Eye on the Amazon

It's Oil for Chocolate

"...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, 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 (along with the toxic waste pits that he shows visiting journalists) in hundreds of articles, and he could possibly be the most photographed man in the northeastern Ecuadorian Amazon. 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 as well 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 blunt, 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, and an uncomfortable, and at times humiliating one. It is an invitation to the world – to outsiders – to witness the suffering of 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, maybe thousands of people that strengthens understanding in distant worlds, or a courageous story 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.

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