Camilo’s bewilderment is shared by the majority of the Waorani on the Toxic Tour. “I feel sad; I feel ugly seeing the people who are suffering with contaminated waters. How are they going to go back and take more water? For me, it has already been lost forever,” says Carmen Nenquimo from Nemompare, one of the 12 Waorani communities in Pastaza that are surrounded by jungle and can only be accessed by air or river. It is the first time Nenquimo has visited this area, and the first time she’s been able to put a meaning to a word that doesn’t exist in her ancestral language: contamination.

“Water matters, life matters, [but] money doesn’t matter,” Nenquimo says, adding that Waorani leaders have been in contact with oil workers seeking permission to enter their territory in exchange for gifts. “They say that it’s good: ‘we negotiate, we’ll give you a motor and chainsaw,’ and we negotiate with them. We thought that it was good. But seeing well and thinking well, it isn’t good to have chainsaws, motors, or anything they can give, because life is what matters,” Nenquimo says.

A journey no one wants

A few hours before joining the Toxic Tour, the Waorani women gather to sing songs and prepare for the unconventional journey. They are dressed in traditional necklaces and skirts made from tree bark and yarn made from Chambira palms, and they paint their faces with a paste made from the buds of annatto seeds. This is just a sample of the elegance and beauty in their culture.

Once they are ready, they join the Waorani men and meet with a group of Siekopai, Siona and A’i Kofan people who have arrived from other communities in Sucumbíos province. They are ready to learn about the impacts of oil exploitation in the area — the same impacts that could affect the Waorani if their territory, which is included in what the government calls “Block 22,” is conceded to the southeastern round of oil territories in the next few months.

The meeting point for the Toxic Tour is the Amisacho ranch in the city of Lago Agrio in Sucumbíos. This is the headquarters of the Ceibo Alliance, an initiative started three years ago by Waorani, Siekopai, Siona and A’i Kofan members to help their communities. The Toxic Tour is supported by Amazon Frontlines, an organization that began as ClearWater, which provides water systems to Amazonian communities.

“From where I come, it’s a pure forest, and before the drilling companies, miners and deforestation come to pester us, we want to defend ourselves,” Ene Nenquimo, the Waorani coordinator of the Ceibo Alliance, says at the start of the tour. Immediately after, she addresses the members of the three other indigenous communities: “You are a very clear example, and we want to have some of your strength to be able to fight and to keep our territory alive.” The elder Waorani women then sing a song in their native Pikani language: “We come from far away, but we are gathered like siblings.”

Pacayacu is a village in the administrative region of Shushufindi, in Sucumbíos. It encompasses a relatively small area, but it shows clearly the impacts of oil drilling activity. The village came to prominence after a group of inhabitants filed a lawsuit in 2005 against the state-owned oil company, Petroamazonas, over the pollution caused by its activities. The community members won the lawsuit, but the 2013 ruling ordering that reparations be paid was later dismissed at the request of the government under then-president Rafael Correa. The lawsuit has since been taken up at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In Pacayacu, the Toxic Tour participants meet Armando Naranjo and Sixto Martínez, who were prosecutors in the lawsuit against Petroamazonas. Both share their stories and their advice to the group: “Don’t let the company enter your territory, or you’ll lose your life defending it.”

Naranjo says his farm’s productivity, in addition to his family’s health, suffered greatly after several oil spills in 1988 and 1989. Instead of providing help, the state-run company brought in machinery to attempt to cover up the disaster, he says. “They told me that the ants would eat and decontaminate the oil spills, but 30 years later, I keep living in this pollution,” Naranjo says.

Martínez remembers the death of his wife, at 36, as a result of a cancer that he attributes to contact with crude oil. “I was left with six young children and I almost died,” he says. The impacts of the oil industry have not only persisted, he says, but have also grown worse with the passing of time.

Another problem in Pacayacu, previously reported by Mongabay Latam but that remains unresolved, according to locals, is the lack of water fit for human consumption. “Our families are sick, the cassava plants turned black, the papaya turned hard, and nothing that we grow is useful,” says Jenny España, who has also been active in the lawsuit against Petroamazonas.

España explains to the Waorani people on the tour how the giant waste pools work: “They are about 50 meters long by 40 meters wide, and they’re three meters deep,” or about 164 feet by 131 feet, and 10 feet deep. “Everything that isn’t useful [to the oil workers] is thrown towards the settlers’ farms,” España says. Where they’re now standing, she says, is the Suzuki oil field.

