- A joint investigation by Mongabay Latam, La Barra Espaciadora, Cuestión Pública and El Deber looked into the impacts of oil industry activity in Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.
- Although more than 8,000 contaminated sites have been identified by the various governments, most of them have not been cleaned completely.
- Our journalists found forgotten oil pits, contaminated soil, abandoned oil wells, and wetlands covered in crude oil across Amazonian territories.
Think of any place in the Amazon and imagine an oil well installed there. Then, imagine that after decades of extracting crude oil, the company ends its operations and leaves. Although the company’s gone, everything has changed. What remains are pools of oil, swamps where oil emerges from the ground with the fall of a single branch, puddles of black water and corroded pipes. Now, imagine this situation repeated 8,278 times across four countries in Latin America.
“It is not good for us to be in an oil zone because the company benefits, the government benefits, and we get the contamination,” said Aurelio Pignola, head of the Indigenous community of José Olaya in Peru. This community sits along the shores of the Corrientes River, a two-day boat journey from Iquitos, the capital of the Amazonian region of Loreto. Pignola’s testimony echoes what dozens of other people who live in areas surrounded by the toxic waste left by oil companies have said.
Pignola’s community has spent 50 years grappling with this problem. During that time, members of the community have witnessed the contamination of their land and rivers. Oil spills from what’s known as Block 192 have resulted in bags full of sand and crude oil piling up; when it rains, the water seeps through and forms strong-smelling puddles. “What they have to do is clean up the oil, avoid any more contamination, [and] fulfill their functions as a company, as a government; that is the minimum that we are demanding,” Pignola said.
For eight months, journalists from Mongabay Latam, Colombian outlets Rutas del Conflicto and Cuestión Pública, Ecuador’s La Barra Espaciadora, and Bolivia’s El Deber mapped the environmental impacts and the waste from the oil operations, or environmental liabilities, that are scattered throughout Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Most of those cases have been forgotten for decades and neglected by their respective governments.
The outlook is distressing: there are at least 4,284 environmental liabilities caused by the oil industry in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. None are officially considered remedied or fully resolved. These cases aren’t the only ones. Across the four countries, another 3,994 “oil-related impacts,” abandoned for years, have been discovered. But due to political or administrative decisions, they’re not considered liabilities. Colombia, for example, refers to them as “unresolved impacts” since, until only very recently, there were still no laws in the country that legally define an environmental liability.
On June 13, 2023, Colombia’s Senate approved a bill that establishes the definition of an “environmental liability” and also establishes guidelines for managing these liabilities. A week later, after the final text was completed, the bill was sent for final approval to President Gustavo Petro.
So which companies have abandoned this toxic waste? Despite the magnitude of the problem, authorities only provided us with the names of those responsible for less than one-third of the identified liabilities, and only about 5% of what this article calls “oil-related impacts.” Our alliance of journalists carried out a geospatial plot of this toxic waste in at least 50 Indigenous territories and 15 protected areas. We also reconstructed the trajectory of the pipelines that transport the oil, a web of metal that has cut across more than 200 protected areas, where sections of pipeline have often collapsed.
What are the environmental impacts from the more than 8,000 liabilities and other oil-related impacts scattered throughout Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru?
Image: Environmental liabilities and other oil-related impacts. There are a total of 8,278 environmental liabilities and other oil-related impacts in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, distributed as follows. Hover over each country for details. Sources:
Peru: Environmental Evaluation and Enforcement Agency (OEFA), Ministry of Energy and Mines, Profonanpe. Colombia: National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA). Ecuador: Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE). Bolivia: Ministry of Environment and Water (MMAyA).
An endless list of environmental damages
For this investigation, we sent a total of 10 requests for information to the governments of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. We received only five responses, despite continuously attempting to obtain the names of the companies responsible and to clarify incomplete data. Each responses we received took two to three months from the time we submitted the request.
