Letter from Ecuador: Toxic Legacies in the Land of Black and Yellow Gold




Letter from Ecuador: Toxic Legacies in the Land of Black and Yellow Gold by Lea Aschkenas

April 7th, 2013 reset - +

All photographs by Lea Aschkenas

EXCITING THINGS WERE AFOOT when I landed in Ecuador in late June 2012. Just days before, WikiLeaks activist Julian Assange had fled his house arrest, pleading for political asylum in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy and throwing the tiny Andean nation into an unfamiliar spotlight.  

Within hours of my arrival in Quito, I found several other stories unfolding. In the morning, internationally renowned folk singer Jaime Guevara led a group of protesters along the northwest side of the colonial Plaza Grande. They took turns shouting into a megaphone in front of the presidential palace, demanding the government launch an investigation into the recent disappearance of a 22-year-old student activist.

By the afternoon, a marching band decked out in top hats and royal blue and red uniforms had replaced the protesters to welcome visiting Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. The gathering crowd thickened and then dispersed as the rumor spread and was then dismissed that Ecuador’s popular leftist president Rafael Correa would be making an appearance. The evening news later revealed that Correa was meeting with leaders of School of the Americas Watch, a nonprofit working to close down the US Army school notorious for training Latin American military leaders in torture tactics. During this gathering, Correa signed a landmark statement declaring that Ecuador would no longer send any soldiers to the school.

Despite the excitement on the ground, I would soon discover that two of the most significant developments in Ecuador were actually ones that had been simmering beneath the surface, both literally and figuratively, for the past half-century. They resided in the oil reserves below the Amazon Basin and in the coastal fields of banana plantations, and they involved two major American corporations: Dole and Chevron-Texaco.

In theory, both the oil and banana industries were supposed to have brought, if not wealth, at least a more stable economy to Ecuador. In truth, what they wrought for the average ecuatoriano was a toxic brew of destitution, disease, and environmental degradation tangled up in hundreds of decades-long lawsuits against the multinational corporate powers that be. So enormous and endless are these lawsuits and the fighting between the lawyers that they’ve often obscured the stories of the individuals affected. Here are a few of their stories, as recounted to me during my three weeks of travel in Ecuador this past June and July.

Part I: Black Gold

Marco Mendoza was born in 1967, the same year oil was discovered in his sleepy Amazonian hometown of Nueva Loja. Soon thereafter Texaco moved in, set up shop, and renamed Marco’s hometown “Lago Agrio” after Sour Lake, Texas, birthplace of the oil giant. Today Lago, as the locals call it (undoubtedly dropping the unattractive adjective for more than mere convenience) is a greasy, crowded, crime-ridden city of 55,000 with a reputation for bar fights, prostitution, and drug-related violence along the nearby Colombian border.

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Above: Siona indigenous village

Below: The Amazon jungle

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Lago is not a place to linger. As Lonely Planet so bluntly puts it, “Few tourists step foot here, and locals, exasperated by the town’s sad reputation, keep their heads down and mind their own business; visitors should do the same.”

Most visitors only pass through Lago en route to the more romanticized inner Amazon of palm-thatch riverfront lodges located a good 75 miles east of town. Yet, lackluster as it is, Lago is still the Amazon, and, if the sad history that precedes its present-day sad reputation is any indication of things to come, it seems that any real understanding of the Amazon’s future must begin in Lago.

Marco, a wise and talkative taxi driver with a kind but weary face, narrates its history for two hours as we wind our way along the Troncal Amazónica two-lane highway through the city proper and its outskirts.

“Forty years ago all of this was jungle,” Marco says after we meet at the Lago airport.

He says we’re lucky that the storm predicted for today hasn’t come yet. “Driving on these roads in the rain is very dangerous.”

Marco’s not referring to potholes or blind curves on precipitous mountain passes, but to oil — the oil he says has polluted the town in such great quantities for so long that the roads are permanently covered in it.

“On every road in the Amazon you’ll see petroleum pipes,” Marco says, referring to the 325-mile trans-Andean oil pipeline, which carries oil from the Amazon up over the Andes and down to Ecuador’s Pacific coast. Sure enough, minutes away from the congestion of downtown Lago, the view opens to reveal fields of cleared rainforest outlined by the tarnished gray pipeline, which parallels the road for the remainder of our ride.

“As kids, we used to walk on the pipes barefoot, like a balance beam,” Marco says, shaking his head. “We didn’t know any better. No one told us. Fortunately none of us was ever atop the pipes when they broke because, man, they broke a lot.”

When I ask what would happen then, he shrugs. “They’d get fixed when they’d get fixed — sometimes in a few hours, sometimes not for days.”

“Even today, even in spots where you see trees growing,” Marco adds, pointing to a patch of roadside from which a spindly lone palm protrudes, “there’s been so much drilling that if you shove a stick in the ground, oil will shoot up.”

A few minutes into our drive past the lone palm, Marco says, “Mira,” instructing me to look in the direction of a billboard advertising a nearby “House of Dates.” It features a scantily clad woman bent over with the words, “El Mejor Lugar Para Placer,” The Best Place for Pleasure, written above her. Behind it is a modest wood-plank abode with a palm-thatch roof. “Mi casita,” my little house, Marco says proudly. “I live there with my wife.”

Marco tells me that when he was four, the oil exploration began full-force in Lago. He says he can still recall how the streets would be covered calf-deep in oil, which people had to walk through daily:

“And you know what the oil companies gave us to wash off the oil from our legs? Gasoline! Can you believe it? They would give every household a bucket of gasoline to keep outside their front door for washing off. We did not know. We had so little experience with the outside world. All we knew was here were all these foreign men with money, passing out free food in the streets and saying they’d discovered this great new resource that would make us wealthy.”    

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Future oil platform

Ecuador’s government, struggling financially and enticed by the get-rich-quick scheme of foreign oilmen, signed on quickly. In the 1970s, at the prompting of major lending institutions, Ecuador began borrowing money, banking on the oil industry’s promises of future profits to repay its loans. But then in the early 1980s, the world oil price crashed. In 1987, an earthquake broke the trans-Andean oil pipeline. Both catastrophes swallowed up any measly profits Ecuador may have previously made.

By the early 1990s, another fissure in the Amazon Dream emerged: the lethal environmental legacy of Texaco’s two decades of largely unmonitored oil exploration. This involved the routine dumping of oil-drilling waste products into open-air pits, which then, not surprisingly, leaked into the surrounding soil and groundwater. This was groundwater that indigenous tribes in the region used — and still use — for drinking and bathing. In total, during these two decades of drilling, 18 million gallons of crude oil (7 million more than were spilled by the Exxon Valdez) and 18 billion gallons of wastewater were knowingly released into the Amazon.

In 1992, Ecuador’s government took a stand, kicking Texaco out and forming its own company, Petroecuador, to take over national oil operations. Then in 1993, Ecuador’s indigenous people joined 30,000 members of the most affected tribes — the Cofán, Quichua, Secoya, Siona, and Huaorani (the few remaining Tetete people were wiped out during this time) — to file a class-action lawsuit against Texaco. Texaco soon sold to Chevron, thereby handing off the lawsuit.

To this day, Chevron lawyers continue to appeal the $27 billion damage claim calculated by the court-appointed expert. While not denying that the contamination occurred, Chevron’s lawyers maintain that their predecessors operated in accordance with the lax environmental regulations of the day. They claim that in the past two decades Petroecuador has behaved no more responsibly, and that the tribes should be suing both them and the Ecuadorian government for having allowed the drilling to occur in the first place.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say this could have merit as a separate lawsuit, but it does not absolve Chevron from the contamination Texaco caused. Each side calls the other corrupt — the plaintiffs pointing to the statistics of Texaco’s spills, and the defendants claiming the tribes’ lawyers are in it for the money.

In the meantime, those affected must deal daily with the myriad illnesses, ranging from skin rashes to serious diseases, caused by the oil exploration in their home territories.

