenous Peoples

Amnesty International warned last month that oil and mining companies are condemning Ecuador’s Indigenous peoples to total annihilation. This report will delve deeper into this harrowing story.

Indigenous tribes like the Cofán have legitimate reasons to fear the intrusion of cocama (non-Indigenous Spanish speakers and other outsiders) onto their territory. The Cofán suffered terribly at the hands of mercenaries and foreign missionaries for centuries. Priests from the Capuchin, Jesuit, Franciscan, and Carmelite orders, who tried to “civilize” the Cofán since the Spanish conquest of the early 1500s, converted and enrolled Cofán children in schools – often at gunpoint. Elderly Cofán still remember the beatings, insults, and humiliations doled out by Capuchin priests, who were also largely responsible for contaminating Cofán communities with devastating smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, cholera, and influenza epidemics. To this day, mild illnesses like colds and flus infect the Cofán with frightening ease.

Quito’s determination to develop Ecuador’s “empty” territories in the Amazon saw thousands of impoverished settlers invade Cofán, Quichua, Siona-Secoya, Huaorani, Shuar, and Achuar lands in the seventies. Douglas Southgate argues that Peru’s occupation of Ecuador in the early forties prompted Ecuadorian elites to internally colonize the rainforest to compensate for this embarrassing defeat. Legislation like the Special Law for Awarding Vacant Lands to Spontaneous Settlers of 1973, which awarded 50-hectares to homesteaders, lured approximately 43,000 colonists into the forest homes of secluded and autonomous Indigenous tribes. By 1992, the number of colonists living in northern Ecuador rose to 350,000.

Successive governments heavily invested in road construction to integrate the untamed Oriente region into the nation and dissuade Colombia and Peru from annexing Ecuador’s defenceless interior. These infrastructural projects sent countless unemployed farm and coastal workers, dazzled by the promise of owning land and growing crops, flooding into supposedly “unoccupied” areas. Moreover, as Ecuador’s population skyrocketed and demands for food continued to rise, landowners claimed more land to raze and cultivate in the Amazon. This relentless deforestation drastically altered numerous tribes’ traditional economies and lifestyles.

The Cofán refused to live near roads for fear that soldiers would, like in the past, harass, capture, or murder them. Tensions between indigenous peoples and settlers periodically spiralled out of control. Landowners threatened to shoot Cofán hunters who ventured on “their” land, while preying on and sexually assaulting Cofán women and girls. It is not uncommon to hear stories of Texaco employees who tried to kidnap Cofán women. Settlers rarely masked their contempt for “poor, dirty, uneducated ‘indios.’”

As Robert Wasserstrom observed, little changed in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the rest of Ecuadorian society between the mid-19th and mid-20th century. Though slavery and Jim-Crow style racial segregation had disappeared by the 1970s, subtler forms of exploitation, unfree labor, and debt servitude survived in the depths of the Amazon, far away from the law’s prying eyes. Much like how tyrannical rubber barons in the late 1800s conscripted the Siona-Secoya people into gruelling forced labor in return for measly metal pots, the oil companies extorted Cofán women, forcing them into prostitution to these latest colonizers in exchange for food.

Texaco’s discovery of crude oil within the Amazon in northern Ecuador had further detrimental impacts on Indigenous tribes. Kathleen Gould says the company colonized ancestral lands with impunity and built sprawling pipelines, wells, and flares that spewed smoke into the air 24 hours a day. By 1992, Texaco had left behind around a thousand waste pits in Ecuador. These pits overflowed during the rainy season, sending toxic chemicals seeping into the soil and rivers. Lawyer Judith Kimerling estimated that the wells generated 42,000 gallons of waste oil and another 4,165 cubic meters of mud each time they were drilled.

Oil leaks inflicted almost irreversible damage to the environment and unleashed a myriad of health problems among the Cofán, who relied on contaminated rivers for drinking, cooking, bathing, and fishing. Anthropologist Michael Cepek noted that upon Texaco’s arrival in the sixties, fish began to reek of kerosene. The Cofán who consumed tainted plants and animals were likely to develop skin diseases, reproductive abnormalities, and cancers. Investigators even found that women living near poisoned streams faced greater risks of miscarriage.

