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Ecuador’s oil demons

By Daniel Grossman Quito, Ecuador–The Deepwater Horizon accident reminds us that oil drilling is dirty business. Ecuadorans know this fact. They’ve lived off, and with, oil for more than three decades. For many Ecuadorans, oil promised riches but delivered ruin. Along with great wealth, for a few, it stimulated political vice and the noxious excretions....

By Daniel Grossman

Quito, Ecuador–The Deepwater Horizon accident reminds us that oil drilling is dirty business.

Ecuadorans know this fact. They’ve lived off, and with, oil for more than three decades. For many Ecuadorans, oil promised riches but delivered ruin. Along with great wealth, for a few, it stimulated political vice and the noxious excretions.

Outsiders rarely glimpse the dark side of oil. But I traveled recently to Ecuador’s Amazonian lowlands, driving through cleared rain forest, flying to a bumpy landing strip, and squatting on the damp floor of a dugout canoe.

My local friends pointed to the obvious evidence that this small nation has paid exorbitantly for its membership among oil-producing nations. They also showed me evidence of hope that Ecuadorans might tame their oil demon.

I learned in school that Ecuador straddles both the Equator and the Andes, the Pacific to the west and the Amazon Basin to the east. Barely the size of Nevada, the South American nation is a gilded jewelry box of treasures.

ecuador-map.jpgDarwin nailed down his theory of natural selection in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, a menagerie of unusual animals.

The volcano Cotopaxi, the place on our bulging Earth farthest from the core, is decorated with a glacial shroud shining round the summit. About once a decade the 20,000-foot-high cone burps lava and gas.

A few acres of the virgin forest in Ecuador’s Amazon headwaters, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, nurtures more types of trees, frogs and toads, and bats than all of the continental United States and Canada. [New Species Photos: Slug-Sucking Snake, Mini-Gecko, More]

But since Ecuador started pumping oil, the Amazon lowlands sparkle less brightly.

Banana Republic

Long ago, cynics coined the term Banana Republic for some Central American countries, like Honduras. In many ways the epithet applies to Ecuador today. Ecuador grows and exports the world’s largest crop of the smooth yellow fruit. Moreover, until Ecuadorans elected president Rafael Correa–an enthusiastic America-basher–by a landslide, the country’s leaders served Washington and U.S. business interests faithfully.

Though Ecuador produces bananas on coastal plains and pumps oil far off in Amazon lowlands, well drilling and plantation growing have much in common: both, for example, lack effective regulation and both pose threats to Ecuador’s environment and people.

I set out to see Ecuador’s oil industry by flying from the highland capitol Quito–where petrodollars fuel half of the government–to Amazonia’s wellheads.

My flight to Ecuador’s eastern lowlands passed over rectangular African palm plantations hewed from jungle. Industrial growers planted these green food mills–many snack foods contain palm oil to stay solid at room temperature–in pleasing geometric patterns with thousands of genetically identical trees.

The enforced uniformity contrasted starkly with the chaotic canopy, I would soon see, in nearby virgin forests. There, 600 different kinds of trees grow in a single hectare, the size of two football fields. I would wander in such a forest for hours. My guide said we rarely saw the same tree type twice.

The scale, uniformity and graph-paper precision of palm farms intimated even more invasive industries deeper into Amazonia.

Ecuador’s oilmen built Coca, my first stop, at the confluence of the Coca and Napo Rivers. Coca adopted a black drop of crude oil for its mascot, a symbol that still adorns an arena there.

A message board at the Hotel Auca says Sala 2: Bienvenidos a Halliburton. Like many American oil-industry service companies, the Houston-based Halliburton Corporation has its own gated compound on the outskirts of Coca.

Americans are tied to Ecuador’s oil fields in another way: they buy most of the country’s oil.


I’d consulted a map of Ecuador’s oil deposits before I’d left Quito. They blanket a swath of current and former rain forest roughly the size of Ohio.

Donald Moncayo, a former farmer-turned-activist, offered to give me a “toxic tour” of the region, including sites he says were once operated by Texaco.


Donald Moncayo leads “toxic tours,” seeking justice for his country and his family.

