Oil Crisis in Ecuadorian Amazon

︎︎︎Click here to view Ama La Vida type specimen


At its primitive state, oil held the title of being a transformative “phenomenon of social mobilization” (Pellegrini, 2018; Arsel, 2018), especially in Northern Ecuador. The establishment of oil began in 1967 in Nueva Loja with the discovery of a working oil well. Oil production then took off in 1972 when the country’s bishop blessed the first barrel of oil and the military dictator Guillermo Rodríguez Lara commenced the generation of oil (Pellegrini, 2018; Arsel, 2018). This symbolic exhibition introduced oil as a benefit to Ecuador’s economy and their social mobilization; the development of oil production was seen as a progression into the modern century.
The feeling of hopefulness would not last though; many years presented long-term environmental and socio-economic crises in Ecuador’s Amazon region because of the corrupt actions and environmental crimes of oil industries. The plentiful sources of water found in the Ecuadorian Amazon are increasingly growing non-potable due to oil extracting and toxic waste dumping done by Texaco-Chevron oil companies, thus affecting the very livelihood of Indigenous peoples and communities. To advance the existing solutions with readily available resources, I propose for the facilitation of utilizing contained water and environmentally friendly oil absorbents; organizing communal cleanups; donating time, money, and key supplies; and continuing to protest and bringing these issues to legal action for negotiations.

The Issue at Hand

In 1964 to 1990, Texaco-Chevron performed oil drilling in Northern Ecuadorian Amazon, “an emblematic area… where hydrocarbon extraction coincides with outstanding natural values, Indigenous people, and long-lasting social movements” (Pellegrini, 2018; Arsel, 2018). In this region, more than 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and hazardous waste and 17 million gallons of oil were discarded (The True Story of Chevron's Ecuador Disaster, n.d.). Spanning over five decades, the oil industry has contaminated rivers and streams of the Northern Ecuadorian Amazon; nonetheless, this has created multiple problems in that specific region including the safety, health, and disruption of Indigenous lifestyles. 3,425 oil wells are located in the Ecuadorian Amazon, 952 oil spills occured in the last decade, and more than 30 billion gallons of toxic waste were recklessly discarded into the environment (Amazon Frontlines, 2019). Texaco-Chevron has since been in a waging conflict with environmental activists and Indigenous tribes, resulting in an “unenforced decision that ordered the company to pay $9.5 billion in compensation” and cleanup (Pellegrini, 2018; Arsel, 2018).
The significance of the Amazon Basin is prevalent and the abundance of issues at stake cannot be ignored; the Amazon Basin is connected to everyone and anyone globally, providing over “one fifth of the world’s freshwater” (Amazon Frontlines, 2019). The health and maintenance of Amazon rivers is extremely critical for all ecosystems and all types of living on Earth, especially the Indigenous peoples living in the Amazon rainforest. The Indigenous families that reside there heavily rely on these sources of water for bathing, cleaning, and cooking. Some negative effects these groups have experienced from utilizing contaminated water include illnesses, birth defects, and miscarriages (Amazon Frontlines, 2019).

Content and Audience

Amazon Frontlines is an international organization dedicated to defending the rights of Indigenous territories, lifestyles, and culture in the Ecuadorian Amazon (Amazon Frontlines, 2019). This team consists of a variety of people ranging from human rights lawyers to environmental activists. These groups of people actually live with the Amazon tribes and experience their daily struggles at first hand. Due to the persistent and rising demand for natural resources from oil operations, the quality of freshwater resources have continued to plummet as they become contaminated and polluted. This variety of frontline defenders provide their modernised knowledge to assist in improving the lifestyles of Indigenous families that are dependent on the Amazon Basin waters for functional and sustainable living.
To turn words into actual actions, it is imperative to build relationships and have allies. In 2011, the organization began in collaboration with what is known as Ceibo Alliance, consisting of tribes, specifically the Kofan, Secoya, Siona, and Waorani (Amazon Frontlines, 2019). Ceibo is an exceptional and ideal alliance to collaborate with because they are composed of members that serve the very community they inhabit (Amazon Frontlines, 2019). This means that their communal needs are directly addressed and fulfilled by the multiple projects carried out.