This investigation managed to classify 4,284 environmental liabilities distributed between Peru (3,170), Ecuador (1,107) and Bolivia (seven). In Bolivia, all were located within natural protected areas. An analysis of the information submitted by the authorities allowed us to detect another 3,994 “oil-related impacts,” which are not classified as liabilities, with troubling implications. Ecuador reported having 3,568 abandoned oil wells, which are considered oil-related impacts. Peru (171), Colombia (161) and Bolivia (94) were also affected. These oil-related impacts fit the definition of environmental liabilities, according to several experts and the legal definitions of each country. The key criteria to receive this classification are age, severity and abandonment. However, these impacts sometimes go by other names. The terms used are “sources of contamination” in Ecuador, “impacted sites” in Peru, “unresolved impacts” in Colombia, and “abandoned wells” in Bolivia. For this investigation, our team classified them as “oil-related impacts.”
Of the more than 8,000 points detected in the four countries, Ecuador has the most impacted places when accounting for environmental liabilities and “sources of contamination” recorded by the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE). There are 4,675 contaminated sites, including oil spills, trenches and oil pits. More than half are located in just two provinces in the Ecuadoran Amazon: Sucumbíos (with 2,776) and Orellana (1,646). According to information submitted by MAATE, Texaco (bought by Chevron in 2001) left 714 buried oil pits that have begun to emerge over the years. There are also 374 sites contaminated by effluent or spills, and another 19 are trenches, according to the database prepared by Mongabay Latam using information from MAATE.
Image: Environmental liabilities and other oil-related impacts in Ecuador. There are a total of 4,675 environmental liabilities and other oil-related impacts in Ecuador, distributed as follows. Hover over each province for details. Source: Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE).
“When they explored for oil, [Texaco] used to make open-air pits without putting any protection underneath. When they left the area, they left the pits open with large amounts of oil. When it rains enough, these fill up and begin to flow and they have a drain pipe toward the swamps, toward the estuaries,” said Juan Calva, a 52-year-old man who moved to the parish of San Carlos at age 7. San Carlos is in a canton called La Joya de los Sachas in Orellana province. Calva spoke with a team of journalists who traveled to this area to tell the story of the damage left by the one-time U.S. oil giant, now merged into Chevron, in the territory.
Although Orellana and Sucumbíos are two of the provinces that have suffered the biggest environmental damage, they’re not the only ones. According to MAATE, environmental liabilities and other “sources of contamination” from the oil industry can be found in 18 of Ecuador’s 24 provinces. Four of those provinces are in the Amazon.
“There is a very high level of contamination in the Ecuadoran Amazon and little information, monitoring and concern from the government regarding that. And the research that you have done shows the serious problem with the oil industry in this region,” said Kevin Koenig, director for climate, energy and extractive industry at Amazon Watch in Ecuador.
One striking fact is that the environmental authorities in Ecuador only submitted information about the companies responsible for the environmental liabilities, but not about those who caused the waste classified as “sources of contamination.” In the case of the environmental liabilities, MAATE named Texaco as the only party responsible. However, to determine which companies are behind the contamination, MAATE referred our team of journalists to the Ministry of Energy and Mines. As of the time of this article’s publication in Spanish, there was no response to our letter requesting a list of the companies responsible.
Ecuador is not unique in being a place where thousands of environmental impacts have accumulated and where a lack of transparency benefits the oil companies. In Peru, we recorded a total of 3,341 liabilities and “impacted sites,” the term the Peruvian government uses for other sources of contamination. This is according to date from the Ministry of Energy and Mines (regarding the liabilities) and Peru’s Environmental Evaluation and Enforcement Agency (OEFA) and the Environmental Fund of Peru (Profonanpe) (regarding the impacted sites).
In terms of the types of impact, neglected oil wells are at the top of the list, followed by contaminated soil, emissions and residue (or waste deposits). Many of these problems are present in more than one site at a time. In terms of geographic distribution, 95% of the environmental liabilities are concentrated in the region of Piura (with a total of 3,335), along the northern portion of Peru’s coast. The rest of the cases are distributed among eight other regions.
Image: Environmental liabilities and other oil-related impacts in Peru. There are a total of 3,341 environmental liabilities and other oil-related impacts in Peru, distributed as follows. Hover over each region for details. Sources: Environmental Evaluation and Enforcement Agency (OEFA), Ministry of Energy and Mines, Profonanpe.