Photo by Daniel Grossman

A coalition of 30,000 indigenous people is suing Chevron–which merged with Texaco (pronounced “teck-ZAH-co in Spanish)–in Ecuadoran courts. The plaintiffs say Texaco dumped billions of gallons of poisonous oil by-products in open pits, polluting the land and its waterways. They want cleanup costs and compensation for cancer and other illnesses they suffer.

Texaco, I later learned, does not deny the land is soiled. But it says the company did nothing wrong.

Donald, son of a settler, farms part time and contributes to “the fight” against Texaco by leading tours of the oil industry’s dirty laundry. His father died in a brawl when he was eight. He says he lost his dad because too much oil money bought too much drink. His mother died several years later, poisoned, he believes, by polluted water. He had two younger brothers each of whom died before turning one. His sister had a brain tumor. “That’s my life,” he says. He’s expecting a baby girl soon, and says, “I don’t want her to grow up as I did.”

Donald’s tour follows winding gravel roads, past dense green vegetation. The thick growth looks like virgin jungle to an untrained observer. But Donald says it’s what grew back after colonists–often one step behind oil-industry road builders–hacked back the original forest.

A banana tree was planted here, a papaya sapling there and plenty of weeds grow in between. Pitted black pipes, side by side like dirty pencils, also run alongside these roadways. Some of these oil lines are too hot to touch. Farmers use them to dry laundry.

Pipelines-photo.jpgOil wells perforate Ecuador’s industrialized lowlands. Racks of pipes, some too hot to touch, line the roads.

Photo by Daniel Grossman

Donald says that when he was a kid oil company trucks made the roads dangerous for pedestrians, so he walked on the pipes to school. This plumbing hooks hundreds of wells that perforate the ground with pumping, processing and storage sites in scores of forest clearings.

Different pipes carry fluids in different directions. Some pipes take oil from wells; others send dirty water removed from raw oil in processing plants back to wells–to be injected underground.

Thousands of oilmen tend this industrialized jungle round the clock. At one intersection a crew of workers wearing yellow hard hats drags one new pipe section into alignment with another. Waiting welders will soon secure the two ends together. Elsewhere, a man in a climbing harness secures electric lines to a pylon.

Even in Ecuador’s Yasuni rainforest, despite its status as a National Park of Ecuador and a Biosphere Reserve of the United Nations, crews keep equipment running nonstop. When the weather is right, the park’s Tiputini Research Station, 20 miles from the nearest road, reverberates with the bass rumble of an oil-company power plant.

Yasuni-Forest-photo.jpgEcuador’s Yasuni Park has an immense diversity of species.

Photo by Daniel Grossman

Donald parks his pickup truck in a clearing and beckons me to follow him on an overgrown footpath. He pulls on a pair of latex gloves and gingerly steps down a low bank. He perches precariously on a log in what looks like a marsh. Stooping down theatrically, he plunges his protected hands wrist-deep into the soft surface. When he extracts them, they sparkle with a black syrupy liquid that smells of fresh asphalt.

He says Texaco dumped wastewater here, and in hundreds of sites like it, decades ago. Every time it rains, polluted liquid overflows the banks and soils a nearby stream.

He says some land like this has been sold to unsuspecting buyers for home lots.

Before leaving, Donald removes the soiled gloves, taking care not to let their smelly coating touch his skin. He tosses them into the waste pit.


In his book Maldición de la Abundancia (The Curse of Plenty), Ecuadoran economist Alberto Acosta argues that having abundant natural resources is a mixed blessing. He says that most people in resource-rich countries wallow in poverty. Their leaders are often dictators, who trample human rights and ravish the environment.

Acosta explains that nations that focus to excess on mining geological capital, neglect to cultivate human capital.

In his Quito office, he told me that Ecuador is such a country. He said Ecuador pumped 4.5 billion barrels of oil worth U.S.$130 billion and still suffers the problems of nations with far fewer endowments. The oil “didn’t contribute to the national development.”

