FRANCISCO DE ORELLANA, Ecuador – The Coca River’s chocolaty color and collapsed banks are a reflection of an incident that for many indigenous populations has been a historical divide, splitting their way of life and livelihood into before and after.
It happened on April 7 when, at about 80 kilometers (50 miles) upstream, near the slopes of the Reventador volcano, three conduits of two pipelines that go from the Amazon to the Ecuadorian coast ruptured due to a landslide in a highly seismic region.
It only took a little while for the crude oil to go downstream into the Amazonian provinces of Sucumbios and Orellana to reach Napo, where it was equally lucky.
“We were fixing the canoe when we saw the crude oil and took it. There was a lot in that backwater, it came to remain with us,” Camilo Padilla, 63, and neighbor of the Amarumesa commune, located on the banks of the river, told EFE on Monday.
Next to Padilla was a bowl filled with oil, which now, almost five months later, resembles a sticky tar that is difficult to move, despite attempts by locals to stir it with a stick.
The population is located a short distance away from where the Coca River, one of the main tributaries of the Napo River, joins the later, just about 3 kilometers from the capital of the province of Orellana, known colloquially as Coca.
Padilla, a father of 10, lamented that since the spill, fishing has been scarce, they cannot bathe in the river for fear of getting skin irritation and are forced to collect rainwater.
“Now we can’t fish, the fish smells like oil, nor wash our clothes, nor bathe,” he said.
One of his children can fish in the Payamino River, another tributary of the Napo River, which escaped getting polluted. And some neighbors who have wells offer them water when the rainwater runs out.
The oil companies offered them drums of oil and food packages during the first three months after the spill, but Padilla said they had since forgotten those affected.
There are landslides along the banks of the river and the inhabitants of the region, who usually move on it in canoes with outboard motors, speak about an increase in the flow of Coca and Napo as compared to previous years, and not necessarily caused by floods in rainy seasons, but by the collapse of a waterfall upstream due to the blockade of sediments caused by a hydroelectric plant.
As a result, the rivers have encroached on the beaches and eaten away the walls where numerous fallen logs are stacked, a product, according to the locals, of the spill.
In Orellana, at least 100 people, mainly members of the affected populations, marched on the main streets on Monday to demand justice for what they claim is the biggest spill in 15 years.
“When they polluted the Coca River, they polluted us too,” Veronica Grefa, president of the Toyuca community along the river, told EFE.
She spoke about the ancestral importance of the river and said that April’s oil spill was the third in the area.
“This is happening in the Ecuadorian Amazon and the government has not responded. We are alone,” she added.
She also demanded that the environmental and social impact be urgently remedied, beyond cosmetic measures, by oil companies, one of which is state-owned.
“We have received crumbs and they’re going to justify that they have taken good care of us,” she warned.
The president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Marlon Vargas, present at the demonstration and then at an “ethical” court on the consequences of the spill, estimates that more than 200 communities have been affected.
“We demand full reparation and, above all, that the oil and hydroelectric frontier, which does a great deal of damage to the Ecuadorian Amazon, should be respected and not extended,” he said.
“More than 27,000 indigenous people have been condemned to survive without clean water, safe food and in precarious health conditions,” said Maria Espinosa, legal coordinator of Amazon Frontlines, which comprises of civil and religious organizations that filed a class-action lawsuit at the end of April.
Executives of the Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline System, the Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline (OCP), and the Shushufindi-Quito Poly-duct have said that they closed the pipes as soon as they came to know that they had ruptured and that the spillage was of the remaining fuel from the valves.
The lawsuit concerns OCP and the national oil company of Ecuador, Petroecuador, as well as the ministries of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, Environment, and Public Health.
The lawyer lamented that the country’s legal system has taken more than 100 days to make a ruling, which is expected to be read on Tuesday in Orellana.