An oil spill in the time of coronavirus

A preventable oil spill in Ecuador’s Amazon region in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic puts Indigenous lives at risk.

Oil spill ecuador OP-ed photo
The estimated 15,800 barrels of oil spilled by two pipelines were accompanied by flash floods, extending the reach of the contamination. Amarunmesa, Orellana, Ecuadorian Amazon, 2020 [Telmo Ibarburu]

What should you do in case of a fire during a tornado? Leave the building or stay inside? Public safety drills generally prepare people for one disaster, not for two simultaneous ones that require opposing responses. But this is what Ecuador’s Indigenous people are facing today. As the country is struggling with a COVID-19 pandemic spiralling out of control, the Amazon region has been hit by one of the worst oil spills in decades.  

The overlap of two crises in one of the world’s most biodiverse hotspots has made a bad situation even worse. Amazonian peoples, whose “social-distancing” skills have been cruelly honed by centuries of Old World epidemics, have suddenly found that the water, fish, game and crops that would allow them to self-isolate in the forest, are contaminated by oil.  

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Ecuador extremely hard with a death toll among the highest in the world. But across the globe, no ethnic group has been more affected by COVID-19 than Indigenous peoples. The UN has called on countries to address the disproportionate impact of COVID on racialised groups. Amazonia rang early alarm bells for COVID-19. Members of the Kichwa people, one of the Indigenous groups most affected by COVID-19 in Ecuador, were self-isolating in their territories when crude oil started flowing down the river.   

On April 7, 2020, a landslide ruptured three pipelines along the Coca River, spilling at least 15,800 barrel of crude oil in a region long affected by a history of toxic dumping by the Chevron-Texaco Oil Company.

The oil spread downriver, first along the Coca River, then along the Napo, a tributary of the Amazon, eventually even reaching Peru, contaminating water, soils, plants and wildlife along the way. One morning, children came home from the river covered in oil, by the next, the fish caught in the river tasted of oil. This is Ecuador’s largest oil spill in 15 years, affecting 120,000 people during the pandemic’s peak. 

The rupture was foreseeable. The pipelines pass by the foot of the active Reventador Volcano in an area of great seismic activity where in 1987, an earthquake destroyed more than 40km of pipelines. But the government made the already unstable terrain even more dangerous when it built the Coca-Codo Sinclair hydroelectric dam in 2016.   

A pipedream from the 1970s, the dam was rejected outright as unfeasible because of the high volcanic activity in the region. But President Rafael Correa rekindled interest in the dam and eventually built an even bigger version of it. It was financed by China through loans to be repaid mostly in the form of oil and was mired in corruption scandals from the beginning.   

As predicted by environmental scientists, the dam unleashed a process of river fragmentation that aggravated soil instability by retaining sediments and provoking headward erosion. In a disaster foretold, erosion has quickly moved upriver.

The first serious warning came in February when the Cascada San Rafael, Ecuador’s tallest waterfall, suddenly disappeared after a massive landslide. But neither Ecuador’s national oil company Petroecuador, nor the public corporations that manage the pipelines reacted.  

When the pipelines ruptured, these entities failed to inform Indigenous communities. Nor did they offer meaningful medical care or environmental repair. What is more, the pipeline corporation reports providing the equivalent of only a glass of water per person per day, an insignificant amount compared with the recommended four gallons in times of COVID-19.

“We are hungry” is a common refrain in affected communities. With isolation in the forest now impossible and with inadequate relief supplies being brought in by people who might contaminate them, Indigenous peoples have become even more vulnerable to the coronavirus.  

In response, a diverse set of nearly 40 actors is suing Ecuador’s government. Individuals, Indigenous organisations and NGOs are demanding protective legal action that includes immediate environmental and social reparations. In an unholy alliance, the state-owned oil and pipeline companies share the bench of the accused with the Ministries of Health and the Environment. The defendants deny any responsibility for the spill, claiming it was an unpredictable natural disaster. 

The trial started in late May, given the COVID-19 situation, via Zoom. Wearing a mask and full protective gown, the judge heard demandants lay out their case for three full days over sometimes unstable internet connections. But he suddenly suspended the trial once it was the turn of government entities to present evidence, invoking suspected COVID-19 symptoms.   

Although the trial is on hold, erosion continues unabated. In June, more massive landslides took place meters away from the pipelines; this time the government shut down the flow to prevent another spill. 

Alicia Salazar, a Siona leader who directs the Indigenous-led organisation Alianza Ceibo, told the judge “It’s been 40 years of oil spills.” This is not the first oil spill, and it certainly will not be the last; there are thousands of oil wells in the region that spill the equivalent to 4,000 gallons (15,000 litres) per day according to Amazon Frontlines.   

An ongoing ecocide perpetuated by the state is unfolding in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Oil spills are also killing the relations that the Kichwas have to their ecosystem, given that people can no longer hunt, fish or find shelter in their rainforest home.

They remind us that social justice and environmental justice are deeply intertwined, that the Black Lives Matter and climate justice movements are complementary. These spills are as much a threat to their physical health as it is to their spiritual wellbeing, which, as the Interamerican Court of Human Rights has found, is based on an intimate connection to the beings that make up the greatest collection of life-forms on this planet. 

To knowingly destroy the ecosystem upon which a people depends is more than ecocide, it is also potentially genocide. Oil representatives may not care whether oil kills nature or the people who live with it, but the International Criminal Court does. It now prosecutes individuals for committing environmental crimes that result in genocide.

The global spread of coronavirus was not fully predictable, but this oil spill certainly was. Accountability matters. Those responsible must help the victims, take the necessary steps to avoid the next spill and clean up the contaminated rivers and forests upon which we all depend.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.