Drilling conundrum

President Correa appointed Acosta Minister of Energy in 2007. Later, before Acosta left this post to head the country’s legislative assembly, he announced one dramatic plan in defiance of the curse of plenty: a proposal to permanently ban oil drilling in a large section of the Yasuni National Park.

The region in the plan, known as the ITT Block, has nearly a billion barrels of oil under it, 20 percent of Ecuador’s known remaining reserves.

Acosta asked nations of the world to contribute about $3 billion–half the value of the oil–in exchange for which Ecuador would permanently preserve the region’s biologically rich forest and keep billions of tons of carbon dioxide–that would be produced if the oil was burned–from ever getting into the atmosphere.

Spain, German, France and Belgium soon pledged almost half the total. But the plan has not fared well. Nobody seems to know if the president really wants to save the forest or would rather drill. Three high government officials, including the Foreign Minister, recently resigned over President Correa’s vacillations.


In 1969, when Alberto Acosta was young, he traveled to Lago Agrio–then the Ecuador’s rustic oil capital–to celebrate the country’s first successful well. Texaco hosted the event, presided over by President Jose Maria Velasco, in an aircraft hanger.

Officials boasted that this vast jungle enterprise of steel and oil commanded more helicopters than anywhere outside Vietnam and Cambodia. Waiters served fine food and drink on white tablecloths, flown in from the capital’s best hotel, the Hotel Quito.

Acosta recalls marveling at a huge tank of water above the guests. There, engulfed in bubbles, geese carved from dry ice swam frenetically in mist exuded from their bodies. “It was the idea of progress that they sold us. ‘Progress will arrive in the Amazon. And Ecuador will open the door of progress with oil.'”

About three years later, in 1972, Ecuador built the first oil pipeline over the Andes, from the Amazon to the Pacific coast. This engineering feat made the country South America’s second largest oil supplier.

Acosta said crowds that celebrated this event were delirious. They baptized themselves with the thick, black crude. Officials squirted the pipeline’s first gushes into a wooden barrel earmarked for Quito. There, atop a military tank (by then President Velasco had been deposed by a general), Ecuador’s senior officers paraded in military regalia amidst cheering crowds.

Military men still venerate the First Barrel, though with more reserve, in Quito’s Temple of the Heroes, a stone mausoleum on the campus of the Military College. The Temple is locked, but visitors who seek the honey-colored barrel (and who obtain the blessings of the rector of the school to do so) will encounter it in a corner on a simple wooden stand, like a keg of moonshine.

Museum-Director-photo.jpgPatricia Villagómez, director of the Temple of the Heros, of Ecuador’s Military College, shows off the country’s First Barrel, a keg containing some of the first oil shipped in a pipeline from the Amazon to the Pacific, across the Andes.

Photo by Daniel Grossman

Patricia Villagómez, director of the temple, says each time he scrubs the floor the building’s janitor shoves the barrel out of sight. “He says that oil only made more wealthy those who were already rich,” says the director, cheerfully. “And that he never got even a drop.” Every time, though, the director returns the symbol of the country’s oil to its place of honor.

Alberto Acosta loaned me a DVD of a movie showing the 1972 pipeline celebration. My last night in Ecuador, I took the movie to Lucia, a translator who had joined me on Donald’s toxic tour. Like all educated Ecuadorans, she had been aware of the Texaco lawsuit; but seeing the polluted land horrified and outraged her.

I slipped the disk in her player and turned it on. To me, the black-and-white news report, shot about the same time Lucia was born, was darkly humorous: the breathless newsreel prose; the inflated, never-to-be fulfilled promises of prosperity. But when I looked over, Lucia (not her real name, for privacy) was quietly weeping. “They were so optimistic,” she said through the tears.

Daniel Grossman’s reporting in Bolivia was supported in  part with grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Whole Systems Foundation.

Daniel  Grossman.jpgDaniel Grossman has been a print journalist and radio and web producer for 20 years. He has produced radio stories and documentaries on science and the environment for National Public Radio’s show Weekend Edition; Public Radio International’s show on the environment, Living on Earth, and news magazine, The World. He has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, Audubon and Scientific American.

Read more posts by Daniel Grossman

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn