Oil corporations have penetrated vast parts of the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. Consider just one part of that Amazonian immensity, the Oriente region of Ecuador in the Amazon basin. Humberto Piaguaje of the Secoya people still remembers how life there used to be. With a staggering abundance of birds, plants, animals, and foliage, with streams and tributaries winding through a humid lushness to the Amazon River, the region seemed like a blessing rather than something that could be owned by anyone.
“Own” wasn’t even a notion: the endless stretches of rain forest were literally common wealth. The oil beneath the ground, says Piaguaje, was “the blood of our grandparents — our ancestors.” The rain forest was a university that conferred its knowledge on those who lived there and their shamans. Its medicinal plants made it the people’s hospital; its vegetables and animals made it their marketplace.
For Texaco, however, the jungle invited domination. Emergildo Criollo of the Cofan people remembers how it all began. In 1967, when he was eight years old, a helicopter suddenly appeared in the sky. He’d never seen anything like it and thought at first it was some strange bird. Later, even stranger sounds came from within the jungle itself as Texaco set up shop. Within six months, the first oil spill appeared in a stream near where his family lived. After he grew up, Criollo lost two children: an infant stopped developing after he was six months old, and an older child who bathed one day in the oil-polluted river, swallowed some of the water, and later began vomiting blood. He died the next day. Criollo sums up his sorrow in 13 stark words: “They came and spilled oil, they contaminated the river, and my children died.”
In its first 25 years, Texaco pumped 1.5 billion barrels of oil out of the Oriente region. According to one estimate, the company discharged 345 million gallons of pure crude oil into Ecuador’s rainforest and waterways. In 2009, Amazon Rights Watch reported that the company, by its own estimates, had dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater directly into the environment. Next to its hundreds of wells, Texaco dug into the forest floor at least twice as many unlined waste pits. That it intended the filth from the pits to flow into forest streams is clear, because it installed drainage pipes that allowed for just such run-off. “Pits,” by the way, is a euphemism for oil-sewage swamps, as is evident both in this photograph and this video.
Forty years of oil exploration and production have translated into the slow poisoning of Oriente’s land, its people, its animals, and its crops. With no other water source, local tribes are forced, as in the Delta region in Nigeria, to use contaminated water for drinking, bathing, and cooking. A Harvard medical team and Ecuadorian health authorities have described eight kinds of cancer that result from this sort of contamination. Birth defects are legion in the region, as are skin diseases, which torment even newborns.
In 1993, 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians brought a class-action lawsuit against Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001 to become Chevron-Texaco, the world’s fourth-largest investor-owned oil company). 60 Minutes called it “the largest environmental lawsuit in history.” The plaintiffs are seeking $27 billion in compensation for their suffering and for the restoration of their world. The lawsuit is still pending.
Last month, some Ecuadorian indigenous leaders visited the Gulf Coast to show solidarity with another indigenous people, the Houma of Louisiana. A joint group then took a boat tour through bayous where the Houma have fished for generations. Mariana Jimenez, from Ecuador’s Amazon, reached over the side of the boat into gray water, grasping a handful of once-verdant marsh grass. It drooped lifelessly in her hand, leaving dark brown blotches of crude oil on her palm. “I see it,” she said. “It’s just like Ecuador. They talk about all the technology they have, but when there’s a situation like this, where’s the technology?”
“I think all of this is a terrible contamination for the Houma people,” commented Humberto Piaguaje. “It’s a cultural contamination. Their fishing and shrimping that was their livelihood is ending now. They need to be asking BP for compensation for the next generation.”
Big Oil blowback
Here’s the simple, even crude, lesson these ambassadors offer: whether Americans like it or not, we are all connected in new ways — and not ways the advocates of “globalization” once promised — now that we’ve entered what resource expert Michael Klare calls the age of extreme energy. Think of it as a new kind of blowback.
Our addiction to oil is now blowing back on the civilization that can’t do without its gushers and can’t quite bring itself to imagine a real transition to alternative energies. Humberto Piaguaje might say that the wound BP gashed in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico has unleashed the wrath of the Earth’s millions-of-years dead.
Put another way, corporations presume that it’s their right to control this planet and its ecosystems, while obeying one command: to maximize profits. Everything else is an “externality,” including life on Earth. “What we conclude from the Gulf of Mexico pollution incident,” says Nnimo Bassey, “is that the oil companies are out of control. In Nigeria, they have been living above the law. They are now clearly a danger to the planet.”
Think of oil civilization in its late stages as a form of global terrorism.