Indigenous communities from Amazon region getting ill from new oil pipeline

May 17, 1999 02:00 AM

Indigenous communities in the province of Napo, in the Amazon region of Ecuador, are suffering serious health problems they blame on pollution in the Misahualli River, caused by construction work on a new oil pipeline.
Community leaders say there has been an alarming increase in diarrhea among children, and the appearance of a widespread skin fungus has caused equal concern. Medical analyses confirmed that the illness stemmed from the consumption of water from the Misahualli.
According to one indigenous community leader, Martha Tupuy, the sick children lack medicine and she called for authorities to intervene in the pipeline project.
"The river is part of our lives. If we can't drink the river water, we have nowhere else to get it from," she affirmed.

The contamination is attributed to waste produced by the Argep company, the builder of the oil pipeline, which does not use adequate technology to protect the waters, according to environmentalists.
Last week, dozens of indigenous people gathered on a bridge to block the way of the company's workers and faced off against soldiers and police before being ejected. In another zone, women and children of the communities seized a bulldozer belonging to the company and held its operators hostage, without harming them.
The indigenous people want the company to halt construction and decontaminate the river before continuing with its work. In the meantime, they are asking for tanks to collect rainwater for daily consumption.
After the protests, a negotiation was arranged between the governor of Napo province, Edgar Santillan, indigenous leaders of the Ecuadorean Amazon and executives from the oil company.

Officials promised to comply with the request of the communities and indigenous leaders, who warned that, if the problem is not solved, they will take further action which would move the conflict to the rest of the Amazonian provinces of Ecuador.
Turquino Tapuy, a leader of the Federation of Indigenous Organisations of Napo, said that the damage caused by the oil industry "is not new." For that reason, "the communities do not have much confidence in the word of the representatives of these companies," he said.
The environmental group Ecological Action charged that "the oil activity in eastern Ecuador is destroying one of the zones with the greatest biodiversity on the planet and is seriously threatening the survival of many indigenous communities."
For 20 years, oil exploitation in the Amazon was carried out solely by the Texaco Petroleum Company and, later, by the state-owned Petroecuador and other foreign companies.
With the departure of Texaco, various indigenous Amazon peoples, backed by environmental organisations, filed a lawsuit in the United States against the company for damage to the ecosystem during the years in which it was exploiting oil in the region.
The plaintiffs showed that the company did not use the environmental protection technology commonly used at other sites in which oil is extracted, which caused contamination of rivers and damage to flora and fauna.
A succession of Ecuadorean governments, including the current administration of Jamil Mahuad, refused to support the legal action against Texaco and asked the U.S. courts to dismiss the case and transfer it to Ecuador.
In spite of this, the judicial process has gone ahead and environmentalists hope that, in the next few months, the U.S. courts may order the company to clean up the affected zones and compensate the indigenous communities.

Valerio Grefa, an indigenous Amazon deputy, noted that it is fundamental to take care of the communities affected by the petroleum contamination.
If not, he warned, there could be a health catastrophe.
"Besides the fact that there could be irreversible health problems, it is an attack on the symbols of our people, on their world, and when that happens, the only thing left is to fight them," said Grefa.

These days, another alarming development has occurred in the Ecuadorean Amazon. The pink dolphin, one of the rarest species in the region, is in danger of extinction.
The biologist Judith Denkinger, a specialist in pink dolphins, said that these animals could disappear if deforestation and contamination of the Cuyabeno, Aguarico and Lagrato Rivers, among others in which they take refuge, is not contained.
The discharge of petroleum in Shushufindi in 1993 contaminated the Aguarico River and caused the deaths of dozens of dolphins.
During the following six years, further dumping, coupled with deforestation, triggered the disappearance of most cetaceans, pushing them to the edge of extinction.
The dolphins that managed to survive the contamination continue to seek refuge in the most inaccessible rivers and lakes on the border between Peru and Ecuador, where Denkinger installed an observatory to study their behaviour.
With the signing of the peace accord between the two countries, a wider exploitation of the zone was announced, extending the threat of petroleum contamination to the last haven of the pink dolphin.
Denkinger said that if deforestation and oil contamination of the rivers are not stopped, a species that is unique in the world will disappear.
"It will be only an indigenous legend, according to which pink dolphins transformed themselves into men or women to find their mates in the riverside communities and, when they found them, returned with them to the river, where they would turn back into dolphins," the biologist commented.

For Salesian priest Juan Bottasso, who has lived in Amazon communities for more than 15 years, the oil has had a significant destructive impact on indigenous daily life.
"In ethnic eyes, there is no contradiction between rich and poor. The Indians of the Amazon are not poor, they live in a culture connected to nature, " explained Bottasso.
"In order to relate better with them and prevent their extermination, there must be respect for that vision, because to attack nature, as the oil companies have done, is to attack their way of life," he concluded.

Source: Inter Press Service via Newspage
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