The Environmental and Social Repair Program (PRAS), a part of Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment, identifies Pacayacu as one of the areas of the Amazon most heavily impacted by human activity. As of 2017, there were a recorded 530 sources of contamination in the village, including 128 pools, 272 pits, and 130 oil spills. The villages of Palma Roja and Limoncocha, also in Sucumbíos province, along with Dayuma and Inés Arango in neighboring Orellana province, contain another 1,097 related environmental issues, according to the PRAS. All of these are part of eastern Ecuador’s legacy of exploiting the land for oil. The area’s oil boom began in the 1970s, led by U.S. oil giant Texaco, and saw the country produce a total of 6 billion barrels of oil between then and 2017, according to the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources.

Between 2014 and 2016, hydrocarbon production reached about 550,000 barrels per day, or about 200 million barrels per year, according to the latest published data. In 2016, there were 5,224 drilled oil wells in the country, 1,660 of them drilled between 2010 and 2016.

The building of roads to facilitate the oil drilling activity has resulted in 6,500 square kilometers (2,500 square miles) of deforestation between 1990 and 2015, according to Nicolás Mainville of Amazon Frontlines.

For now, there are no oil wells within the Waorani territory in Pastaza province, nor are there any roads or paths for invaders, loggers and hunters. But the region contains some of the 13,500 kilometers (8,388 miles) of exploration trails that have been made in the Ecuadorian Amazon in search of oil. The story is different for the Siekopai, Siona and A’i Kofan indigenous communities.

Oil legacy

Sixty-eight percent of Ecuador’s oil blocks sit on indigenous people’s territory — the highest proportion of all the countries in the Amazon River Basin, according to the report “Amazon Under Pressure” by the Ecuadorian scientific institution EcoCiencia and the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), a consortium of Amazonian civil society organizations. “The A’i Kofan, Siona, and Secoya (Siekopai) territories, percentage-wise, have the most pressure on their land, with 100% of the surface of the oil blocks in their territories under exploitation,” says the report.

This doesn’t include the oil industry’s impact on the area since the 1970s, in the Texaco era. Several members of these indigenous communities tried to press charges against Texaco, which has since been taken over by Chevron. They accused the company of spilling 71 million liters (19 million gallons) of oil residue and 64 million liters (17 million gallons) of crude oil in the 26 years that the company operated in Sucumbíos and Orellana provinces. The lawsuit began in the early 1990s in New York and wound up at the Lago Agrio Court in Sucumbíos 10 years later. In 2011, the court ruled that Texaco should pay $9.5 billion to repair the environmental and social harm it had caused. However, due to a lack of Texaco assets in Ecuador, the affected parties’ lawyers had to file lawsuits in countries where Texaco continues to operate, such as Argentina, Brazil and Canada — all of them unsuccessful to date.

More than two decades have passed since Texaco left Ecuador, but those affected remain “hopeful for a trial that never ended up with a sentence,” said Adolfo Maldonado, an environmental health specialist from the Ecuadorean organization Environmental Clinic. He was speaking in a short film about the results of a study of people living with environmental issues in Sucumbíos and Orellana provinces. The study was done at the request of the Union of People Affected by Chevron-Texaco (UDAPT). Environmental Clinic team members conducted interviews with settler families, who live the closest to the environmental problems, as well as with indigenous Siekopai, Siona and A’i Kofan families. Among the 1,579 families interviewed, 479 people from 384 families had cancer of various types. In other words, approximately one in four families had a member living with cancer. Sixty-five families had two people with cancer, and 15 families had three people with cancer. Eighty-two percent of the families also said the water they had access to was contaminated.

But oil is far from the only problem affecting indigenous communities in the northern Amazon. “Now the biggest problem is the African palm, which uses chemicals that later go into the Shushufindi River,” says Jimmy Piguaje, a 27-year-old member of the Siekopai community who lives in the village of Siecoya Remolino. Piguaje doesn’t know what it’s like to live the way his ancestors did. His people have been “an ethnic minority in Ecuador” for a long time, he says, and their territory has been occupied by oil and palm oil companies for years. From stories he’s heard from elders like Javier Piguaje, he knows that the contamination began in the form of oil spilled directly into their rivers and lands. This resulted in death, food shortages and undrinkable water. The oil industry also caused fights within the indigenous communities, as well as alcoholism, drug addiction and prostitution, Jimmy Piguaje says.

