Words by Rex Fisher
Art by Janina Gude (Instagram: janinagude)
“Give it a cry!” sneered my gobby sixteen-year-old brother, Patrick, as the both of us poked fun at Ross Kemp “givin’ it a cry” somewhere deep in the Ecuadorean rainforest. We were watching a late-night repeat of ‘Ross Kemp: Battle for the Amazon’, in which Ross, Britain’s baddest and baldest, the Bruce Willis of EastEnders, was sobbing like a baby as he prodded a stick into a wobbling pit of black claggy goob.
However, I hadn’t known at the time that almost two months later I would be prodding a stick of my own into an equally fetid pit of goob.
The reason for Ross’s blubbing and, in his defence my own, was a result of the cloud of toxic fumes that slaps you in the face each time you provoke one of these ominous black pits.
I am talking about the swimming-pool sized depositories of formation water, drilling mud, and crude oil that have been left uncovered and unattended for the past 40 years to befoul the most biologically diverse ecosystem our planet has to offer. The Amazon Rainforest. Of course, these acrid abysses are not a natural occurrence in this environmental eden but, instead, a product of human greed and negligence. The scale: catastrophic. Quite literally billions of gallons of toxic waste dumped across a region roughly twice the size of London. They are what remains of the intensive and highly profitable drilling by the oil company Texaco in the 1970s and 80s.
It is summer in Ecuador, however this does not tend to make the slightest difference to the country’s rainforest region, the Oriente, as it is always hot. I am in the Ornella province being given what is infamously called the ‘toxitour’. A tour which enlightens you with the darker side of the oil industry.
I jab my stick back into the noxious pit, harder this time, trying to reach the bottom. I can’t, of course, because this particular pit is three metres deep with toxic sludge. It is these exact pits that have been the focus of a 25-year-long legal battle between the oil company Texaco, now owned by US giant Chevron, and the Amazonian tribes people.
“Texaco”, says my guide, Alejandro, slapping away a fat blood suckling mosquito that was feasting away on his forearm. He pronounces it “Tek-ZAH-ko”, spitting it out like it’s a dirty word. “This is their pit, this is their fault”, he says, pointing now at the red blotches across the back of his now shirtless friend. These blotches, blistering and angry-looking, have formed from bathing in the contaminated water downstream of these pits.
The man, Jorge, who doesn’t look much older than 35, explains to me in broken spanglish how he is suffering with three types of cancer, as are 15 others in the tiny village in which he lives. To have such a high density of cancer sufferers, in such a small population does not simply happen by chance. Alejandro confirms what I already suspected. This was not a one off, but instead a repeated problem in so many of the villages whose water supply feeds through these pits. These communities, which depend on local waterways for virtually every facet of their lives, have been continuously exposed to toxic chemicals not only through their drinking water, but also by cooking, bathing, and washing in contaminated water and consuming contaminated fish and livestock. Basic daily activities which have been made into a health hazard. The people indigenous to this land, who call the rainforest their home, are being systematically and maliciously poisoned.
And yet, it seems the rest of the world is blissfully unaware. The case, even to those who are fairly environmentally clued up, is pretty much unknown. However, this is no accident. Instead, we have been played. Shafted. The veil that is lawyer magic and faux corporate responsibility has been pulled over our eyes. Chevron’s huge legal team have worked immensely hard to keep details of their jungle ill-treatment as mirky as the fetid pits themselves.
Prior to writing this article I was simply told ‘write something unknown’. I think, the idea is to make something that is unknown -known. In a world of constant change, a platform with which to bring up the stories which have slipped under the radar is massively important. Stories like those in Ecuador are easily spoken about and then forgotten. I guess my hope then was to spark just a conversation about the horrors of everyday life for the indigenous people of Ecuador’s rainforest. So let’s talk about them and let’s not forget them. Please, stick it to the man with me. Stop reading this drivel and go read something about Chevron in Ecuador. Anything. Then go tell a friend. There is a fight out there against these thugs. Join it. Go learn something you didn’t know.
Or watch this: