Letter From Ecuador
A drive along the Via Auca helps explain why. Built and named in the early 1970s by the California oil giant Texaco, then the dominant oil company operating in Ecuador, the Via Auca, or "Road of Savages," is responsible for the first incursions by oil companies into traditional indigenous life. Stretching from Coca--a crumbling city of tin-roofed shacks, sleazy nightclubs and burly oil workers--it cuts deep into what just thirty years ago was pristine Amazon rainforest. Now spaghetti-like rows of exposed rusty pipelines snake along the road and across the doorsteps of the shacks of colonos, as the settlers who work for the oil companies are called. Drilling stations, gas flares, military camps and strip clubs line the oil-slicked blacktop, which is crowded with Caterpillar tractors, Halliburton trucks and diesel-spewing Petrolera buses, which shuttle oil workers from Coca and back. Just off the road behind the pumping stations, lakes of viscous black waste sink into unlined pits.
The widespread oil contamination in the northern Oriente, as this rainforest region east of the Andes is known, is the subject of a twelve-year long lawsuit against Texaco (now merged into Chevron). Over the course of about twenty years, Texaco dumped some 18 billion gallons of oil and toxic waste into Ecuador's lakes and streams, contaminating groundwater, rivers and fisheries and causing hundreds of Ecuadorians to die of strange cancers, according to the plaintiffs. Their lawyers and scientific experts insist it's the worst oil-related contamination in the world today--thirty times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. Texaco, which denies any link between oil exposure and health problems, claims it followed standard industry practices of the time and that Ecuador's government, to which it sold its interests in the late 1980s, is responsible for any problems today. Originally filed in New York, the case was transferred to Ecuador and is now in trial. Although much of the emerging evidence supports the plaintiffs' claims, Chevron has vowed that if it loses, it will demand in arbitration that the government cover all costs.
But regardless of the legal outcome, what's happened to this once-spectacular area--renowned as one of the most biodiverse places in the world--has transformed this country's national consciousness. For many Ecuadorians, especially the poor and indigenous, oil is now seen as a weapon of the powerful--a corrupt government working with foreign companies and international financial institutions--wielded at their expense. And while the failure of oil income to help the poor is nothing new in the developing world, the reaction to that failure in Ecuador--and, increasingly, across Latin America--is.
From North to South, indigenous communities who live in the Ecuadorian rainforest are refusing to allow oil companies to operate on their land. Although years ago some signed long-term oil-exploration contracts they can't go back on, the growing resistance has left this ecological land of plenty a landscape of striking contrasts.
At the rusty metal bridge where the Via Auca intersects with the Shiripuno River, I met Moi Enomenga, a Huaorani Indian with long black hair, dressed in beads and boxer shorts. A charismatic 40-year-old who's alternately playful and warriorlike, Moi, as he's generally known, has become a de facto spokesman for the Huaorani. Although he's spent most of his life in the rainforest, in recent years he's addressed the United Nations and other international organizations to press the indigenous cause.
Moi poled our dugout canoe upriver, and after four hours traveling through the thickening rainforest we arrived at Nenkepare, his family home. A ten-minute hike through tangled brush and towering trees brought us to a small clearing surrounded by a few simple houses of wood planks and thatched roofs. In a makeshift courtyard, Moi's parents sat by an open fire. His mother, the huge holes in her earlobes filled with large wood-and-feather earrings, stirred a pot of chiche, the homemade manioc beer that's a staple of the local diet. His father, whose leathery face and hound-dog eyes deceptively suggest a certain weariness, jumped up to greet us. Soon the village children streamed in, offering bracelets woven from reeds and leaves. Moi showed off his blowgun and the skeletal jaw of a wild pig he'd speared for dinner the day before.
Like many Huaorani upriver, Moi's family leads a centuries-old way of life completely dependent on an unspoiled rainforest. In the midst of an amazing array of wild birds, monkeys, insects and snakes, they live in hand-hewn huts, eat what they can find or kill with a blowgun in the forest and carry home in a basket woven on the spot from palm leaves. They cure their ills with the milk from trees and the ancient spells of shamans. While many of the Huaorani downriver abandoned these traditions after oil companies started building roads through their territory, others, like Moi's family, are holding on.