Eye on the Amazon

A Day in Rumipamba

We brought some Chinese journalists out to Rumipamba yesterday, a Quichua village spread along a recently paved road in the Auca Sur oil field. The journalists were looking for the tabloid version of what happened here, and Rumipamba is a gold mine in that regard.

There was an oil spill in Rumipamba back in 1976 – a ruptured Texaco pipeline. 35 years later in 2011, the Quichua were able to pressure PetroEcuador, the state oil company, to give them jobs ($450 / month), an industrial pump, some overalls and some boots in order to initiate a cleanup of the decades-old spill. For booms, the Quichua use sticks from the forest.

I've been out in Rumipamba five times over the last year. It is a devastating scene. The oil is one thing. The children and domestic animals running around the clogged and contaminated stream is another (some children fish in it when their parents are not home). But what struck me yesterday, more than anything else, is the banality of it all. The oil spill in the backyard of the Quichua village (right next to Guillermo Grefa's house) has become a source of work for the Quichua, a means of keeping busy. The disaster here has become part of their identity; it has been with them for more than three decades. And now with the work provided by PetroEcuador they have become, in a very real sense, oil workers; they wear the uniforms, they speak the jargon; they have an oil boss.

It was also interesting (unnerving) to witness the reactions of the Chinese journalists. The disaster produced excitement in them, a nervous energy, a desire to capture everything at once. It seemed that they even wanted more disaster, more crude, more heinous images – a kind of fascination with the abomination. We all have it (to some degree), I suppose.

The Chinese are becoming huge players here in Ecuador, as well. The Ecuadorian government has taken hundreds of millions of loans from China; Chinese oil and mining companies are making significant investments throughout the Amazon. In a sense, they are becoming the new America.

As we were leaving, I asked one Quichua man, who was sitting on a heap of charred sticks, chipping the crusted oil off of each one with with his machete (for what reason I could not tell): Do you think this spill will ever be fully cleaned up? And he looked at me, as if the question was impossible to comprehend, and he said: "We are two teams of six working two weeks on, one week off." And then later he said: "We could use another pump and more pay. This is very dangerous work."

And from what I could tell, the idea of historical justice – whether or not the American company would ever accept responsibility for what they had done here – seemed about as far away as China or the United States.

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