Meet the Amazon tribespeople who beat Chevron in court — but are still fighting for clean water
One day in early August, I took a long and lazy canoe trip down the Río Tiputini in northeastern Ecuador. My destination was the village of Guiyero, a remote dot of an Indian community more than a hundred miles downriver from the oil city of Lago Agrio. The riverside hamlet is at the eastern edge of territory deeded to the Waorani, one of the largest tribes in the region. Situated where some of Ecuador’s last unspoiled wilderness meets its oil frontier, it is a good place to see what a resource extraction boom entering its sixth decade can do to a rainforest.
It can be easy to forget the surrounding presence of industry during the slow river ride to Guiyero. As we floated around the bends and buckles of the Tiputini, the jungle beyond the banks looked lush, vast, and untouched, the only sounds bird cries and insect hums. Wooden dugouts tied up along the way suggested the persistence of an undisturbed pre-Columbian culture. But while a fraction of the Indian population along the Tiputini has escaped history, retreating ever deeper into shrinking tracts of forest, the number of these no contactados is minuscule and falling.
I visited Guiyero with three staff members from an organization called ClearWater, whose mission is in its name. The group builds rainwater-filtration systems in the region’s indigenous communities, and it was looking to bring them to Guiyero. After five decades of oil exploration in the area, and as a class-action lawsuit entering its 22nd year drags on in New York, villagers along the Tiputini are taking matters into their own hands, trying to clean the water that’s essential to health as a first step toward political and economic development and self-determination. Our trip was the organization’s first foray into the village, as well as the first trip by a U.S. journalist to report from the communities at the center of the multibillion-dollar suit against Chevron. Oil operations have made this kind of work necessary for more than 50 years. ClearWater has been at it for four.
As a candidate for receiving ClearWater’s systems, Guiyero has a typical profile, one that tells a larger story. The village is built with a combination of modern cement and traditional thatch on the banks of a heavily polluted river. It abuts a drilling zone crowded with oil infrastructure operated by the Spanish firm Repsol. A few miles upstream from Repsol’s drilling sites are more wells operated by Petroamazonas, Ecuador’s state-run oil company, and Andes Petroleum Ecuador, a Chinese firm. Before we embarked, I was told that the contamination of the Tiputini and the forest creeks is steady, often unseen, and total, but I wasn’t prepared for what I’d find.
Even our means of conveyance is a function of how much oil companies have taken from communities like Guiyero. We traveled by canoe because Repsol controls the only road in with private guards. The village is dependent on Repsol for all of its basic needs, including drinking water. The company also controls access to the electric system and operates the bus that runs daily up and down the oil road, delivering food, supplies, and access to the rest of the world. Mitch Anderson, ClearWater’s 33-year-old American cofounder and international director, believes the oil companies cultivate company-town paternalism as a matter of policy. “They don’t want our presence here,” says Anderson, a former coordinator with Amazon Watch, as we tie up our canoe upon arrival in Guiyero. “They don’t want the Waorani doing anything for themselves, and they don’t want their crimes exposed.”
The residents of Guiyero welcome our arrival and give us shelter in a massive dirt-floor thatch hut. As a sign of honored status, a village elder tells us, the community has granted us immunity from a Waorani custom that requires the killing of outsiders in the event of an unexplained death of a villager during our stay (which was nice to hear, if a little unsettling). Guiyero has heard of ClearWater’s work from neighboring communities and is eager to benefit from it.
The water systems, they tell us, couldn’t arrive soon enough. “We have not used the river for drinking water since before I was born,” says one 22-year-old resident. “Children have chronic diarrhea and get strange rashes from bathing and swimming.”
To get daily rations of clean water, Waorani women walk or hitchhike six miles to fill plastic jugs from a water truck owned and operated by Repsol. Often the water makes them sick, they say, because it is over-chlorinated. Some families use rusty metal gutters to collect rainwater directly into dirty plastic tubs. But extensive gas flaring in the area, a normal part of oil drilling, means pollution comes from the sky as well as from the ground. A few years ago, Repsol built a single water-filtration system in the village, but it broke down after two months and was never repaired—a common story in the region. (Repsol spokesman Gonzalo Velasco Perez wrote in an email that the community disconnected the system and that “it is important to note that indigenous communities, especially the Waorani, due to their culture and eating habits, have resisted consuming treated or purified water, preferring the use of natural chlorine-free water…. The community has asked Repsol not to intervene with the water-supply system.” Since 1993, he wrote, “Repsol has built infrastructure, promoted healthcare support and cooperation programmes and covered the needs of schools by supplying teachers and other materials.”)
