Life Among Cacao Fields And Oil Contamination

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…a local man named Donald Moncayo showed me around. Wearing white surgical gloves, he dug up a fistful of black mud and held it so that the sunlight caught the telltale blue-orange tint of petroleum. At one fetid pit in a jungle glade, he stepped gingerly onto the surface of the pool, where the solid matter in the produced water had congealed into a tar like crust that was sturdy enough to support him. Smiling a little, Moncayo shifted his weight from one foot to the other, until the whole surface began to undulate beneath him. He looked like a kid on a waterbed… Watching Moncayo, I had a sense of deja vu. He is the regular master of ceremonies on the toxic tour…But if Moncayo’s cadences were rote; there was nothing feigned about his indignation. – Patrick Radden Keefe, writing in The New Yorker, 1/9/12

Donald Moncayo has acted as the “fixer” for hundreds of journalists over the last decade on what has become known as “the toxic tour.” He has been described in hundreds of articles (along with the toxic waste pits that he shows visiting journalists), and he could possibly be the most photographed man in the northeastern Ecuadorean Amazon.

Donald Moncayo, the fixer

Many days Donald Moncayo (left) acts as the "fixer" for journalists, giving them what has become known as "the Toxic Tour” of contamination in the region.

Some journalists choose to (or are capable of) seeing more than others. Some ask him questions about his own life, and they learn that he lost his mother to oil contamination. Or they ask him about his childhood and they learn that he had two options on his walk to elementary school: barefoot on the searing and rusting oil pipeline or barefoot on the dirt road sprayed with oil to keep the dust down. Others, like Keefe from the New Yorker, use Donald as “color” for their story — and somehow manage to add insulting commentary, like: “He looked like a kid on a waterbed,” or “he is the regular master of ceremonies on the toxic tour.”

That there is such a “tour” (that there needs to be such a tour!) of the greatest tropical rainforest on Earth is just another wretched and bizarre aspect of the tragedy that has befallen this land as a result of Texaco (now Chevron’s) oil operations here.

The “toxic tour”, as it has been named, is not a choice of the communities. It is a necessity — an uncomfortable, at times humiliating, necessity. It is an invitation to the world — to outsiders — to witness the suffering of the people that live here, to witness the real casualties of oil-dependent societies. And in doing so there is a hope, a vulnerable human promise between the people living here and the visitors, that something good and honest will result from the exchange between worlds. A powerful photograph that is shared with hundreds or maybe even thousands of people, promoting greating understanding in distant worlds; or a courageous journalist unafraid to expose the arrogant and unforgivable actions of a multinational titan like Chevron; or maybe even just a portrait of what life is like here — a kind of ode to humility and dignity.

In the coming days I will write a piece (at least will attempt to) on morality, blindness and cowardice in journalism. For now, I’d just like to share some photographs that I took last Sunday working with Donald and his wife and daughter in his cacao field (cocoa field), which is edged by a small contaminated stream from the days of Texaco.

Donald and his daughter

Donald and his daughter Leonela Yasuni Moncayo in their home, perched on a bluff in the outskirts of Lago Agrio along the Via Colombia (20 kilometers from the Colombian border). Donald named his daughter after the Yasuni rainforest, one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, also under threat from oil extraction.

Lorena and daughter

Donald's wife Lorena prepares breakfast (fried yucca with cheese and canned tuna) before a long day in the cacao field, a stretch of the same contaminated fields he would “toxic tour” just days before.

Donald's bedroom

The bedroom. Donald is saving money now (through harvesting his cacao) to buy metal window grates for his bedroom. In the last month there have been several failed robbery attempts at his house. It is unclear if the robbery attempts are politically motivated, part of oil company intimidation, or just part of the violence and crime that plagues the oil boom town Lago Agrio.

Donald's cacao field

Arriving in Donald's cacao field. The entire day was filled with hard work, blistering sun, and moments, like this, of laughter. Leonela Yasuni was an angel the whole day. She is an observant and imaginative little girl, and spent a lot of time kneeling over watching the affairs of insects.

Splitting open the cacao pod

Splitting open the cacao pod. Inside are the seeds, covered in a white mucus-like pulp. Both seed and pulp are placed in a bucket. My job was to separate the cacao seeds (and help Donald harvest the pods -- but I was always picking the unripe pods. Lot's to learn).

Donald throwing the cacao pods to his wife, Lorena.

Donald throwing the cacao pods to his wife, Lorena.

Donald's dog Cual

This is Donald's dog "Cual?" (which means, Which?). His other dog is named "Quien?" (which means Who?). Donald is scaling a cacao tree. This was his job the entire day, harvesting ripe cacao pods and trimming the overgrown limbs of the cacao tree.

Cacao seeds

These are the cacao seeds which will eventually be used to make chocolate. The pulp and seed will be laid under the sun for several days and will undergo "sweating", where the pulp evaporates leaving behind only the cacao seed. It is interesting to note that when Columbus "discovered" the Americas he brought back cacao seeds to show the Catholic Monarchs, who found them bitter and repulsive. Chocolate would not be enjoyed by Europeans until hundreds of years later.

The oil in Donald's cacao fields

The cacao fields share the same stretch of forest where Donald spends many of his days giving Toxic Tours.

Returning home

Returning home. We leave the cacao field and pass over a stream contaminated with oil. We are at the source of both oil and chocolate.

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