Study away 2007: Voices from around the globe
Wang Grant Student/Faculty Research Project
Investigate the current state of oil development in the "Oriente" – the Amazon Basin of eastern Ecuador – with a particular focus on current environmental conditions of the river and the effects of contamination on human health for the communities living along, and dependent upon, the rivers. Learn More »
Today I stood on a hill over one of Ecuador´s highland towns, Otavalo, and drew the scene before me in my sketch book. Steep curving young lush mountains patch worked by farms surround this northern highland town. Grey icy white clouds added depth and texture to the sky and hung around the bases of distant mountains.
Two years ago I spent an afternoon in this town, which holds one of South America´s biggest artisan markets, with 15 other PLU students as a part of PLU´s J-term environmental literature class. I have returned to explore further what captured me on my first visit. I´m taking things slower, staying in places longer so that I can catch the things I missed before.
During a visit to the Amazon two years ago, with my class on Environmental Literature, we met Alejandro Suarez. He lives in the “selva,” manages Jatun Sacha biological station, and has fought against oil companies in Ecuador for twenty years. He invited us to take a careful look around at the living conditions of people in Amazon of Ecuador. Big oil has been extracting oil in the area for thirty years, beginning with Texaco in the 1970s. Though billions of gallons of oil have been extracted from the vast tracts of wild jungle, people in the area are actually poorer than before the big oil companies arrived.
Up until today, Ecuador has seemed so very far away--both physically and mentally. I am in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I have been here for the last four months. I have spent time on the border, talking to undocumented migrants and maquila workers. I have climbed through Aztec ruins at Xochicalco and Teotihuacan. I have been a participant in a Nahua ceremony, where we prayed to all four directions, the earth and sky and our hearts. I have met with the only lesbian woman to serve in the Mexican government. I have walked in El Mazote, El Salvador, where 1000 people, mostly women and children, were massacred by U.S. trained death squads. Mexico and El Salvador gifted me with so much knowledge, so much newness--the least I could do was be present to them.
It’s beginning. I leave for the SeaTac airport in appoximately 5 hours. I’m already foreseeing that not much of that will be sleep. It’s always amazing to me that as much as I prepare for every new travel adventure, I never feel as ready as I should be. What if, in the ten days I’ve been home from Mexico, I’ll have already forgotten all my Spanish that four months in Mexico gave me? What if I can’t understand the Ecuadorian accent? How will our journey be perceived by those with whom we hope to meet? How can we as outsiders learn to see and hear with compassion in such a short time, with such brief contact? Living in Mexico, I learned a lot about what it means to let the voices of those most marginalized be heard.
Today, New Year's Eve, Quitenos have made old dummies, called "viejos," stuffing old clothing (pants, shirts) with paper and sawdust. They put masks on them, write complaints about the year past, wishes for the government for the year coming. They are all over town, everywhere, lining streets, in front of offices and homes. Today, they'll burn these "viejos" in the streets. It's street theater.
Rachel Esbjornsen, Kate Fontana, and I met yesterday in Quito. We're all here, ready to begin our explorations and study of oil, the environment, and public health. I've been living in Ecuador since the beginning of August--five months now. I've been a Fulbright Scholar at Universidad San Francisco. In that time, I've been fortunate to have some of the most outstanding research experiences of my life, developing many contacts, being blown away by the richness of life and nature in this country. It's exciting here, and we're very excited for our itinerary--through a part of Ecuadorian life that very few are privileged to see in the petroleum zone on South America.
Occidental Petroleum...the Cofan, Sionas, Secoyas, Shuar, Quichua indigenous peoples...loss of biodiversity...roads through the jungle that bring colonists...class-action law-suit against Texaco, the first of its kind...missionaries...the Rio Aguarico slick with oil...international debt...the Conquest...
Kate and I have just left Rio Muchacho, an organic permaculture farm we have been doing volunteer work at for the last week. My last morning at Rio Muchacho was spent clearing a garden plot of weeds and dried corn stalks to prepare the soil for planting. The day was the hottest it had
What a strange day.
In twenty minutes we dropped some 8,000 feet, from Quito to Lago Agrio, the dingy oil town in the northern Oriente. We are in the selva, the jungle. And here is this crawling town, built on oil and narcotrafficking and the crowd that follows. Not far from the Colombian border, we are staying in at night (the one night we are here) and going no where alone.
We have arrived in the Oriente. This morning we flew out of Quito's high mountain climate down into the heat and humidity of one of Ecuador's largest oil towns, Largo Agrio. Signs of oil development are virtually every where and already I feel I have seen so much.
This afternoon we said goodbye to Rio Aguarico. A river that for generations provided the communities we visited with much of their life’s sustenance. Each evening I watched women wash clothing along its banks, families bath, and both men and women attempt to catch fish. This river