The first step to providing clean water to a village like Guiyero is building trust with the community. The morning after our arrival, the ClearWater team convenes a meeting on the cement football field in the center of the settlement. Around 15 adults, mostly women, sit in a semicircle of plastic chairs as children kick lopsided balls and the village parrot makes its social rounds.
Appearing uninvited at the edge of the assembly is the Repsol community-relations official in charge of Guiyero. He is clad in a denim company shirt and holds a clipboard, a walkie-talkie on his belt, and appears to be trying hard to look concerned. His job is to monitor the community and disburse annual cash allowances of $150 to each Waorani family (the equivalent of about 2 percent of per capita GDP in Ecuador).
A woman motions in his direction and mutters in Waorani, “He’s hovering like a vulture, but he’s just a piece of shit.”
ClearWater coordinator Nemonte Nenquimo opens the meeting. An effervescent 29-year-old Waorani woman whose name means “many stars,” Nenquimo asks, “How long have you been living without clean water? How many times has the company promised projects for the community?” The assembled villagers tell her something she’s heard in other communities. “We need to build our own projects,” one says. “We can’t live waiting for the oil company.” Nenquimo is happy to hear this. She explains that such an attitude is critical for the success of the project, which is not a gift from above or outside the community but will require their continued commitment and involvement.
Within an hour, the Waorani elect a community coordinator and establish a timetable for construction, set to begin later in the month. The women are visibly excited. They have heard about the rainwater-catchment systems from other villages upriver. “My bones ache from carrying heavy water,” an elderly woman tells Nenquimo. “We want it to happen right now. I have never had clean water close to my home since the oil came.”
Most of the Waorani in Guiyero are too young to remember the time before “the oil came.” Those with memories of this lost world struggle to keep them clear against an accelerating industrial revolution in the jungle, one that is under way throughout the Amazon countries but experienced some of its earliest and most momentous stirrings here, among the tribes of northeastern Ecuador.
Emergildo Criollo was 10 when the first cargo chopper passed low and loud over his village. Next came the strange booms in the forest, a new kind of thunder called dynamite. The year was 1964. The American oil company Texaco had arrived to prospect Ecuador’s Amazon, believed rich with heavy crude. Hunter-gatherer tribes had lived in the region for millennia, inhabiting thatch-roof huts along the shifting mud riverbanks. When Texaco landed, the tribes had no words for “oil,” “explosive,” or “toxic” (in the sense of contamination). Years would pass before they understood the motives of the invaders, their noises, or why the rivers started running frothy and black, causing diseases their healers had never seen. In Criollo’s language, Cofán, “water” was a synonym for “clean.”
“How could we ever have imagined that the companies could turn water into sickness?” says Criollo, now 60. “When the drilling started, the oil stuck to our bodies. We cooked with poisoned water. Our children drank from the river. We were told it was safe.”
Fifty years after Texaco started drilling in the Cofán tribe’s hunting grounds, Criollo’s childhood village has given way to the gritty oil-boomtown sprawl of Lago Agrio, for decades Texaco’s base of operations. Oil infrastructure rings the city; flares, tanks, and piping loom behind concrete walls covered in murals depicting paradisiacal tableaux of clean rivers, happy Indians in face paint and tunics, and animal spirits. When Texaco pulled up stakes in 1994, it left behind more than just a city, roads, and a rusted plexus of pipes stretching across the Andes to coastal refineries and ports. Its wake included hundreds of open oil pits and billions of gallons of toxic wastewater dumped into the region’s waterways. This toxic legacy was well documented during the Chevron trial, which turned on conclusive scientific findings the Ecuadorian government continues to promote in official publicity campaigns.
The post-Texaco pollution spreading east and south, on the other hand, is a story the government has little interest in telling. While it has reined in the worst practices of earlier days, Petroamazonas, the state oil company, has built on the American company’s toxic legacy, expanding oil operations with the help of American, Spanish, and, increasingly, Chinese partners. Few resources have been spent on measuring the public health impact, though it can be seen in the rashes children get from bathing in the rivers, tasted in the discolored, three-eyed fish, and heard in the many tales of sickness and death villagers tell. The government and companies like Repsol tacitly acknowledge the extent of this contamination through their provision of chlorinated water, but ClearWater has conducted most of the pollution monitoring that has occurred — on a shoestring. The results suggest that the oft-used phrase “Amazon Chernobyl” aptly captures the degree of damage to the area’s waterways.