As for the A’i Kofan indigenous community, their young people have never lived in a primary forest. And their adults, such as 60-year-old Ermenegildo Criollo, only have distant memories of what their community was once like. “I was 6 years old and I saw when the oil company came to this area. I was little, and then I saw an oil spill and formation water, and I used to bathe in the contaminated river. We had lizards, capybaras — everything died,” Criollo says. (Formation water is water naturally commingled with oil and gas deposits that can be a source of contamination when released by drilling.)

In his youth, the oil industry also left him with two incredibly painful experiences: the deaths of his two children at the ages of 6 months and 3 years. His first was born sick, according to Criollo, because his wife became pregnant during a series of oil spills. His second child drank contaminated water during a trip to a river and died a few hours later. “My message is to not allow the oil company to enter the Waorani territory, because they don’t yet know how everything will be affected when it is contaminated,” says Criollo, who also participated in the lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco.

For the Siona indigenous community in Sucumbíos’s Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, the poison also came in the form of contaminated river water. Alicia Salazar, a member of the Ceibo Alliance who lives in the reserve, says her community has suffered from the effects of crude oil spills for decades. “There have been pretty big spills in Cuyabeno, which are still evident when the water level falls. People move and the crude [oil] still comes out, so there are fewer fish and more skin diseases too,” Salazar says. She cites a 2006 spill at the Cuyabeno 8 well, which affected thousands of acres of rainforest in the reserve.

Under the relentless assault of oil, the tiny Siona community of no more than 500 members in Ecuador faces a future that is not at all encouraging. Salazar, having seen the virgin forests of Pastaza province with her Waorani friends, says the difference between that area and the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is staggering. “What I tell them is to be firm, to take care of their territory, because it’s like an inheritance that our ancestors have left us and I believe that it’s mandatory for us to defend it,” she says.

The Waorani: an inherited opportunity

Several Waorani men on the Toxic Tour have brought along an important tool from their culture’s past: a spear. It’s their way of coming prepared for the unknown: oil wells, waste pools, chimneys spewing flames, and coguris, as they call people from the city. They’re on the tour with the goal of facing their fears, so they can teach their people about the oil industry’s impacts. All the groups on the Toxic Tour listen attentively to the stories told by those living in Pacayacu, but the Waorani people appear to be the most affected. Not all of them speak Spanish, especially the community’s elders, who are greatly respected for their wisdom. Translating for them is Oswando “Opi” Nenquimo.

Nenquimo also serves as the voice of the Waorani people to the others in attendance. “We have always defended our territory and our elders,” he says, relaying the message of a Waorani woman. “We still have the present moment to fight and defend our territory; we want to leave this territory healthy for the young people from future generations. We want them to live without contamination and without harm to their health.”

“We the Waorani [people] of Pastaza, who are free from contamination, are very strongly considering doing two things: ‘spear’ law and legal law,” says Nenquimo, who is also a coordinator of the Ceibo Alliance. He says they are working on a map of their territory, to demonstrate that their lands are not wastelands, but just the opposite. They have seemingly infinite resources and fragile ecosystems. They are also working with a legal team to produce an early defense plan based on national and international jurisprudence.

Some of the Waorani people who attended the Toxic Tour were emotionally impacted upon seeing the waste pools and flares in several different places in Pacayacu. “We have clean air, clean water,” they repeated. Image by Daniela Aguilar for Mongabay.

Although the Waorani people living in Block 22 have not yet directly experienced the oil industry’s exploitation, the same cannot be said for other Waorani communities. Those living in Block 14, in the neighboring province of Orellana, next to Yasuní National Park, have already experienced it directly, says Alexandra Almeida, an expert on the oil industry and a member of the Ecuadorean organization Ecological Action. She says she received a call a few months ago from the leader of the Miwaguno community, who went to Quito with a delegation to demand that their community be left alone. This came after the Canadian company Encana Corporation left Ecuador and was replaced by the Chinese company PetroOriente.

“They are surrounded by oil wells, by contamination; they don’t have food, and the oil industry doesn’t even give them much work; they don’t know what to do,” Almeida says. “It’s sad to say, but they asked for the Canadians to come back, because they gave them more jobs and paid them twice as much per workday ($25).”

Almeida says this shows how oil companies have replaced the state in certain territories, and how indigenous communities continue to lose their relationship with their forests.

Editor’s note: the production of this story was supported by a grant from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which also separately funds Amazon Frontlines. The reporting and editing of this story was completed independently by Mongabay, with no input from the foundation.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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