Ecuador's oil spill on the banks of the Coca river: who is responsible?

People | Communities

By Isabel Rowbotham, Co-Editor in Chief

Published April 5th, 2022

Ecuador is facing yet another environmental disaster. On January 28th 2022, an OCP pipeline ruptured, releasing an undisclosed volume of oil into the Coca River and the Amazon rainforest. After a number of disasters, it is no wonder that this area has been dubbed the ‘Chernobyl of the Amazon’.

Unsurprisingly this is not the first time these oil pipelines have burst. The OCP (Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados or heavy crude oil) Ecuador S.A. is the largest crude pipeline in Ecuador. It is operated by the state-owned oil company PetroEcuador, with its main stakeholder being the Canadian Alberta Energy Company and other multinationals.

The most recent oil spill on January 28th 2022, contaminated the Coca River within the Cayambe-Coca National Park after the OCP pipelines split. | Ivan Castaneira / @i_chido

The OCP pipeline connects the oil fields in Lago Agrio to the port of Esmeraldas on the Pacific coast. The pipeline was constructed after the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System (SOTE) Oil Pipeline, so that operations would not be halted due to emergencies and ruptures.

In 2003, during the construction of OCP, machinery breached the SOTE pipeline causing the oil to spill and cover half of the Papallacta lagoon. Since then it has been responsible for at least five crude oil spills, with almost all the spills contaminating nearby bodies of water.

In 2009, the OCP burst and released 14,000 barrels of oil into the Santa Rosa river and in 2013, the pipeline near the Esmeralda refinery burst into the mouth of the river, which supplies local shrimp farms and cattle ranches. Time and time again, these ruptures were reported to be caused by storms, landslides and erosion from land degradation.

‘Since its construction stages, the OCP pipeline has been responsible for at least five oil crude spills.’

The extent of the 2003 disaster was only made known to the public when Franco Viteri Gualinga, a representative of the Sarayacu Kichwa indigenous community, wrote a letter stating the devastating impacts of these companies on the forest and their homes. He emphasised that the indigenous communities have been opposed to oil exploration since 1999.

The action of offering paid work or paying off individuals to persuade members of their community (community liaisons) to allow such projects are among the tactics that oil companies use to fracture communities. In 2002, the operation to build the OCP pipeline was backed by the state army, without authorization from the local Sarayacu Kichwa community. During the following months, there were reports of community members being captured and made to ‘confess’ that they were part of a subversive group that aimed to stop the project.

A summary of all the past oil spills by the OCP Ecuador pipeline. A 2021 article reported that, ‘at least 18 billion US gallons (68 billion litres) of toxic waste and 17 million gallons of crude oil was dumped on sensitive rainforest soil in an area spanning 4,400 square kilometres.’ | The Kingfisher

Moreover, the pipeline bursts were inaccurately reported as contained incidents, when in reality they always resulted in the contamination of the river water used by locals to drink or bathe. ‘We are trying to collect rainwater because we cannot drink from the river anymore,’ stated a local Ecuadorian citizen.

Despite the dire consequences these oil spills create, pipeline operators assured the public of one thing: ‘it will not affect oil exports.’

The oil spill in January of 2022 was attributed to a mudslide that caused the contamination of the Coca river in the Cayambe-Coca National Park. To understand how this continues to happen, one needs to acknowledge that the pipeline snakes through 94 fault lines, six volcanoes, various waterways and rainforests, carrying a substance incompatible with life above ground.

In 2001, two years before the OCP pipeline began its operation, experts had claimed that the pipelines were located in a high-risk area due to seismic activity—Ecuador is located between the South American Plate and the Nazca Plate—resulting in a geologically unstable area with recurring earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

'The indigenous communities have been opposed to oil exploration since 1999.'

The seismic activity, combined with intense precipitation in the area, often contributes to mudslides, such as the one that ruptured the pipeline. Despite the company and the state knowing the risk of the operation, they had gone ahead with the project anyways, for which there were expectations of high rewards. Even the then-president of Ecuador, Gustavo Naboa, warned that closing the pipeline would ruin the country and nothing would stop it from going ahead.

Instead of assessing better routes for the layout of the pipeline, the OCP contractors blindly followed the demands of the company, according to reports. At no point was there any regard for the environment, nor consideration of how to mitigate risks that threatened the indigenous communities living in the area.

Aerial view of the extent of the most recent oil spill near the Cayambe-Coca National Park in January 2022. | Ivan Castaneira / @i_chido

In 2020, experts also noted regressive erosion of the Coca River. This erosion had become so significant that the San Rafael waterfall completely destroyed both the OCP and the SOTE pipelines.

The 2022 oil spill into the Coca River came as a surprise to no one. The media reported that ‘a rockfall following heavy rains in the Piedra Fina zone caused the OCP pipeline to split.’ The Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE), which directs the use of natural resources, estimated heavy crude contamination of 21,000 hectares within Cayambe Park.

The current disaster has deeply affected the indigenous communities of Kichwa living nearby Napos and Sucumbios. For the 27,000 Kichwa living downstream of the river, the disaster comes as a huge blow, as they are still suffering from the impacts of the 2020 oil spill.

The Kichwa people were not the only Amazonian community affected. The leaders of the Panduyaku indigenous community saw its people affected and reported to the media that they cannot use or consume water from the rivers that they depend on for their livelihood.

‘The current disaster affected the indigenous communities of Kitchwa living nearby Napos and Sucumbios.’

Amazon Frontlines submitted a ‘Friends of the Court’ letter to the Constitutional (Supreme) Court of Ecuador demanding remedies for the people affected and precautions for future spills. There are some doubts that the court will listen and act in favour of the people since a lower court had thrown out a lawsuit for justice after the 2020 disaster—the case is now pending with the Constitutional Court.

‘Once again, we have felt the injustice on the part of the judiciary, since we clearly see that the Ecuadorian government cares more about its income than about the health of its citizens, at least us Kichwas,’ expressed plaintiff and Kichwa leader, Veronica Grefa, after the dismissal from the lower courts.

Services were called to carry out a clean out of the Coca River. Locals reported seeing substantial amounts of crude oil enter the river waters before they could do anything. Many communities have been affected. | Ivan Castaneira / @i_chido

Many do not believe the government wants to prioritise the environment and indigenous communities since it had stated to double its crude extraction to one million barrels, in order to stabilise its deficit after the economy plummeted during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the problem is Ecuador's heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

After so many oil spills and an unprecedented amount of crude oil in the Ecuadorian rivers, how much longer will it be until the government realises that oil extraction is a risky business?

Read the full letter to the courts and sign a petition to support Amazon Frontlines here.

Featured Image: Andres Medina | Unsplash / Ivan Castaneira | @i_chido

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