The social convulsions of oil production have been profound. In the 1960s, the government, missionaries, and Texaco teamed up to use a mix of chicanery and force to corral the local tribes into large protectorates near the growing towns and new roads. (One of the biggest roads is named the Via Auca, a derogatory variation on the Waorani word for “savage.”) Some refused, retreating into the forest to live like no contactados. Today the settled Indians view the remaining no contactados with a mixture of awe, envy, and fear — the face-painted ghosts of their recent past. As recently as the early 1960s, most Waorani lived off the land in hunter-gatherer communities. By the end of the decade, most had been resettled under the shadow of oil development.
During the decades of settlement, the tribes’ hunter-gatherer traditions have been upended and enervated as they’ve been transformed into consumer-citizens of the modern Ecuadorean state. This joint effort between the government and the companies often employs blunt instruments. Recently the government raised the price of gas tanks to induce communities to buy electric stoves and deepen their dependence on the local grid. “There is a long history of collusion between Ecuador’s government and oil companies to ‘conquer’ and ‘civilize’ indigenous peoples in pursuit of resources,” says Kevin Koenig, Ecuador program director for Amazon Watch. “The result is the displacement and cultural deterioration of indigenous peoples.” Because it is no longer possible to live off the forest, the tribes sometimes lease their deeded land to the oil companies and other polluting industries. The young move to nearby cities like Lago Agrio and Coca to escape rural “poverty” — another concept that did not exist before “the oil came.”
If people outside South America know anything about the Ecuadorean Amazon, it is the multibillion-dollar class-action suit filed by Ecuadorean plaintiffs against Chevron (which absorbed Texaco in 2001). That legal battle over Texaco’s polluting the region between 1967 and 1994 seemed to have been settled in 2012 when Ecuador’s supreme court upheld a lower-court decision and ordered Chevron to pay $9.5 billion in damages to clean up its waste pits and general pollution. But Chevron countersued in New York and blocked that decision from being enforced on U.S. soil. The plaintiffs are now pursuing Chevron assets in third-party countries such as Canada and Brazil. The sprawling legal drama (which I covered for Rolling Stone) has attracted international media attention and spawned two books, but the five tribes of northeastern Ecuador (the Waorani, Kichwa, Secoya, Siona, and Cofán) can’t drink or bathe in newspaper ink. It doesn’t help that much of this ink has appeared in the business and corporate-litigation press, where narratives put out by Chevron’s publicity team muscle out stories of the foundational pollution for which Texaco was held responsible. Neither the original legal victory nor the global attention has improved the lives of the 30,000 homesteading farmers and tribespeople named as plaintiffs. For them, the court fight has been a distant gringo affair, a battle between white-shoe law firms and litigation-finance outfits that might as well be happening on another planet — one with ample clean water.
“The lawsuit is happening far away from us. It might go on forever,” says Criollo. “We can’t wait on our lawyers. We can’t wait for the oil company. We have to help our people now. Our lives are in our own hands.”
Criollo’s personal tragedy is one among unknown thousands. His first son died as a young boy during the 1980s, days after drinking water laced with invisible toxins; his wife later had a miscarriage, which Criollo also attributes to toxins in the water. “After losing my second child, I decided to do something,” says Criollo. He left his village to enroll in school in Lago Agrio. He learned Spanish and studied public health. As president of the Cofán Federation, Criollo conducted a teaching tour of the region in the 1990s. When the lawsuit was filed in 1993, Criollo traveled to New York to represent the Committee of the Union of Affected Peoples. For 20 years he has been active in that suit. For 20 years he has watched the contamination continue to cause illness and death.
Only in the last three years, a half century after Texaco began seismic testing outside his childhood village, has Criollo been able to deliver on his self-appointed mission to fulfill an urgent and basic need for people in the region. Something the Ecuadorean government, the oil companies, and the tangled billion-dollar lawsuit have failed to provide: clean drinking water in a poisoned environment.