However, it remains difficult to prove that Texaco’s activities between the 60s and 90s killed Cofán. Quito’s disinterest in Indigenous populations’ healthcare and general well-being meant the Cofán often died without consulting a doctor or going to hospital. Medical records stating the exact cause of their deaths are rare. The fact that Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2000, spent millions to falsify evidence exonerating the company of any wrongdoing in Ecuador complicated matters further.

Despite admitting to dumping “15 billion gallons of toxic water into fresh water sources in the Amazon rainforest,” Chevron has failed to compensate Indigenous peoples and is fighting tooth and nail to avoid accountability.

Scholars like John Linarelli, Margaret Salomon, Muthucumaraswamy Sornarajah, and Nan Greer amply demonstrated that Chevron rides roughshod over international law and human rights in dozens of nations across the globe. Communities in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, Kazakhstan, and Myanmar have all complained about Chevron’s decimation of ecosystems, use of thuggish paramilitary forces to patrol pipelines, and complicity in the borderline genocidal displacement of minorities like the Ogoni in the Niger Delta. The innumerable lawsuits levelled against Chevron over the years amount to approximately 50.5 billion total dollars in value – yet the company has barely paid back 0.006% in settlements and fines.

A lawyer working for Oxfam once said that, up until the 90s, Texaco/Chevron ran Ecuador however it pleased: “[Texaco executives] had the U.S. Embassy in their pocket. They had the military. Politically, there was no way that Texaco was going to be held accountable in Ecuador.” Brave activists like American lawyer Steven Donziger challenged this corporate dictatorship – and paid an awful price. Chevron’s attorneys and lobbyists, along with corrupt officials, have made good on their pledge to not let “little countries screw around with big companies.”

Chinese-owned copper mines have also precipitated the militarization of the Amazon, to the Shuar people’s detriment. Jake Ling says that Ecuadorian security forces are suppressing dissent on behalf of transnational companies with alarming regularity. In December 2016, for example, police ransacked Shuar Federation headquarters and detained its leader Agustín Wachapá. Wachapá stood accused of inciting violence against state forces in San Juan Bosco, where Shuar homes were emptied and demolished to make way for a copper mine: “…more than 38% of our territory has been concessioned to large-scale mining… So our question is: where do they want us to live?”

Ecuadorian courts eventually acquitted Wachapá in 2018, but many of his compatriots met grislier fates when they dared resist evictions. José Tendetza, for example, went missing in 2014. His son soon found him dead from torture and strangulation in an unmarked grave. Tendetza was the third Shuar leader to be killed since 2009 for opposing an insatiable mining industry.

Worst of all, legal scholars David Heredia and Nicholas Koeppen argue that Ecuadorian politicians and foreign companies may be guilty of genocide against the Tagaeri-Taromenane peoples, who live in voluntary isolation on oil reserves and among highly sought-after trees. Oil extraction and rapidly expanding (and often illegal) logging sites are forcing the Tagaeri-Taromenane off their land and into bloody conflict with Ecuadorian settlers or Huaorani tribesmen. The latter are frequently employed in the timber trade and launch murderous expeditions that are pushing the Tagaeri-Taromenane to the brink of extinction.

What can be done to stem this merciless assault on the Amazon and its peoples? In a study identifying the various tactics anti-petroleum movements use to achieve their objectives, Ella Carlson concluded that Indigenous peoples in Ecuador should look to Native demonstrators in America for inspiration. The Standing Rock Sioux’s activism campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline achieved the success it did because the campaign utilized a wide range of tactics, including productive partnerships with N.G.O.s, massive protests, ample media coverage, well-publicized meetings with officials, celebrity endorsements, and the physical occupation of the pipeline’s construction sites.

Successful lawsuits can sully a company like Chevron in the court of public opinion, but these symbolic victories ultimately do not translate into noticeable improvements on the ground. Ecuador’s Indigenous peoples must transform their struggles into a movement that transcends borders, social class, and ethnicity if they hope to survive.


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