However, the “impacted sites” warrant special attention, considering their magnitude and the fact that they’re all in the Amazon. OEFA confirmed the existence of 139 of these sites in four basins in Loreto and 32 additional sites in the same region that have been prioritized by the Peruvian government. These 32 prioritized sites are located in Block 192 and were selected by the Board of Administration for the Contingency Fund for Environmental Remediation (now known as Profonanpe) while taking into account the severity of the damage, among other criteria.
“We are only talking about four basins in Loreto, but there are more sites impacted by oil — not just in Loreto. So the situation is serious,” said Flor Blanco, the environmental liabilities program manager at Profonanpe.
Natanael Sandi, an Indigenous monitor from the community of José Olaya, is a firsthand witness to the toxic history of Block 192. “The problem is that the pipelines were never fixed, never repaired, and then we have those spills every so often … At times, we have covered the spills with dirt; we’ve gathered the dirt using hoes, so that it does not continue, and stayed that way,” Sandi told journalists who traveled to the Amazonian district of Trompeteros. One of the rehabilitation plans designed to remedy the contamination that Sandi monitors contains a long list of toxic heavy metals identified at a single site: arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, manganese, nickel and lead.
There have been more than 50 years of contamination in the Achuar, Quechua and Kichwa Indigenous communities living around the basins of the Pastaza, Corrientes, Tigre and Marañón rivers in the Peruvian Amazon. These communities, including the community of José Olaya, have been living alongside oil-related activity since 1971, when Block 192, which was then known as Block 1-AB, was created. In that entire time, three companies — Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Pluspetrol Norte S.A. and Frontera Energy — have been extracting oil from these territories. And to date, none have repaired the damage caused by their hundreds of reported oil spills. In addition, a recent arbitration hearing that found in favor of Pluspetrol Norte S.A., which has declared bankruptcy, could put these repairs on hold.
In an email, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, also known as Oxy, said that “the legal issue was resolved in 2000, when Oxy transferred its involvement in Block 1-AB to the Argentinian oil company Pluspetrol with the approval of the Peruvian government. As part of that transfer, Pluspetrol took over all of the obligations of Block 1-AB.” In the email, Occidental Petroleum Corporation also indicated that it doesn’t have “knowledge of credible data that indicate negative impacts on the health of the community as a result of Oxy’s operations.”
In the case of Peru, the most serious issue is that the long-awaited remediation process is advancing very slowly. According to Profonanpe, of the 32 sites that have been prioritized, 30 have a rehabilitation plan. Only 15 of those plans have been approved: 12 in the Corrientes River Basin, two in the Pastaza River Basin and one in the Tigre River Basin. “In the case of Block 192 alone, it has been calculated that the remediation would cost the Peruvian government 5 billion soles [$1.35 billion],” said Miguel Lévano, the territorial rights and extractive industries program officer for Oxfam in Peru, citing calculations by Profonanpe.
Blanco, the Profonanpe official, told Mongabay Latam that each remediation plan costs between 1.2 million and 1.5 million soles ($324,000 and $405,000), depending on the size of the site. According to Blanco, the cost of the detailed engineering, the next step after a plan is concluded, has yet to be defined. In terms of the costs of remediation, Blanco said that “between 30 and 100 million soles [$8.1 million and $27 million] are required for each site.”
Lévano said it’s necessary to promote a dialogue between the supervisory entities to analyze ways to fill the gaps in the laws and institutions, as well as the gaps in which the companies’ responsibilities have not been identified. “It is not possible that Pluspetrol, almost eight years after leaving the [oil] block, with no environmental management tool for Block 192, has not begun the remediation, refuses to acknowledge it, and says that there are fewer than only 100 impacted areas when the Indigenous monitors identified about 2,000,” Lévano said.
Our team encountered much greater lack of transparency in Peru than in Ecuador in regard to attempting to access the list of companies behind the environmental damage. Although Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines did not provide the names of the companies that are believed to be responsible for the environmental liabilities, OEFA said that “it has been scheduled for 2023 to identify those responsible for the impacted sites [that were] prioritized by Profonanpe.”