The rainforests of Ecuador and other Amazon countries are imperiled on many fronts. Commercial maps of the region are dense patchworks of oil and mining concessions, royalties from which will largely fund development and social programs geared to urban population centers. This helps explain why the rapid expansion of the mining and oil sectors, often at the expense of the environment and indigenous people, has done little to damage President Rafael Correa’s international image as a leftist hero. His recent decision to open once-protected areas such as Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park for drilling, for example, has been blamed on the failure of rich countries to pay Ecuador for keeping the oil in the ground. But there is no passing the buck on the government’s aggressive moves to allow large-scale mining operations in the south of the country, the biggest of these in exchange for Chinese loans.
Correa has married nationalism with economic theory to argue that Ecuador must be independent of Western aid and multinationals to grow. “But his idea [for development] is the same model of exporting raw materials,” says Alberto Acosta, an economist who served in Correa’s government but is now one of his loudest critics. “The government is thinking short-term about sustaining its social programs and political position at the expense of long-term sustainable industries. There’s a modern parallel to the conquistadores, who gave the indigenous mirrors [in exchange] for gold. It’s happening again.”
There is little room for opposition to these policies within the political system. According to Fernanda Solis, a campaign coordinator for the Quito-based environmental group Clinica Ambiental, “Everyone in government repeats Correa’s pro-development themes and slogans: Responsible mining, man over nature, Indians versus progress. Because Correa represents the left, opposing him opens you up to the charge of supporting the U.S., or the old right that bankrupted everyone. He’s avoided pacts with the U.S. but has sold the country to China.” Per capita GDP has nearly quadrupled since 2000.
The trade-off can be seen all around Quito, the capital, on the outskirts of which there appears to be a construction site every 30 feet; selling cinder blocks in Ecuador today seems as good a get-rich-quick scheme as any.
It’s on the other side of this bargain that ClearWater operates. It began with the frustrations of its cofounder, Mitch Anderson. Through his work with Amazon Watch, Anderson was one of the American activists most closely involved in the Chevron lawsuit court battle. In 2011, Anderson moved to Lago Agrio full-time to be closer to the plaintiff communities. Soon he was working with them to build solutions on the ground while the suit played out in Lago Agrio, Quito, and New York.
After moving to Lago Agrio, Anderson made extended visits to indigenous communities and held meetings with their leaders. “I wanted to understand the daily struggles of the peoples living in a rainforest devastated by oil extraction,” says Anderson. “The recent history of the Amazon is one of invasion and imposition. Is it possible to flip history on its head? What do the indigenous communities want? What is their vision? How do they want to achieve it?”
What they wanted was clean water. And they wanted to control it at the source. They told Anderson they were tired of being dependent on the duplicitous oil firms, which ran their communities as part reservation, part company town. Anderson organized an indigenous team led by Emergildo Criollo and made up of men and women from the five tribes of the region. He soon raised enough funds to start buying the components for hundreds of family-size bio-sand rain-catchment systems. He consulted with experts and settled on a simple, reliable technology.
Rainwater is captured in a 1,000-liter tank and filtered through layers of sand, crushed quartz, and gravel into another tank with a faucet attached. The water that flows out has been removed of particles and contaminates, a legacy of the pollution that independent contractor Louis Berger Group said — relying on data provided by Chevron itself — demonstrated an ongoing environmental catastrophe in the area. Each system costs $1,500 to build. With basic maintenance it can provide enough clean drinking water for a large family’s drinking, cooking, and washing for 20 years. In a region where the waterways and groundwater are thoroughly contaminated, but where average rainfall is between four and five meters a year, capturing rain is practical and effective.
In early 2011, the team began the tricky logistical work of transporting the systems by canoe into remote rainforest communities. It has since helped villages build approximately 600 systems, or roughly 120 for each of the five tribes. It plans to build another 150 by the end of the year. Every two days since the project began, on average, it has provided a family in the area with decades’ worth of clean water.
For Anderson and his colleagues, water is the necessary starting point for a larger project to help the tribes build political power and maintain cultural cohesion. They have also begun programs related to territorial mapping, building medicinal gardens and ceremonial houses, and community legal aid. Together, they hope, these programs will create a new model for how the communities of northern Ecuador understand and fight for environmental justice: not as something doled out by Chevron or Petroamazonas but as a collective right to be claimed, fought for, and protected.
“This isn’t simply about delivering rain-catchment tanks,” says Anderson. “It is about building an indigenous-led movement for clean water and long-term cultural survival.”
The threats against that survival take a multitude of forms. Some of them can lie dormant for years before rearing their head, dragon-like, as one did last summer in the Río Aguarico.
