The issue of oil extraction in Ecuador is controversial. The Correa administration has used earnings from the oil industry to improve Ecuadorian society, with considerable advancements in education, health care, infrastructure and access to technology. The president is extremely popular, especially with the urban poor, whose lives have improved as a result of these general developments, and from the modest monthly cash benefits that many of them receive. Correa deserves credit for these policies, but the condition of indigenous people of the Oriente, Ecuador’s Amazon region, where the oil exploitation takes place, and their environment, continues to deteriorate.
It takes about five hours to get from my apartment in Quito’s old city to Edmundo Salazar’s and Irene Mamallakta’s house in a Kichwa community of Rukullakta, in Ecuador’s Napo province (in the Oriente), where I will stay for a few days with them, their children, and my friend and mentor of all things Oriente, Chris Jarrett. The bus leaves Quito and climbs to the dramatic cloud forests to the east with their expanse of emerald heights, granite cliff faces, brilliant cultivated squares of potatoes and corn, grazing cattle looking like tiny lead figures clinging to the steep slopes covered with abundant grass, cleared of forest, a cornucopia of grass, silver tumbling rivers below. Descending, approaching the Oriente, the air turns warmer, the vegetation changes, the land flattening and spreading to the horizon, a vista inspiring the mind’s eye towards the great basin that contains 20 percent of the world’s ocean-bound fresh water and much of its remaining mystery.
The indigenous population has changed also, from the sierra to the lowlands, the colorful garb of the mountain culture replaced by a raffish assortment of t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops better suited to the warmth and humidity of the Oriente. Constant from one place to the other is poverty, especially reflected in the hodgepodge of cinder-block and wooden dwellings that line the highway in the Oriente, in various states of imminent collapse, sometimes colorfully adorned in moldering paint, always chickens, small gardens, clotheslines, young women with babies, the occasional earnest, rickety business, diminutive saw mill or manufacture of building blocks.
Also evident upon entering the Napo region are the oleoductos, the oil pipelines snaking parallel to the highways, the rusting arteries carrying the country’s economic blood. There is an extreme paucity of work for the local population and this is everywhere apparent, not only the visible signs of poverty but the general lack of industry and associated energy, so that you see a lot of people simply doing nothing, reinforcing the stereotypical image of the tropics. Except for the need to keep warm, however, the exigencies of survival are no less critical here than anywhere else, and everyone must do at least the minimum to stay alive. Concerning this, much is hidden from the casual observer, the hundred-and-one ways of surviving as a member of a deracinated culture trapped on the margins in a rapidly changing world.
Around noon the day after I arrive, Edmundo, Irene, Chris and I decide to go the Cavernas de Jumandy. The Cavernas de Jumandy, just outside the village of Archidona, is where Jumandy, the legendary leader of the Napo people went to evade the Spanish after the revolt of 1578, almost exactly 100 years before the Pueblo Uprising in the Southwest US. As in the US the rebellion ultimately failed and Jumandy was captured and executed. But he and his band survived for a while in these caves, much as the great Apache warrior Geronimo survived in the dry mountains and rugged terrain of the Southwest US and Mexico from the mid to latter part of the 19th century.
Now, more than 400 years after Jumandy and the Kichwa revolt, the people of the Napo must deal with other invaders, armed this time not with lances, spears and muskets, but chain saws, road graders and drilling machinery. In 2015 Ivanhoe Energy of Canada hopes to begin operations at the Pungarayacu heavy oil field, in the north of “Block 20,” a massive 400 square mile oil concession that overlaps ancestral territory of the Kichwa of Rukullakta. This pending violation of indigenous territory occurs with the consensual embrace of the Ecuadorian government. In 2008 Petroecuador signed a 30-year contract with the Canadian company to develop the Pungarayacu field, allegedly with the help of Fabricio Correa, the president’s brother, who, together with Ivanhoe, supposedly used bribes and gifts to divide the Kichwa community, gaining at least partial consent to exploit their land. If so, it is not surprising. Oil companies have always used bribes and extravagant promises to develop local communities in order to gain access to their prize.
Ivanhoe estimates Block 20 could hold as much as 6.7 billion barrels of OOIP (original oil in place). This is different from oil reserves, which is the potential recoverable portion of oil volume in the reservoir. Oil fields around the world typically range between 10 and 60 percent recoverable oil. Some are as high as 80 percent or more. The percentage of recoverability is determined by the physical characteristics of the reservoir and the oil itself. Assuming a recovery of 30 percent, not especially high, the Pungarayacu field has about twice as much potential as the Yasuní-ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) reserves. Obviously, this is an enormous prize for both the Ecuadorian government and Ivanhoe.
The problem for Ivanhoe is that it is a relatively small and under-capitalized company (they await funding from the Ecuadorian government to begin operations), with unproven technical capabilities, especially concerning its ambitious proposal to convert the heavy crude in Block 20 to light crude at the location of the wells, rather than transporting the stuff to some distant refinery. The process of heavy-to-light conversion (HTL) is complex, expensive and environmentally risky, especially in an ecologically fragile place such as Rukullakta. This area has been home to indigenous people for thousands of years and contains several critical watersheds. One of these, the Misahualli River watershed, has been declared a “Valle Sagrado” (sacred valley) by Ecuador’s National Institute for Culture and Patrimony. A portion of Block 20 is located in the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) site. In addition to being a protected area, the Sumaco Reserve contains a great number of unique plant and animal species. It is one of the most beautiful and pristine places in Ecuador.