Prior Solutions

In partnership with non-profit organization Ceibo Alliance, Amazon Frontlines primarily supports the many challenges faced by these Indigenous families in the 21st century by providing clean water and renewable energy. Two ongoing projects these organizations have conducted include the ClearWater and Solar Program as families now experience newly inflicted dependencies. Rainwater harvesting systems are built to properly filter rainwater for approximately 1,000 families living in more than 50 villages across the rainforest (Amazon Frontlines, 2019). The purpose of the water systems is to decrease health issues such as miscarriages, birth defects, and illnesses by lessening the people’s exposure to oil pollution and toxins. Additionally, solar home systems are provided to support LED light inside peoples’ homes so families have more sources of light (Amazon Frontlines, 2019).
Over the years, other tactics have been practiced by the Indigenous and colono communities living at the frontlines of oil mining. Strategies done to challenge the mining and extracting of oil included creating a dialogue in negotiation and reasoning, physically barricading roads and occupying oil equipment space, and lastly, pursuing legal action in court (Pellegrini, 2018; Arsel, 2018). However, protesting and bringing the issue into court has proven to be ineffective as Texaco-Chevron refuses to pay for clean up and restoring of damages; nonetheless, presenting a lawsuit creates a safe space for transnational alliances to illuminate the very importance of indigeneity and the abandonment of oil becoming the symbol for progress (Davidov, 2016).


In Oil and Conflict in the Ecuadorian Amazon: An Exploration of Motives and Objectives by Pellegrini and Arsel, the authors illustrate the economic condition Ecuador is in and examine objectives and demands people feel due to extractive means of forwarding mobilization. Some individuals expressed that the territorial rights of Indigenous peoples must be respected by decreasing or completely terminating oil exploration in the Amazon; others felt that employment opportunities must be increased and the growth of the oil industry is essentially inevitable; and some conveyed the need for a neutral approach by “increasing local employment in the oil sector” and “improv[ing]... environmental practices” at the same time (Pellegrini, 2018; Arsel, 2018). With all that has been said, Pellegrini and Arsel state the possibility that Ecuador will not fully get rid of oil mining for economic purposes; rather, the government may just reserve employment to only local residents (Pellegrini, 2018; Arsel, 2018).
Given the persistence of oil exploration and activity throughout the years, it is merely impossible to expect a whole country – specifically a third world country – to terminate an entire sector that mostly impacts their economy and provides many positions of employment. Even decreasing oil exploration will take time as many people rely on regular wages for their means of support, not to mention the difficulty of finding a suitable solution to refining environmental practices all together. Analyzing the motives behind such social mobilization leads to reviewing the role of social movements. Both methods are substantially relevant when determining how to structure public policy and how to essentially work with the resources already available to better the very existence of native groups.
First and foremost, efforts to provide water to these Indigenous families is crucial. Amazon Frontlines’s ClearWater Program of rainwater filtration can only provide so much. In these recent times where climate change is a prominent factor, the Amazon rainforest has been experiencing “more frequent, more intense and widespread” (Garcia, 2018) droughts, as well as a global demand for beef and soy (Amazon Frontlines, 2019). These outside factors affect the overall ecosystem and communities living in it; nonetheless, the families greatly rely on water for many everyday routines such as drinking, bathing, and cooking. In order to provide communities with more water during the sunnier seasons, Amazon Frontlines should consider providing already filtered drinking water in containers, or simply asking for donations of drinkable water. An analogy for better understanding is when people are preparing for a hurricane or any natural disaster. Usually people will buy extra water gallons or water bottles to last for days, maybe even weeks or months.
Another possible solution can be to provide a natural purification system, which will further remove contaminants from existing sources of water besides rain. Systems can include burning the oil off and then running it back through the existing filtration system. To avoid creating industrial machines and reservoirs that will potentially harm the surrounding environment, it is important that innovations are not only easily accessible so individuals can remove oil from water themselves, but also highly competent, environmentally friendly, biodegradable, and inexpensive (Anuzyte, 2018; Vaisis 2018). Such methods include using repurposed absorbents (Guardian News, 2018), nanofibrillated cellulose (Seeker, 2015), and hydrophobic polymers (Oil Lift, 2012) that act as a sponge to clean up the oil lying on the surface of water. The one characteristic all of these products share is hydrophobicity, which is a major factor of the effectiveness in the sorbents as it determines the efficiency of oil absorption from water (Anuzyte, 2018; Vaisis 2018). In a recent experiment done by Anuzyte and Vaisis of Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, moss was handled with hot water, mercerized, and then coated with oil to test the absorption of diesel oil. The result showed that “hot water and alkali treatments can alter the surface characteristics of plant fibers and improve absorption capacity”, proving this to be an ideal natural and harmless sorbent (Anuzyte, 2018; Vaisis, 2018).
Although the value of money is of no use to the Indigenous people as they lead a very traditional and immersive way of life, it can be extremely helpful in many ways: funding useful innovations done by Amazon Frontlines, supporting the lifestyles of the native people, and exploring ways on how to properly and inexpensively remove oil from water. Thinking beyond monetary value, if people are willing to donate their time and join environmental activist groups such as Amazon Frontlines, then there should be an organized cleanup to help rebuild the surrounding communities. A regularly scheduled gathering of civilians to participate in cleanup of environmental disasters will ultimately improve the diligence and efficiency of responses to future oil spills (Sharpe, 2019). People can also invest in public transportation and other means of travel. By doing so, financial support for Texaco-Chevron and other oil companies will be disrupted as they have disturbed the social lives of Indigenous people (Davidov, 2016).


The future state of the Amazon fully depends all on the respect and rights of both the native people as well as the land itself. The Amazon region is home to a plethora of animals, plants, and Indigenous communities. The preservation of the freshwater is imperative and is necessary for basic human survival for everyone in the world. Because of the immoral actions done by oil companies and the incapability of the government to pursue any change in extractive or mining methods, Indigenous families are predominately facing hardships and threats everyday as they are in the frontlines of oil exploration. Indigenous communities are extremely reliant on the freshwater resource for everyday living and tasks. As a result of the contamination of what was once drinking water, individuals have experienced drastic illnesses as well as miscarriages and birth defects.
In view of the current socio-economic status Ecuador is in, it will take some time until their economy can find other ways to sustain itself without ruining what is considered a sacred place to the Indigenous community. Ultimately, the primary concern in all of this is the overall health and safety of the families. While the oil industry perseveres in Ecuador, there are many ways to work with resources that are convenient: contained drinkable water, environmentally friendly oil absorbents; a cooperative aid in cleanup; donations of time, money, and key supplies; and legal actions, protests, and negotiations.


  1. Anuzyte, E., & Vaisis, V. (2018). Natural oil sorbents modification methods for hydrophobicity improvement. Energy Procedia, 147, 295–300. https://doi-org.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/10.1016/j.egypro.2018.07.095

  2. Davidov, V. (2016). Social lives and symbolic capital: Indigenous “oil lawsuits” as sites of order and disorder making. Social Analysis, 3, 57. https://doi-org.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/10.3167/sa.2016.600304

  3. Garcia, B. N., Libonati, R., & Nunes, A. M. B. (2018). Extreme Drought Events over the Amazon Basin: The Perspective from the Reconstruction of South American Hydroclimate. WATER, 10(11). https://doi-org.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/10.3390/w10111594

  4. Pellegrini, L., & Arsel, M. (2018). Oil and Conflict in the Ecuadorian Amazon: An Exploration of Motives and Objectives/Petroleo y conflicto en el Amazonas ecuatoriano: Una exploración de motivos y objetivos. European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies/ Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y Del Caribe, 106, 209.

  5. Sharpe, J. D., Kaufman, J. A., Goldman, Z. E., Wolkin, A., & Gribble, M. O. (2019). Determinants of oil-spill cleanup participation following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Environmental Research, 170, 472–480. https://doi-org.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/10.1016/j.envres.2019.01.009

  6. Guardian News (2018). The cost-effective technology that can clean up oil spills. Retrieved March 28, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCRH2-L6Uss

  7. Oil Lift (2012). Oil Remover and oil water filtration or separation. Retrieved April 11, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRcaYeix8Zw

  8. Seeker (April 21, 2015) How Do We Clean Up Oil Spills? Retrieved April 11, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DbSlAg3F3A

  9. The True Story of Chevron's Ecuador Disaster. (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2020, from https://chevrontoxico.com/

  10. Webb, J., Mainville, N., Acero, J., Poveda, C., & Amazon Frontlines. Amazon Frontlines. Retrieved March 28, 2020, from https://www.amazonfrontlines.org/

Marissa Balbuena ©