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“Today the Amazon is the Ecuadorian province with the most cases of cancer and birth defects,” Marco says as we drive by a stretch of roadside oil-worker houses, many of them inhabited by native people who, like the Ecuadorian government, were lured by the wealth of the oil companies. These company houses are smaller, more ramshackle versions of Marco’s house. Many of them have no windows, and those that do have only rectangular holes in the outer walls with no glass or even louvered blinds.

Soon we pass through Dureno, a village Marco describes as “an Indian pueblo without the Indians.”

“Before the oil companies, there were nearly 10,000 Cofán people here, but today there are just over 100,” he says. “They used to work in natural medicine, but, imagine, now their jungles are gone. So they’ve left to work for the oil companies.”

Marco talks about the pueblo of San Carlos, which he says now exists in name only as nearly everyone there either died from environmental illnesses or left. Even the Huaorani tribe, renowned for their fierce independence and self-imposed isolation from the outside world, have recently been giving birth to children with six-toed feet.

Marco himself is so afraid of what contaminants lie beneath the ground that he prefers to get his water from the rain rather than the tap. It’s a method that has become commonplace since the early days of the lawsuit, when, as part of their required remediation, Texaco set up rainwater-collection tanks in several tribal communities. Texaco also constructed bare-bones one-room schoolhouses with chalkboards and a single glass-enclosed bookshelf, not much larger than a living room china cabinet. In the Siona community, where the Cuyabeno River was severely polluted by spills on three separate occasions, Texaco built a skeletal hospital, which more than a decade later has yet to be outfitted and used, as there was no program created to bring medical professionals to the Amazon.

“Today when the people in this community get a snake bite, they die on their way to the shaman,” Marco says. “The real hospital is impossibly far away.”

Marco has accumulated a lot of data that he tosses around like some sort of fast-paced trivia game as we drive alongside the muddy brown, tannin-rich Aguarico River. There is the two-degree rise (from 36 to 38 degrees Celsius) in the average maximum temperature; the forced decrease in the length of the farmers’ workday because of this temperature increase; the erratic weather that no longer relates to the seasons; the chickens that are ready to be harvested in seven weeks when they used to take five months to grow to full-size.

“When I grew up here, a 12-year-old girl was still a girl,” Marco says. “Now because of all the contamination and the hormones gone awry, at 12 she’s already a woman.”

Marco’s next grievance is more personal, more ethnic than environmental, but it is also connected to Texaco and its disregard for the ways of the Amazon’s native residents.

“Because they’re not respected by these outsiders,” he says, “these people who are only interested in their land and the money they can make off it, the young people here are losing their culture. They’re embarrassed to be indigenous.” (For another example of this, see director Joe Berlinger’s 2009 documentary Crude, in which a tribal Amazonian woman declares, “Since the [oil] company arrived, we are ashamed to wear our traditional clothing. Most of our women no longer sing.”)

Marco tells me he is proud of his heritage, which is a mix of Quichua and Cofán, and that he still speaks his native languages. “But the young people today are losing their languages,” he says. “Recently the government started opening schools to teach them their languages, and that, at least, is a good thing.”

Marco sighs loudly as he looks out the passenger-side window at a freshly cleared plot of rainforest, rigs parked on its rich red soil mere feet from existing houses. He shakes his head.

“When the company discovered oil here, people said it would only last for 20 years. But it’s kept going, and I wish it would dry up already. Everyone says the Amazon is the lungs of the world. When they deforest this jungle, it won’t be just us who die. Será el mundo entero. It’ll be the whole world.”

Part II: Yellow Gold

If you follow the trans-Andean pipeline west from Lago to its conclusion along Ecuador’s Pacific Coast and then drive due south for the same distance, you’ll end up in Machala, a massive banana-producing region of a quarter of a million residents near the border with Peru. Just past sunrise on a Sunday morning, I have come here to a Petroecuador station to meet with former banana worker Juan López León. In his retirement, the soft-spoken 78-year-old has become an impromptu community organizer, and he has agreed to introduce me to his past coworkers who are plaintiffs in a case whose history runs a disturbingly parallel path to that of the Texaco suit.

