QUITO – Around 100,000 people in Ecuador’s Amazon region have been affected by petroleum spills in two rivers resulting from ruptures in three oil pipelines built through a highly seismic and eroded zone.
The situation dates back to the first week of April, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis in the South American nation which has eclipsed this other environmental and human emergency that is preventing river communities from getting access to water, fishing or irrigation for their crops, with farming and fishing being their main livelihoods during the movement restrictions and isolation measures decreed by the government to battle the pandemic.
A coalition of local non-governmental organizations has demanded that the government and the involved oil companies (one of them the state-owned Petroecuador) take responsibility in the situation and punish those who took action too late to prevent a spill that has even affected Peru, but work to mitigate the situation is up in the air.
The pipeline ruptures were caused by a landslide and spilled crude oil into the Coca River, which then flowed to the Napo and to the indigenous communities across the border in Peru.
The oil companies, which have been under pressure to guarantee the supply of oil, say that this was an act of God and that they are working to repair the damage in a situation in which leading international companies are intervening.
Consulted by EFE, the Heavy Crude Pipeline (OCP) said that it “closed the valves on April 7” and that the spill occurred “due to inertia, (from) the remnants (of oil) left in the pipeline,” although there is still no exact figure for how much oil spilled. OCP also said it has offered water and food to the local population.
But those statements do not convince those affected by the situation.
“We don’t have any figures that are convincing to us. At first, they said that 4,000 barrels had spilled. Then OCP revealed in parliament that it was 8,900 barrels,” Carlos Mazabanda, the coordinator in Ecuador for Amazon Watch, the organization that is monitoring the spill, told EFE.
He said that similar spills that affected the same communities in 2009 and 2013 had a similar impact, adding that “there’s no transparency on the part of the state (for us) to know what the real amount of crude was that spilled.”
Belen Paez, the director of the environmentalist Pachamama Foundation, referred to the 2013 accident in which 50,000 barrels of oil spilled, saying that “the dimensions of (this) disaster are similar.”
“We’ve had earlier spills, but the magnitude of the contamination today is rather worrying,” Olger Gallo, the leader of the Panduyaku community, in Sucumbios province, said.
Gallo’s community has 183 families and about 800 people in it, and it is contending with both geographical isolation and social isolation due to the coronavirus, as well as seeing its economy virtually vanish.
“Our way of life today is very much altered. Our livelihood has been decimated and there’s hunger,” he said, pointing especially to about 15 families who live along the riverbank and were directly affected by the spill.
The village was one of the first to be reached by the spill and he said that when that occurred it seemed as if it had been wiped out by the crude.
“Everything was contaminated with oil. When we woke up we found on the riverbanks dead fish, snakes and frogs. The fields with their crops were affected” by the rise in the river due to heavy rains in the area, he said.
The petroleum is not still flowing but the river “is devastated” and the black patches of oil can be seen all along the entire riverbank coating plants, animals, rocks and soil, despite the constant downpours.
“There are 150 indigenous communities, 24 parishes affected and an estimated 113,000 people,” Mazabanda said.
Paez said that what has happened in Amazonia is “a human and environmental drama that has been repeated over the past 20 years in Ecuador in the provinces of Sucumbios and Orellana.”
The pollution along hundreds of kilometers of the Coca River will have incalculable consequences for the local fauna and flora, and some say that certain species could “disappear completely” from the area.