From unresolved impacts to abandoned oil wells
“I believe that there is an ethical issue, because the international companies that develop this activity have double standards,” said Mauricio Cabrera, a government relations and international relations adviser to WWF in Colombia. “They have different criteria when they operate in a country with greater institutionality, greater lobbying capacity and clearer laws — which, curiously enough, are their own countries — compared to their operations in the rest of the world, where you do not find very robust institutions. And they only manage the environmental impacts when lawsuits are presented and when they are subjected to social pressure.”
Colombia is considered to have only 161 unresolved impacts (“impactos no resueltos,” or INR, in Spanish), the term the country uses for environmental damage caused by the oil industry. According to information provided by Colombia’s National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA), 124 of them are attributed to state-owned company Ecopetrol S.A. and 37 to Mansarovar Energy Colombia LTD. The departments included in the database are Boyacá (109), Santander (50), Antioquia (one) and Putumayo (one), but the data don’t specify the characteristics or the severity of the damage.
Image: Other oil-related impacts in Colombia. There are a total of 161 other oil-related impacts in Colombia, distributed as follows. Hover over each department for details. Source: National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA).
Armando Sarmiento, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Territory from the School of Environmental Studies at Javeriana University, said it’s important not to lose sight of “the attacks by the insurgent groups [which] have been the cause of the greatest number of spills along the pipelines in Colombia.” He said the environmental impacts of these attacks were evident, especially in bodies of water and in the effects on biodiversity.
To understand the damage caused by two of the companies behind the 161 unresolved oil-related impacts, since the authorities did not provide that information, two teams of journalists traveled to the departments of Antioquia and Boyacá.
On two farms, Los Naranjitos and Brisas de la Tarde, in Yondó, Antioquia, in northeastern Colombia, a family of cattle ranchers has spent more than 10 years demanding that the Colombian government clean up an oil spill reported on their land that eventually killed all their animals. On our team’s journey through their territory, there was a constant smell of chemicals and crude oil stains glistening in the mud. The Fonce family initiated a legal battle in 2013. One of their family members died along the way, and to this day, they have not managed to get Ecopetrol, the company they allege is responsible, to take remedial action. The case is being investigated by the ANLA.
Several kilometers from Yondó, in Campo Velásquez in the municipality of Puerto Boyacá, a giant body of water called Ciénaga de Palagua, in addition to several other properties, has become a silent victim of an oil operation that has left 37 sites contaminated, according to information provided by ANLA. Since 1946, three companies have operated in the area: Texas Petroleum Company, Omimex (of Colombia) and, currently, Mansarovar Energy. The team of journalists who traveled to the area gathered testimonies from fishers, ranchers and authorities from Puerto Boyacá. Many of them have filed legal complaints regarding the oil industry’s effects on the region’s ecosystems and waters.
“We communicated with the company, but at that time, they had staff that could go and check,” said Giovanny Bermúdez, owner of El Jordán, one of the ranches affected by the contamination. “They took some samples and said that there was indeed contamination, but they never returned or gave us a response. Mansarovar has always been aware of that situation.”
The damage to nature and to Indigenous communities is more evident in Bolivia. To understand the impacts of the oil industry on this country, we need to go back to 1921, when Standard Oil arrived and began operating on land that is now Aguaragüe National Park and Integrated Management Natural Area. Today, 102 years later, this operation, which is now in the hands of state-owned company YPFB, is one of the most dramatic cases of contamination in the country. According to Bolivia’s Ministry of Environment and Water (MMAyA), a total of 17 abandoned oil wells affect the national park and the Indigenous communities that live in its forests. This is in addition to the risk of future gas exploitation in the area.
In Bolivia, the companies responsible for the oil contamination are YPFB, Standard Oil and Petrobras (from Brazil), according to information from the official MMAyA website. Seven environmental liabilities and 94 abandoned wells, which were all reported on the official portal of Bolivia’s National System for Environmental Information (SNIA), have been attributed to these companies. Most of these environmental impacts are inside Aguaragüe National Park, so a team of journalists from our alliance traveled there.