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Above: Banana workers in Ecuador

Below: Banana fields

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Like the Amazonian oil exploration, this story starts in the late 1960s when a potent new pesticide began being exported to the banana plantations of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Dibromochloropropane (DBCP), originally developed by Dow Chemical for use in Hawaiian pineapple plantations, had recently been found effective in combating the ubiquitous nematode worm that infected banana palms. In Ecuador, which has historically been the world’s largest banana exporter, DBCP was sprayed indiscriminately in plantations for nearly 15 years without workers being offered any protection from the toxin.

“We were ignorant. We didn’t even know to ask for protection,” says Alvarado Romero Rivo who, like Juan, began working in the fields in the late 1960s when he was 22.

“We were poor and we were innocent,” says Vicente Maldonado Higuera. “We’d try to protect ourselves with whatever we had, covering our noses and mouths with a handkerchief or a spare T-shirt. Some of us wanted to run and hide, but we knew we’d be fired if we did.”

Vicente began working in the plantations when he was only 13, and, like other child employees, of whom there were many (and many who began before the age of 10), he was employed in banana packing while the older men were responsible for spraying. Yet, regardless of the departments in which they were employed, very few of the men escaped unharmed.

Vicente, like Alvarado, can recall three distinct occasions in which he was “affected,” as the workers refer to the dizzy spells they had after a spraying, which were often followed by vomiting, diarrhea, and blurry vision.

Today Vicente, who just retired from the plantations in early 2012 at the age of 74, suffers from chronic nausea while Alvarado was recently operated on for cancerous tumors on his colon. In 1984, Alvarado was also diagnosed as sterile, as were two of the other men I met.

“I feel very sad because it’s a God-given gift to be able to have children,” says Alvarado. “But this was taken from us without our consent, without our knowledge.”

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Something else Alvarado and the others did not know was that this major side effect of DBCP had been well documented (and, in fact, disclosed in an issue of the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology) in Dow’s tests on laboratory animals dating back to the 1950s. But the chemical giant successfully lobbied against printing warnings on their labels, claiming this would unnecessarily harm their sales as there was no evidence that similar results would occur in humans.

It was not until a group of US workers in a DBCP manufacturing plant in Lathrop, California, were diagnosed with sterility in 1977 and took their case to the courts that the EPA finally stepped in. They banned domestic use of DBCP, acknowledging its role in male sterility and labeling it a “probable carcinogen.”

The loophole, though, was that the ban did not require that already-produced DBCP not be used overseas. So Dole, which owned the majority of the banana plantations in Ecuador, continued to use the pesticide in its fields until 1981, a full two years after it had been banned by the EPA. By this point, several thousand workers in Ecuador had been exposed, not to mention the difficult-to-quantify but undeniable effects on the wildlife and on the bananas themselves.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if the people who ate those fruits came down with illnesses, too,” says another former banana worker, Luis Ernesto Quiettombo, who suffers from respiratory and kidney problems.

Recalling his early days at the plantation as a 12-year-old employee, he says, “I remember that the day after the spraying, all the animals would be dead — the birds, the lizards. Wasps would fall out of the sky.”

Juan, who today suffers from chronic rashes and fungal conditions all over his body, thinks of the waterways.

“We weren’t given any drinking water, and it was so hot that we’d have to drink from these canals on the plantations,” he says. “Of course, they had pesticide run-off in them, and who knows how much of that remains in the ground today.”

DBCP, like its previously banned predecessor, DDT, is known to have a long half-life. Studies show that soil samples taken in 2000 from affected areas in Panama contained residuals nearly two decades after the last DBCP spraying.

While this does not bode well for the possibility of remediating the contaminated land, the affected workers are doing what they can to care for themselves in the aftermath of DBCP. In 1993, at the same time that the Texaco suit was filed in the Amazon, 3,000 former Ecuadorian banana workers came together, joining nearly 30,000 other workers worldwide to participate in a class-action suit against the DBCP manufacturers Dow, Shell, and Occidental and its major buyers — Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte.