In early July, the Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline that carries crude to the Balao oil terminal on the Pacific coast ruptured just outside Lago Agrio. The break released approximately 750,000 gallons (16,000 barrels) of crude into the Aguarico, a major artery in the region’s river system. State oil workers threw three small booms over the nearest choke point and declared it “contained.” It was the first time in decades the Aguarico ran black for miles downriver, yet not a single Ecuadorean newspaper or network covered the event. The state oil company apologized to the affected communities and gave each family along the river a sack of groceries containing a bag of rice, sugar, oatmeal, noodles, salt, five cans of tuna, and two bottles of cooking oil. (Not included: drinking water.)
On the day of the spill, an elder shaman from the Secoya tribe named Delfin Payaguaje was hunting in the forests near the village of San Pablo. He knew the spill was serious when he smelled chemicals before he could see them. He emerged from the woods to behold something horrible. “It was the first time since the days of Texaco that I had seen so much oil in the river,” he says. “During the 1970s and ’80s, there was always a black sheet or heavy foam on the river. But that stopped in the ’90s. When I saw the oil this summer, I was happy to know that now we have the rainwater systems.”
The rain-filtration tanks address the primary health threats posed by contaminated water and soil. The tribes of the region still bathe and fish in the rivers. Many types of fish have developed deformities and discolored meat. The tribes know this is a bad sign, but they have no data on toxic bioaccumulation. “Most rivers in the area have tested higher in many carcinogenic categories than is allowed by international standards,” says Blanca Rios, a professor at the Indoamerica Technological University in Quito who is working with ClearWater. But gauging the threats with precision is made difficult by a lack of resources, including the means for reliable testing. ClearWater is in the early stages of organizing a public health research program that may face more challenges than the water systems project. “There are few reliable and sophisticated testing resources in Ecuador, and little interest in the health of indigenous communities,” says Rios. “This is one of the reasons it was so hard to present evidence of sickness in the Chevron trial.”
One morning, as far from that trial as seems possible, I sit with Delfin Payaguaje, the Secoya shaman, on the porch of his riverside hut. He speaks of the need for comprehensive blood tests as we pass a gourd of yoco, a caffeinated drink made from a local vine pulp the color of pumpkin meat. After an hour discussing the present, Payaguaje falls silent for a few minutes. Then he speaks of the time before oil.
“When I was a child we got everything we needed from the river and forest,” he says. “The biggest problem was shamanic battles between families. When the companies first came, I went out in a canoe to see the terrible destruction that was coming closer. The roads, the tractors, the bulldozers. I was frightened, but I thought, ‘Our territory is so vast, they can’t possibly conquer it.’ ”
I ask him what he misses most from that time.
“The greatest loss is the freedom,” he says. “We had everything we needed in the forest. I also miss the sounds of nature, undisturbed. The community used to take ayahuasca together and listen to the elders tell long stories about the past and the future. We spent days sharing memories and knowledge. I can’t imagine that ever being repeated. There are too many pressures, too much noise, too many impurities. We are surrounded by industry. Sometimes in the cities you see a great big tree surrounded by buildings. A beautiful tall tree surrounded by pavement. That’s the Secoya people. We are that tree. The only people that can cut that tree down is our ourselves.”
The trees of Ecuador’s five tribes reveal various states of duress and damage. After the morning meeting in Guiyero, Nenquimo senses that working in the village may be difficult. Usually bright and ready with a joke, her face is clouded with concern. She worries about the rate of alcoholism among the men and a generally weak sense of agency.
“It fills me with rage to see what the oil companies have done to my people,” she says. “We are not supposed to be controlled by an oil company. Waorani are meant to lively freely. We are strong. We sing. We laugh. We are in contact with the spirits of the forest. How can we live well on an oil road? We lose ourselves on the oil road. Money and alcohol infect my people. Women need clean water to raise healthy families, and they need to be strong. That’s why I’m working on this project.”
In its immediate goal of improving baseline public health, ClearWater is succeeding. On the way back to Lago Agrio from Guiyero, we stop at a Waorani village that last year built 32 rain-harvesting systems. At the home of the village leader, Criollo explains the plans for the health-monitoring program and schedules a visit to test the rainwater systems. The Waorani man waves Criollo off.
“We’ve already tested the water systems,” he says. “The kids aren’t getting sick. Our women don’t take the children to the oil company doctors anymore. That’s all we need to know.”