Image: Environmental liabilities and other oil-related impacts in Bolivia. There are a total of 101 environmental liabilities and other oil-related impacts in Bolivia, distributed as follows. Hover over each department for details. Source: Ministry of Environment and Water (MMAyA).
In Carrasco National Park, in Bolivia’s Cochabamba department, an environmental liability there has been described as an “excavation [that] was found completely covered with water, which was a dark color, and a clear odor of oil in the environment.” Another four abandoned oil wells have also been identified within this protected area, inside Bulo Bulo Field.
Despite this, Bolivia is still focused on expanding oil exploration in its territory. “Right now, there is a vision of searching for oil in the Amazon; many of those places are located in protected areas,” said Jorge Campanini, a researcher with the Bolivian Documentation and Information Center (CEDIB). “Additionally, [operations in] old oil fields are being resumed, like the case of Tariquía.”
At a public accountability hearing in 2022, Franklin Molina Ortiz, the minister of oil and energy, gave a presentation on the progress of YPFB’s oil exploration plan, which included seven new sites. He also showed the six oil contracts that had been managed during 2021; five of them had already been approved by parliament. “YPFB has signed those contracts and promises an investment that exceeds $1.5 billion,” Molina said.
In April 2023, Molina made a new statement on the oil exploration and drilling projects that Bolivia had scheduled for this year. He referenced 18 oil and gas projects, of which 11 are the responsibility of the state-owned company YPFB.
“It worries us that this development is still occurring, and especially in intact places,” said Bart Wickel, the science and research director of Earth Insight, an organization dedicated to monitoring threats facing the land and water sources upon which Indigenous and other local communities depend. “The case of the oil development experiences in Ecuador and in Peru, but also in other places, illustrates [for] us the impacts of this industry in a very complex and unsettling way.”
Wickel also noted that the oil industry, in particular, is marked by a lack of transparency in its plans, its development and its effects. “It is not transparent about the impacts. The hope is that each time it will be better than when there were spills in the past. With new technology and methods, it is believed that there will never be any more, but obviously in reality, the result is that we continue having the same problems,” Wickel said.
Why so many names for the same problem?
In all four countries, the governments have made distinctions between environmental liabilities and other similar effects. A document provided by MAATE defines environmental liabilities in Ecuador, for example, as damages that haven’t been repaired or that have been dealt with in an incomplete manner. The document defines all activity that contains, emits, or disperses contaminants in a certain area as a “source of contamination.” The difference isn’t clear, but this is how the environmental authority divides cases between oil-related environmental liabilities by Chevron-Texaco (which totaled 1,107) and other sources of contamination from the oil industry (3,568).
Koenig, from Amazon Watch, said that in 1972, Texaco tried to define which types of spills or forms of contamination the company should report. Koenig said that now, more than 50 years later, the same logic exists, because the government still tries to classify the types of damage. “If they say that all the [things] that Texaco did are liabilities and everything else is in another category, it seems to me that they are trying to ‘cover the sun with a finger’; that is, they are trying to avoid their responsibility and legal and criminal culpability for the fact that, to this day, that type of contamination still continues,” Koenig said.
This same dichotomy plays out in Peru, in this case between “environmental liabilities” and “impacted sites.” The term “environmental liabilities” refers to neglected oil wells and facilities, contaminated soil, effluents, emissions and waste deposits that are consequences of oil-related activity by companies that have ceased their operations. The term “impacted sites” refers to a geographic area that has been negatively altered by the presence of neglected oil wells and facilities, effluents, spills, solid residue, emissions, remnants and waste deposits. “Impacted sites” also include contaminated soil, subsoil and bodies of water.
Vladimir Pinto, the Peru field coordinator for Amazon Watch, said these differences are part of an administrative legal topic that came to light when Block 192 was still known as Block 1-AB. According to Pinto, at that time, when Pluspetrol Norte S.A. was still in operation, the government recorded the contaminated sites and a terminology problem arose. Because there hadn’t been adequate monitoring, no one knew which liabilities resulted from the previous stage and which were the responsibility of the company. So they decided to create a new term while retaining the old term for the impacted sites.
