Voices for Yasuní
This August 20th, Ecuadorians will decide in a popular consultation whether the oil within Yasuní National Park — one of the most biodiverse areas — should remain underground or be exploited to achieve the progress promised by the Government. Embarking on a hyper-journey through the Amazonian countries, VIST has gathered the voices of indigenous leaders, activists, and citizens who, from the Ecuadorian jungle, demand the protection of this natural reserve and all its life.
By Joseph Zárate and Andrés Cardona
“When I was in my hut, people from the sky arrived. They brought many things and were dressed in green colors. They wanted to buy us with food, to enter then our sacred place Sawirau, which for them was just a simple oil well.”
One night in late June, Sani Montahuano broke the silence of the Contemporary Art Center in Quito with those words. In front of a packed auditorium, the Sápara filmmaker and activist — 25 years old, with red lines of annatto on her face, long earrings adorned with eagle and toucan feathers — recounted a story based on her grandparents’ memories: a tale woven with memories of when “the outsiders” arrived in the territory of their ancestors in the Pastaza jungle to exploit that prehistoric substance that sustains the modern life of our cities.
“As time went by, they came with large machines and began destroying my home, forest, and animals. The spirits left along with that destruction. But they called it development.”
Montahuano’s reading was the climax of the presentation of Estado Fósil (State Fossil). This book gathers the voices of artists and activists to reflect on our daily relationship with extractivism and its consequences. “Is there anything in our lives that escapes from oil and its derivatives?” the authors question, and that seemingly simple question — also answered by Sani’s narrative that opens the book — is, for Ecuador, more urgent than ever: in August, 50 years will have passed since the start of oil exports from the Ecuadorian Amazon, but a much more pressing issue will also be defined. On Sunday, the 20th, Ecuadorians will decide in a popular consultation whether the oil from a sector of Yasuní National Park — the country’s largest protected area — should remain underground or be exploited to achieve the significant revenues promised by the Government.
Sani Montahuano, filmmaker and activist of the Sápara nation. Member of Tawna, a collective of audiovisual artists from the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Declared a “biosphere reserve” by UNESCO, Yasuní National Park is a symbol of life for Ecuador and the planet: its nearly 10 thousand square kilometers of jungle — located between the provinces of Orellana and Pastaza, in the northeastern Amazon — are the habitat of thousands of species of plants and animals, as well as the home of the Tagaeri and Taromenane, the last indigenous nations living in voluntary isolation for generations.
However, Guillermo Lasso’s government’s political and business pressures to exploit the resources beneath the Yasuní soil — considered Ecuador’s largest oil reserve — are growing stronger. It is not a small danger: evidence shows that the presence of this industry in the Ecuadorian jungle has brought much more harm than true “progress.”
Take, for example, a governmental statistic: between 2012 and May 2022, there were 1,584 oil spills in Ecuador, mainly due to the lack of pipeline maintenance, according to the Ministry of Environment, Water, and Ecological Transition (Maate). That’s an average of 12.6 monthly spills, about three per week.
The number is alarming, of course. But more effective than any statistic would be visiting a city with over half a century of oil contamination to understand the damage caused by this industry (and what could happen with Yasuní). Lago Agrio — located in Sucumbios, a province neighboring Yasuní — is one such city.
“You see it there,” Sani Montahuano tells me sometime after her reading that night in Quito. “There are areas where you can’t cultivate on that land, where children can’t play in the rivers because they’re contaminated. Who heals that land? No technology can heal that land. And for indigenous peoples, that’s killing what we are.”
Looking in the Mirror of Lago Agrio
Simply stick a pole into the mud at the edge of this river, and oil residues immediately surface. “Supposedly, Petroecuador has already cleaned this place, but as you can see, that’s not true,” Wilmer Lucitante, a young Cofán activist, tells me from the epicenter of a new oil spill in Lago Agrio, at Kilometer 10 on the road from Quito. A massive pipeline ruptured a month and a half ago, very close to this stretch of the Aguarico River. What we see now is pure clay soil, seemingly bulldozed. Wilmer laments, “This river is already dead.”
We have just begun what some media have dubbed the ‘Toxic Tour’: a disquieting journey to witness oil spills and other contaminations caused by this industry in Lago Agrio (or Nueva Loja), a city in the province of Sucumbios, the epicenter of “black gold” in Ecuador.
This sweltering territory crisscrossed by pipelines — featuring around 880 pools (where Texaco dumped toxic extraction water) and around 447 flare stacks or metal chimneys burning day and night — is the ancestral home of the Cofán people, one of the 11 indigenous nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon. But with the arrival of the powerful Texaco in the 1960s, the Cofán became the first to be displaced by oil machinery. Pollution of their lands, their rivers, and the noise of drilling gradually forced them deeper into the forest.
