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Indigenous communities in Ecuador struggle with the aftermath of another oil spill

  • In January, Ecuador’s Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline ruptured, contaminating more than 20,000 square meters of the Cayambe Coca National Park.
  • Sources say contaminated water reached dozens of Indigenous Kichwa communities in the provinces of Napo and Sucumbíos.
  • Three pipelines ruptured in the same area in April 2020, spilling more than 15,000 barrels of oil into the Coca River and affecting more than 27,000 members of downstream Indigenous communities.
  • This story is a collaboration between Mongabay Latam and Ecuador’s La Barra Espaciadora.

QUITO, Ecuador — On Jan. 28, 2022, Ecuador’s Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline (known by its Spanish acronym OCP), ruptured, contaminating more than 20,000 square meters of the Cayambe Coca National Park, according to the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE).

MAATE found the spill threatened wildlife such as the mountain coati (Nasuella olivacea), the northern pudu (Pudu mephistophiles), the Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus) and several amphibian species.

An aerial view of two pools built to capture the oil. Vacuum trucks suctioned the oil from these pits and transferred it to fuel tankers. Image by Iván Castaneira.

MAATE said a one family consisting of three people had been affected, and that the family had been evacuated and relocated. However, according to Patricia Vargas, president of the Panduyaku community, Luis Salazar, president of the Decentralized Autonomous Government in the village of Gonzalo Díaz de Pineda and data collected by the organization Acción Ecológica, contaminated water reached dozens of Indigenous Kichwa communities in the provinces of Napo and Sucumbíos.

Residents of the Panduyaku commune said that it is among those most affected, given that its towns Shiwuacucha, San Francisco and Huayraurco are closest to the site of the spill. Playa del Río Coca, Dashino, El Embalse and Cañón de los Monos are other riverside towns that, according to the sources consulted, have also suffered contamination of their water sources. According to Vargas and Acción Ecológica, these towns are comprised of around 150 families.

A pool of oil. Photo by Iván Castaneira.

A chain of disasters

The January spill wasn’t the first to wrack the area. On Apr. 7, 2020, erosion reportedly caused the OCP to rupture, as well as the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System (SOTE) and a third gas pipeline. More than 15,000 barrels of oil were spilled into the Coca River. More than 27,000 members of downstream Indigenous communities were affected.

Since the 2020 oil spill, the company OCP Ecuador and one of its contractors, Welding, have built seven more pipelines – but all have collapsed. Residents say the erosion that contributed to the pipeline burst has also destroyed the road from Quito to Lago Agrio, isolating communities. Environmental groups and organizations, as well as human rights activities, claim that Ecuador’s government has prioritized oil production while ignoring the inhabitants of affected communities.

José Fajardo, was in charge of OCP operations when the January spill occurred, blamed the rupture on rain and soil characteristics.

“It’s 70% sand,” he said, pointing toward a hill blackened by oil. “When it rains, the water washes that sand away and the stones that are held begin to lose their support, so it can happen very quickly or very slowly. With the rains that occurred, [the sand] was washed away very quickly and some stone came loose; we’re talking about a rock that weighed more than 8 tons.”

Fajardo said oil flowed down the Ortiz slope and into the Quijos River. “The rupture occurred very close to the waterbody; it was disadvantageous for us to have a drain nearby,” Fajardo said.

A stream of oil enters the Coca River. Image by Iván Castaneira.

“It’s toxic,” warned a Petroecuador worker as he collected and transferred oil-stained dirt into plastic bags. Another worker from the contracted company Pecs wore a protective suit, boots and a mask while waiting for the oil to be sucked up via a hose into a truck, but the rest of the workers around him had no protective gear. Dozens of workers from Pecs, Welding, Arcoil and Corena move from place to place carrying pressure hoses, plastic tubes, bags, picks shovels.

Florencia* is a member of the Petroecuador remediation team who began work the night of Jan. 28, 2022. She says that she has been part of the team for more than 12 years and has always earned only a basic salary for her job despite generally working at least 12 hours per day.

“We don’t get paid overtime for what they supposedly give us — sleep, food — no matter where we go.”

The ruptured pipe. Image by Iván Castaneira.

Conflicting accounts

OCP Ecuador’s José Fajardo said that it rained the day before the rupture and that the accumulation of the resulting moisture in the ground would have caused the rock to fall. However, area residents dispute company claims that heavy rains caused the line to rupture.

Luis Salazar, president of the Decentralized Autonomous Government in the village of Gonzalo Díaz de Pineda, was surprised by the company’s claims, saying that “there was no rain,” and immediately demanding “a definitive solution.” A local farmer, who preferred not to be identified, added that the claims “are lies,” and that the reason for the pipeline rupture was “due to a bad weld that was made in a hurry.”

When the spill occurred on Jan. 28, 2022, workers from Welding, OCP Ecuador’s private contractor, were constructing the seventh variant of the pipeline on a steep mountain next to a sinkhole. Andrea Hernández, director of MAATE’s Environmental Control Agency, said that the agency had already foreseen that a landslide could occur, at one point saying, “clear guidance was given to the operator on the final layout [of the pipeline], and for all risks and impacts of the area to be considered.”

A worker stands next to the rock that, according to the OCP Ecuador, was responsible for rupturing the oil pipeline. Image courtesy of OCP Ecuador.
Authorities and representatives of OCP Ecuador claim the gash in the pipeline was caused by a large rock displaced by heavy rain. Image by Iván Castaneira.

Fajardo insisted that “before starting construction there was a geophysical study to determine the best route” and that the option chosen for the construction of this seventh pipeline variant that also broke “was the safest at the time.” But Hernández clarified that “if the construction of an adequate variant had already been arranged but had not been done, then the corresponding fines and sanctions would have to be applied.”

“The lithology [study of the physical characteristics of rocks] here is very complicated, but citizens must understand — the way that all the authorities have understood — that we don’t have much choice here; we had several route options, but all of them were ruled out at the time because we came across new things or much bigger problems,” Fajardo said.

OCP Ecuador, Jorge Vugdelija, told Mongaby and La Barra Espaciadora that the pipeline rupture and oil spill was “an unavoidable natural event that has no connection with previous events.”

In December 2021, Vugdelija said that his company had deployed more than 50 people to contain the spilled oil in the pools and that they were “successful” in doing so. He added that “small traces [had] reached the waterways” as well as channels “in some areas of the riverbank.”

In a December 2021 statement, OCP Ecuador added that it had deployed a compensation plan for affected communities that involved “providing safe water to communities such as Toyuca, San Pablo to the north of the San Sebastián del Coca parish, Sardinas and Guayusa, among others, with the support of Petroecuador.”

Petroecuador workers used absorbent materials called “salchichas” (sausages) to soak up the oil. Image by Iván Castaneira.

On Jan. 30, MAATE announced that legal and administrative actions had been launched against OCP Ecuador. If the highest fine is ordered, the company will have to pay $85,000, according to current regulations. Andrea Hernández said that “this is not an exemption from the responsibility of carrying out contingency, cleaning and remediation activities, nor from compensation for the people directly affected.”

Article 397 of the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador states that in the event of environmental damage, the State must guarantee the health and restoration of ecosystems and their populations, while also promoting the execution of the fines provided for by law.

“The earth alone defends itself, calls out and asks for help,” Jairo Cabrera said. “We extract the oil that is the blood of the earth; we build large hydroelectric plants by altering the geomorphology of the land and the direction of rivers; we hurt the earth on all sides and it speaks to us, begs us, but we do not understand it.”

 

*Pseudonym used to protect identity.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on January 31, 2022.

Banner image: Oil spill area. Image by Iván Castaneira.

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