“For many years, environmental damage was accumulating but was not adequately recorded, and since the companies also exercise territorial control over those areas, they limit other people’s access, so little is known. So it was very easy to hide some of the damage and not record it in time,” Pinto said.
In Colombia, the process is more complex. “I do not know of any study that has identified abandoned oil production areas and has quantified the impact and the environmental effects they have had,” said Sarmiento, the expert from Javeriana University. “The Colombian authorities have barely begun to address that problem and be able to define, from a legal point of view, what liabilities are. It is an issue that we are still looking into.”
However, in the case of Bolivia, the oil wells, pipelines and transport equipment or oil infrastructure “are referred to as liabilities,” Campanini said. He added that “Bolivian laws recognize the infrastructure of the wells and everything left by oil [industry] activity as liabilities.” However, when Mongabay Latam and El Deber made a request for information from Bolivia’s Ministry of Environment and Water, its response included two terms: “environmental liabilities” and “abandoned wells.”
Beyond these classifications, which are the subjects of debate in countries like Colombia, the solutions for the thousands of contaminated sites have failed to take shape. According to information sent to us by environmental authorities, of the more than 8,000 liabilities and sources of contamination reported by the four countries, only 1,852 have been remedied: 1,838 in Colombia and 14 in Bolivia. In Peru, there are 15 approved plans, but still no start date for the remediation process. In Ecuador, more than 4,000 contaminated sites remain.
To date, taking into account each of the sites that have been identified in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, a total of 6,371 contaminated places still need to be remedied. This figure grows with each new abandoned oil spill. However, the difficulty in identifying those responsible is aggravating the situation.
“What has occurred historically is that there is a sale of companies, and this begins to complicate the possible assignment of management responsibilities and requirements because the responsibility becomes diluted over time,” said Cabrera, the WWF Colombia adviser. “So the government — whether it is Ecuadoran, Colombian or any of our countries — ends up with gigantic legal fatigue because a lot of time has passed [between] the damage occurring and the time that they begin to ask that it be managed properly.”
Our alliance contacted government institutions in each country to determine whether any remediation plans are in progress and whether fines are being imposed on the companies for failing to resolve their environmental damage to ecosystems and protected territories. We received no responses by the time of this article’s original publication in Spanish.
In which territories are these liabilities and sources of contamination located? Which groups of people are most affected? Read about it here.
Banner image: An illustrated graphic of oil infrastructure. Image by Daniel Nicolalde/Cuestión Pública.
“The Oil Debt” is a cross-border investigation coordinated by Mongabay Latam in alliance with Rutas del Conflicto and Cuestión Pública (Colombia), La Barra Espaciadora (Ecuador) and El Deber (Bolivia).
General editing: Alexa Vélez and María Isabel Torres.
Editors: Thelma Gómez and David Tarazona.
Journalism collaboration: Vanessa Romo Espinoza.
Research and database analysis: Gabriela Quevedo, Vanessa Romo and Cristina Fernández.
Geospatial analysis: Juan Julca.
Journalism team: Gloria Alvitres, Cristina Fernández, Yvette Sierra, Vanessa Romo and Alexa Vélez (Mongabay Latam); Andrea Rincón and Edier Buitrago (Cuestión Pública in Colombia); Pilar Puentes, Catalina Sanabria, Gina Santisteban and Óscar Parra (Rutas del Conflicto of Colombia); Diego Cazar Baquero and Ana Cristina Alvarado (La Barra Espaciadora of Ecuador); Nelfi Fernández and Iván Paredes (El Deber of Bolivia).
Montage and style correction: Mayra Castillo.
Data visualization and design: Jhonatan Leal.
Audiovisual production: Richard Romero.
Photography and videos: Miguel Surubí (Bolivia); Armando Prado and Armando Lara (Ecuador); Juan Carlos Contreras and Felipe Tayca (Colombia); Patrick Wesember (Peru).
Illustration and graphic design: Fernando Pano, Richard Romero, Laura Sofía Polanco and Heidi González.
Audiences and social networks: Dalia Medina, Richard Romero, Jonathan Venegas, Nathalia Gómez, Paola Téllez and Soluciones Soft.