The initial Cofán people called this land ‘Amisacho’ (a place of bamboo, a large thorny variety). Still, the American engineers rebranded it as ‘Sour Lake’ (Lago Agrio) when they drilled the first well. This new name would unintentionally define a new relationship between the inhabitants and the territory.
Wilmer Lucitante, a Cofán communicator and a member of UDAPT (Union of Affected People by Texaco-Chevron’s Operations), monitoring an oil spill on Via Quito, Kilometer 10, Lago Agrio.
Wilmer Lucitante, 33 years old, the sixth of eight siblings, knows that story from his community’s grandparents. “They used to live in harmony with the jungle. Hunting, fishing, health, traditional medicine, and the yagecito were there. But voluntarily, many started distancing themselves and hiding deeper in the jungle. Others went to work in the oil industry; they were deceived with a bag of salt, with liquor.”
Since then, in the Amazonian provinces of Orellana and Sucumbios, which we are currently exploring — close to Yasuní —more than 7 billion barrels of crude oil have been extracted over half a century, yielding an income of over 42 trillion dollars. The paradox, however, is brutal: in the same region, over 50% of its inhabitants live in poverty, and there are hundreds of people with serious illnesses caused by water, soil, and air pollution.
As we walk along the contaminated riverbank, Lucitante — a communicator for UDAPT (Union of Affected People by Texaco-Chevron’s Operations), which represents 133 communities — acknowledges that this “remediation” is a lie. “Petroecuador will say they’ve cleaned up, but look,” he tells me, showing me the blackened soil in his hands, the oily spots on the water still flowing downstream despite useless plastic floating barriers.
“And then they say they compensate you. They give you a month’s worth of food, a sack of groceries, a water tank, and that’s it,” Wilmer says as he futilely wipes his hands. “Health authorities don’t come, it seems like they’re not interested. The people here are terrified and angry.”
“Just eat. You have to die from something.”
One affected individual I met was Elvia Salinas, 47 years old, a lifelong resident of Lago Agrio, who lives near the bridge where the Petroecuador pipeline ruptured. It was the morning of May 10th. She recalls leaving home at 5:30 a.m. and feeling a blast of air with a strong gasoline smell on her face. Then, just a stone’s throw from her house, the sight of an enormous jet of the blackest oil was as tall as a streetlight.
“And like that, just looking, I was already covered in oil in five minutes,” Elvia told me when we visited her. “I had to wash my body thoroughly with detergent.”
“And what did the company say?”
“Nothing, up to now, nothing. I haven’t received any help. My chickens also died. I have photos.”
Elvia shows me several pictures on her cellphone: there are the corpses of three, four, five, up to twenty backyard chickens, “and that’s how they wake up, dead in the coop,” and she assures me that Petroecuador only offered her a sack of balanced feed, but no solution for her lemons, oranges, aloe vera, and other plants that now appear withered or bearing black specks — oil stains — that weren’t there before.
“I felt something when the Petroecuador people came. A doctor told me not to consume or sell anything from my garden for three or four months. Then an engineer came and said to me, ‘Just eat. You have to die from something.’ Those were the words of the Petroecuador gentleman. Those are words that truly hurt me.”
Elvia Salinas demands that authorities come to examine the land she inhabits to know at least if she and her younger daughter are in danger. But so far, the case seems stuck in the Prosecutor’s Office. In just two months, the company has only cleaned up 500 meters of 36 kilometers of contamination. Wilmer had told me that there had been 1,100 spilled barrels, of which only 300 barrels had been recovered in the cleanup.
“And the rest? Where did it go?”
For now, Elvia has had no choice but to consume the lemons and oranges from her garden, carefully choosing the ones without those dangerous black spots.
Toxic Columns of Fire
A similar fear spreads among the residents of Lago Agrio due to the presence of flare stacks, those metallic chimneys emitting oil particles that can spread up to 15 kilometers away. “And when it rains, they create soot that falls on the roofs of houses, in water tanks, the rain that we consume,” says Mariana Jiménez, 82 years old, a native of Nueva Loja, living just meters from a burning flare stack.
For Doña Mariana, one of the plaintiffs in the Texaco/Chevron trial, the damage to her health and that of her neighbors, especially children, distresses her. “Always with colds, rashes, stomach pain, tuberculosis, and I say: instead of burning gas and polluting, they should capture that gas and sell it at an affordable price in the communities,” demands the grandmother who pays three dollars for a gas cylinder, twice the national average cost.
She can’t remember how many oil spills she’s seen in this area, “they can’t be counted,” but she does remember when one of those disasters killed 40 pigs overnight. “It turns out I went to the doctor in Quito, and when I returned, the pigs were dead. What had happened? Well, they had cleaned well 10, dumped all that salty water, and the pigs had bathed near the river, and a few days later, all the pigs died, swollen. If this happens to animals, imagine us! This land is no longer fit for humans to live.”
