The mighty Aguarico River is where the Cofán people have fished, bathed, and washed for many generations. The river also traditionally provided the community’s main source of drinking water. It was the lifeblood of the Cofán.
But the Aguarico now holds a very different meaning for the Cofán and for Emergildo Criollo, a leader in the Cofán community. Emergildo is the father of four children and grandfather of thirteen. Two decades ago, he lost two sons after they bathed in and drank the contaminated water of the Aguarico. (Read Emergildo’s story.)
Our friend Emergildo has travelled to the United States and our home state of California many times to face Chevron executives and urge the company to clean up its billions of gallons of toxic oil waste in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest (watch Emergildo’s video message to Chevron CEO John Watson). Today we travelled to Emergildo’s home, the small Indigenous community of Cofán Dureno.
Dureno is home to some eight hundred Cofán. The island is a mere thirty-seven square miles, a small fraction of the Cofán’s traditional territory. To reach Dureno, we boarded a motorized wooden canoe and crossed the Aguarico.
The Cofán — just like the Siona, Secoya, Quichua, Huoarani and Tetete peoples — once lived traditionally, in harmony with their environment. The forest was their pharmacy, their market, and their place of spiritual renewal and worship. But all this changed when Chevron (then Texaco) began oil-drilling operations in this once pristine rainforest in 1972. The detonation of explosives during seismic testing, the introduction of heavy drilling machinery, and the construction of miles of roads destroyed thousands of square miles of forests, medicinal plants, and food supplies.
Meanwhile, oil production jobs provided a reason for the mass migration of colonos, who strained the natural resources and forced local peoples off their traditional lands. Women became targets of sexual crimes. And the Aguarico, like many other waterways, was poisoned.
When Chevron drilled for oil in this region, the company had no regard for local life and took no preventative or protective measures. During the course of three decades of drilling, Chevron deliberately and knowingly dumped billions of gallons of toxic oil waste into the Aguarico and other waterways. Emergildo remembers how sheets of crude oil would blanket the Aguarico, how he would be ankle-deep in oil when walking along the riverbed. He also remembers how company workers outright lied about the dangers of crude oil exposure.
We met Emergildo’s grandchildren and some of the Cofán women and elders while in Dureno. Many of the women make beaded jewelry that they sell in the adjacent oil town of Lago Agrio. Lago Agrio (Sour Lake) is the boomtown that sprang up around Texaco’s first oil well in the region. It was Texaco that gave the town its name. (Chevron bought Texaco in 2001.)
Chevron/Texaco may have packed up its bags and left the region in 1992, but its toxic legacy is palpable. Thousands of people still lack potable water, and thousands have been stricken with oil-related cancers and other illnesses. More than 900 open-air oil waste pits built by Texaco have been abandoned and continue to leach life-threatening toxins into the environment. We’ll visit some of these waste pits tomorrow.
As we boarded the canoe for our return trip, we waved back to Emergildo’s grandchildren. Emergildo already lost two sons, but the thirty thousand Indigenous peoples and small farmers who have been impacted by Chevron’s contamination and who undauntedly continue to fight for justice are working to ensure this generation will have a brighter and cleaner future. And we won’t let up on Chevron until that happens.