“So far, so good,” said Ivonne Baki, secretary of state for the Yasuni Initiative and Ecuador’s former ambassador to the US, when I ask her how the project is going. “The world is watching. If this succeeds it may open a new era of conservation, if it fails, it will discourage developing countries from adopting bold climate measures.”
To see what could happen to Yasuni if the oil there is exploited, I travel to Lago Agrio, Texaco’s base camp in the 1970s and now an oil-rush town.
The great primary forests have long gone. Waves of settlers have moved in and Lago Agrio and the area around it is a social and ecological disaster zone, after the company allegedly spilled nearly 64.3 million liters of crude oil and dumped 75.7 billion liters of drilling wastewater between 1964 and 1990. Guerilla groups, drug traffickers and criminal gangs pour over the nearby Colombian border into what is now an industrialized landscape; pipelines snake within feet of houses; companies flare gas night and day from refineries; and the pollution, while far better than it was in the 1970s, continues to make the air hard to breathe.
I met with Luis Yanza, a local community leader who was 16 when his family moved to Lago Agrio from the pristine south of Ecuador.
“It was the wild west, just oil and prostitutes when it started,” he told me. “It was like going to hell. We would see huge smoke clouds — they used to spill the oil into pits and when they were full set fire to them. The water smelled of oil. We had an oil pipeline right by our house, which was close to the main Texaco camp, and we all had spots on our faces.”
Yanza is one of a number of residents who has spent 20 years suing Texaco (bought by Chevron in 2001) to clean up the forests through the Ecuadoran and US courts. Last year, the communities won US$18 billion damages, but Chevron has refused to pay, claiming corruption in the Ecuadoran courts.
My guide around the oil fields was Diego, a half-Huaorani, half-Kechwa man in his 40s. He is distraught at the changes he has seen in the past 30 years. There is little primary forest left and most of the land is farmed. Roads built though the forest by the oil companies have allowed in waves of settlers, farmers, timber companies and bushmeat hunters. New oil wells are still being drilled and villages that only a decade ago were little more than a few houses are now small towns with street lighting, parks, restaurants and shops.
We reached Shushufindi, a town of 30,000 where Texaco used to dump oil and which is now the site of a refinery, billowing black smoke and flames.
“Look, I remember this when it was forest. Now it’s wrecked. Even years ago the pollution was terrible — we used to swim in oil. Now, we can’t breathe because of the air pollution,” Diego said.
He did not want to stop the car for fear the refinery guards would try to arrest him.
Like many indigenous people in Ecuador, Diego was educated by evangelical missionaries from the American Summer Institute of Linguistics, who came in 1952 to “convert” the forest tribes and translate the Bible into their languages.
The military government gave them charge of all Huaorani health and education infrastructure, but it was later claimed that the missionaries were collaborating with the oil companies to pacify and then relocate the Indians out of the oil-rich forest. The institute was expelled from Ecuador in 1980 at the request of the indigenous peoples.