Mariana Jiménez, a resident of Lago Agrio and a plaintiff in the case against Chevron/Texaco.
According to data from a study conducted by UDATP, in this region contaminated by spills and the dumping of toxic waters (up to 30 times saltier than seawater), between 2019 and 2022 alone, 443 cases of cancer and 137 deaths from the disease have been registered. 73% of these cases are women “because they spend more time in the rivers, washing clothes, cooking, they are more exposed to water than men,” Donald Moncayo, a farmer and executive president of UDAPT, explained to me from the room where the 2,500 pages of the case against Chevron are kept, a case whose reparations (9.5 billion dollars) they still haven’t been able to collect due to the legal maneuvers of the oil giant.
“With all that has happened here, it’s better to leave the oil underground,” Moncayo had told me when discussing what could happen with Yasuní. “We’ve been exporting oil for 50 years, and when you go to a hospital here, in Lago Agrio, the oil capital, there aren’t even syringes. We don’t have good roads good education, where’s the money from oil? These spills end up reaching Peru, Brazil, and the Atlantic. These damages aren’t local; they’re planetary. Air and water have no borders, and without air and water, humans cannot exist.”
Perhaps that’s why, on the morning we visited, Doña Mariana found it challenging to be optimistic about the jungle’s future if oil continued to be extracted from its depths, as is intended for Yasuní. From her vantage point of 82 years, she has seen far too much misery revolving around black gold.
“You know, even an ant helps us live, a cricket, a grasshopper. If animals help us live, we should also help them live, right? But that doesn’t happen. Few of us defend the land. That’s why I don’t want to think about the future of this Amazon. It saddens me enormously.”
Donald Moncayo, Executive President of UDAPT.
And If the “NO” Wins?
Although in recent months, indigenous and environmentalist collectives have been traveling through Ecuador explaining why the “YES” should win, several leaders we met during our journey through the Ecuadorian Amazon admit that the outcome of the national consultation on August 20th is still uncertain. Partly because the wording of the consultation question is confusing — “Do you agree that the Ecuadorian Government keeps the ITT crude, known as Block 43, indefinitely underground?” — but also because the current government’s stance leans towards economic alarmism.
“In the case of the NO winning, which is very likely, it will mean nearly 1.2 billion dollars to the fiscal coffers,” banker and Ecuadorian president Guillermo Lasso declared on national television last July. “So, we must think about how to replace that income. Either we reduce expenses, which is very difficult, or eliminate some subsidies, which would compensate for these revenues lost due to the Yasuní consultation.”
Lasso’s government seems confident in the progress it promises. But the statistics from the state itself show a paradox: according to the 2022 National Employment Survey, the provinces of Morona Santiago, Orellana, Pastaza, and Napo — all Amazonian and with petroleum activity — are the poorest in the country.
Tired of political speeches, and with the prior experience of other large-scale protests (such as the 2022 National Strike), the indigenous leaders and activists we met who are in favor of the “YES” are clear about what will happen if the majority of Ecuadorians decide to exploit the oil from the underground.
Aerial view of Lago Agrio, where some of its smoking flare stacks can be seen.
“What happens if the NO wins? We will continue in the struggle until the public becomes aware that we have to take care of this planet and that it’s not just the task of activists or indigenous peoples,” Patricia Gualinga, a historic leader of the Sarayacu Kichwa people and a member of the Amazonian Women Defenders of the Rainforest collective. “The citizens of Ecuador have the enormous responsibility to decide the country’s future, one that speaks of an ethical economy. If Yasuní is exploited, we are putting at risk the voluntarily isolated peoples like the Tagaeri and Taromenane. We cannot allow an ethnocide in these times.”
The younger activists share the same purpose. One of the most visible faces of this struggle is the young activist Nemonte Nenquimo, a Waorani indigenous person, one of the nations inhabiting the Yasuní region, and who has experienced the violence of the oil industry. She says, “It is a unique opportunity to challenge the industries and limit the power they have.” Nemonte recounts that their people achieved a victory in Pastaza a few years ago, defending over 200,000 hectares of territory from the oil industry. “Now we want to win another victory: protecting Yasuní.”
The last time we saw her before continuing our journey through the Amazon, Sápara activist Sani Montahuano warned us: “If the NO wins, there will be a great struggle, a massive mobilization to the capital.” For her, who participated in the protests of 2022 alongside other young indigenous women, cinema and photography created from “her territory” are and will remain fundamental tools to keep moving forward in that fight.
“The State will send its police and military, and they will call them heroes, and we indigenous people will rise, take to the streets, face deaths, injuries. But we will still rise and be there to tell the story.”