As in the Amazon case, even two decades later, justice has remained elusive. Where there have been judicial victories for the plaintiffs, the monetary rewards have been minimal. In 1997, all the companies except for Dole (which is the main defendant in the Ecuador suit) settled out of court with 25,000 workers in Central America, Africa, and the Philippines. Yet, after the lawyers’ fees were taken out, the companies’ $41 million payment netted individual banana workers only $1,500 each. For Ecuadorian workers, had they been part of this settlement, this payout would barely have covered a year’s worth of medical treatments for what has, for most involved, amounted to a lifetime’s worth of chronic ailments.

Luis pays $115 each month for medications for his respiratory and kidney problems.

“Everything I earn goes to food or medicine,” he says. “We live very day-to-day here.”    

And Luis is one of the lucky ones. Let go from the plantations after a dispute with one of his managers in 1972, he managed to found his own small cacao farm from which he’s been able to eke out a living ever since. But for others like Juan, who spent most of his career in the plantations, there is no money to pay for medications. Instead, Juan relies on friends who are able to offer him spare pain pills.

“At the very least, if they were a good company, you’d think they’d give us some money to help with our medical expenses,” says 53-year-old Carlos Valla Palacio, who has been working in the plantations since he was eight and suffers from nausea and stomach pains for which he also isn’t able to purchase medicine. Undoubtedly, his condition isn’t helped by his continued employment in the field where he says the situation hasn’t changed much since the days of DBCP spraying. Child labor is no longer officially allowed, but unprotected pesticide spraying continues.

“I’ve heard that some places have protection,” Carlos says, “but not where I work.”

When asked about his hopes for the lawsuit, Carlos lets out a long sigh.

“It has been such a long process,” he says. “I’ve had coworkers who’ve died while waiting for it to come to a conclusion.”

In their stalling tactics of the past two decades, Dole has used such lengthy delays to their benefit, often getting cases dismissed based on expiring statutes of limitations. Another of Dole’s appeal approaches has been to ask the courts for the cases to be tried in the plaintiffs’ home countries, where there is little legal structure to handle such large class-action suits.

Several plaintiffs also claim to have been harassed at their homes by Colombian thugs whom they believe were hired by Dole. Nefarious an approach as this is, it has also been employed in the past, and Dole has even been sued for hiring paramilitaries to murder banana workers who were attempting to unionize in Colombia. In 2007, Chiquita agreed to pay a fine of $25 million for making payments to a terrorist group in violation of a US law prohibiting such behavior.

More recently there is Swedish director Fredrik Gertten’s 2011 documentary Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, which shows how Dole sued him for defamation after the release of his 2009 documentary Bananas!* revealed the stories of Nicaraguan workers affected by DBCP.

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In September 2012, Dole settled out of court with 5,000 workers in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica. The undisclosed settlement terminated 38 lawsuits and also included a clause prohibiting future DBCP-related lawsuits against Dole. In a press statement, Dole said it views this settlement as bringing it one step closer to the elimination of all its DBCP suits.

As for the Ecuador case, “We’re just here waiting,” says 54-year-old Eduardo Leon Bermco, who’s been working in the plantations since he was 10. While he has a chronically sore throat and such bad bone pains that some days he can’t walk, he considers himself lucky because he was able to have children.

“I’m not that hopeful about justice being served,” says Jaramillo Rolando Efrain, who worked at the plantations for 44 years. “I’m worried because this has taken so long. Some days it seems to be all the talk you hear in the streets.” And then, in a refrain that is oddly reminiscent of Marco Mendoza’s comments about oil exploration in the Amazon, Jaramillo adds, “I just wish it would end already.”

“We just want to know one way or another,” says Jose Pacheco Urgilez, who became sterile from the DBCP and says his wife’s first husband died due to the pesticide. “And if nothing else, we just want people to know about this, to know what happened to us.”

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