We arrive at the caves, which are in the side of a steep hill, carved out over the millennia by powerful streams, the same streams that feed the Misahualli river, a tributary of the Napo, in turn one of the major tributaries of the Amazon. At the entrance to the park is a large swimming pool and fiberglass water slide, fed by these streams. Because of torrential rains the last couple of days the pool is filled with mud and has been drained. Two indigenous workers wearing colorful t-shirts, shorts and rubber boots clear the mud with a hose and push brooms. It is warm and humid and the men work slowly and without much effort, taking breaks and joking around. The hose has numerous small leaks that shoot thin jets of misting water, refracting colors. Where I am from this is a waste, but here it is like worrying about conserving air. We pay our money and go in with a guide.
There are two caves and we choose the shorter one. With us also are two giggling teenage Kichwa girls who flirt with Chris. The stream is rapid and the footing precarious. We have been given headlamps. The air is warm and the noise from the stream reverberates against the cave walls. I am wearing my river sandals but proceed cautiously, as there are holes and it is slippery. The caves are unchanged since Jumandy’s time. There are no vending machines, electric lights, hardhats, handrails, directional signs or footpaths. We have signed no waivers, insurance policies, last wills and testaments and have no thread of Theseus to guide us back through this labyrinth should our guide slip and crack himself unconscious or worse.
And it is a labyrinth. Without a guide it would be difficult to get back. I don’t imagine the batteries to our headlamps have been scrupulously monitored. In total darkness this would be a frightening proposition. Even with our guide, who is confident and attentive, obviously very well acquainted with the caves and knowledgeable about the history, there is an edge of anxiety. I can’t see very well and am continuously adjusting the weak beam of my headlamp. The ceiling is low and there are stalactites. We are all bumping our heads. Everyone speaks in low voices and there is nervous laughter. The stream is powerful and threatens to knock us off our feet in more challenging crossings. Irene in particular is anxious and we take turns helping her. A couple of times we pass small returning groups, one of them a middle-aged European couple, a buxom woman wearing a flimsy bikini practically falling off with her exertions, the man clad only in a jock strap and blue bandana. Their bodies are streaked with mud. In the darkness and mystery of the cave they seem like members of some Eleusinian sex cult and they set the Kichwa girls off in a round of giggles.
Perhaps notions of cultism are not far-fetched as shortly we pass a huge phallic stalagmite know as Jumandy’s penis that stands at the entrance to a narrow passageway and must be grasped for support as you pass by. This elicits more giggling from the girls. I try to imagine what it was like for Jumandy and his warriors here, in terror of their merciless pursuers, navigating with their torches in the utter darkness, communing with spirits in hope of salvation. We come to a small waterfall at the base of which is a deep hole, the circumference wide enough for one person. Chris and I take turns submerging ourselves in the hole, the falling water beating down. It takes a bit of screwing up of one’s courage before getting in but it is safe and revivifying.
Our guide then takes us to a side chamber and tells us to extinguish our lights. For about ten minutes we sit in absolute darkness, mostly silent, time and perception bending and stretching, accompanied by a nudging, gnawing fear bordering on terror, assuaged periodically by the nervous giggles of the Kichwa girls and the guide’s voice with stories of Jumandy. Long an admirer of Samuel Beckett, I finally comprehend as no stage experience could ever communicate. It is the end of the world and nothing remains but a disembodied human voice in complete darkness. The voice speaks a strange language and I understand little, but it is enough to reassure me, though there is a terrible poignance because it is the last human voice in the universe and I the last listener. It is the voice of the guide (who is the guide?), winding down. Soon, silence.
Rather than depressed I am amazed and energized almost to the point of giddiness, and happy too when we move out of this dark place, this reminder of human loneliness and isolation. Finally we arrive at the exit, a narrow opening through which we crawl, emitting the most extraordinary beautiful light I have ever seen, a silvery-green effusion of life and escape. Later, as we walk home, Irene spies a dead boa on the other side of the road and lets out a shriek. The boa is a powerful totemic animal. Edmundo, Chris and I cross the road. The snake is about five feet long and has been run over. There is a strong odor. Edmundo hides the animal in the bushes and sticks a branch in the ground to mark the spot. He will return later to get the bones.
Correa’s decision to beginning drilling in Yasuní-ITT has attracted the world’s attention, and rightfully so, but the larger Pungarayacu project, located in an equally sensitive natural and cultural environment, remains behind the news. In this regard, Yasuní-ITT is something of a stalking horse for the more ambitious and potentially more lucrative undertaking in Block 20. Though providing short-term benefits for the Ecuadorian economy, the exploitation of Yasuní-ITT and Pungarayacu would be a terrible blow to these fragile and critically important environments. Once destroyed, these places do not simply regenerate. Essentially, they are gone forever, along with the human cultures they sustained. As if this was not serious enough, there is the equally pressing concern of the deleterious effects on climate change drilling in these places would bring about. It is estimated that oil exploitation in Yasuní-ITT would release 410 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Potentially, drilling in Pungarayacu would release at least twice as much. In 1578 Jumandy and his warriors avoided their enemies for a short while by fleeing to the caverns. Now the descendants of his warriors have nowhere to hide. But then, with global atmospheric CO2 at 400 parts per million and counting, neither do their pursuers.
Richard Ward lives in Ecuador. He can be reached at: email@example.com