Oil Spills In The Amazon: A Never-ending Tragedy
EOSDA introduces satellite imagery analytics for remote monitoring of oil extraction sites and transportation routes and assessing the aftermaths of environmental disasters.
For centuries, indigenous people have been living in peace with nature on a territory of more than 20 million acres of Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest — a place on Earth with unparalleled biodiversity. Now, the area is in danger of being ruined forever due to the dire consequences of oil extraction.
In 2020, indigenous communities faced the largest oil spill in 15 years. Almost two years later, rivers turned black again. EOS Data Analytics, pursuing its mission to preserve the planet, used satellite imagery analytics to support the research into the oil spill consequences. Representatives of the indigenous communities and an expert from an environmental NGO joined the discussion.
What Happened In 2020?
Indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon had a devastating spring night due to the accident that made the headlines. On April 7, 2020, three pipelines (SOTE, OCP, and Poliducto Shushufindi-Quito) in the upper part of the Coca river ruptured after a landslide resulting in a spill of crude oil and fuel in the San Rafael sector, on the border between the Napo and Sucumbíos provinces. The oil soon washed downstream, contaminating the Amazon’s tributary Napo River and even reaching Cabo Pantoja’s town in Peru. In addition, the spill route ran near or through Yasuní, Cayambe Coca, and Sumaco-Napo Galeras national parks.
A pipeline collapse in Amazonian Ecuador is more of a pattern than a surprise due to its natural landscape features. Oil extracted in a rainforest is transported to the Pacific Coast through the Andes. Pipelines can be laid along rivers, for instance, in the Coca river area. The problem is the region is unstable, with volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and frequent flash floods happening from time to time. That’s why any infrastructure built here is at risk. And as for oil extraction facilities, their damage would inevitably lead to environmental harm. There were several incidents with the SOTE pipeline before 2020. Given the tendency, a new pipeline collapse was a matter of time.
The 2020 pipeline rupture was caused by a headward erosion in the Coca river. Headward erosion is when a river erodes its source region, lengthening its channel in a direction opposite to that of flow. Through these changes, the river started descending with great force, which ended up breaking off part of the lateral slope. Erosion reached the spot where pipelines were buried and caused their damage.
But why did the erosion occur in the first place? There is a theory that human activities had triggered it. Some experts connect the erosion with the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric dam, particularly its diversion reservoir. The reservoir has a system of sand traps filtering the water from sediment (Coca is a high-sediment river.) Waters with decreased sediment load try to recover it by eroding a river bed and banks. This phenomenon is called ‘hungry waters.’ So, hungry waters are the reason why the 150-meter-high waterfall San Rafael changed its course on February 2, 2020.
It’s worth adding that the discussion about the erosion origin was active before the oil spill. Alfredo Carrasco, a geologist and former secretary of Natural Capital at Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment, noted the erosion and further San Rafael’s collapse had a natural origin.
Oil Spill Aftermath: River And Land Polluted, Peoples’ Well-being Destroyed
Indigenous communities living in the vicinity of the pipelines and relying on Coca and Napo river waters faced the accident consequences shortly.
The smell was very strong, and when we went to see the river, it was covered with oil. At first, we neither knew what to do nor where to go. The Napo river is our last water source; it’s crucial for people living on its banks.
We went down to the river and saw oil all over the shore. Plants protecting the river bank were heavily contaminated and had oil stains on their leaves. Stones were also black. It all looked hideous.
For these communities, the problem itself is not only the spill. The river is their primary source of livelihood: they fish in it, bathe, and wash clothes. On top of preventing Amazon inhabitants from using water for daily activities, oil contamination affects the region’s biodiversity.
Before the spill, several species of fish lived in the river. There is a specific month when the female bocachicos go to the lagoons to lay their eggs. That month, the Kichwa people were happy fishing. There were also fish that came down every 2–3 days. When the fish came up in great quantities, we caught as many as possible to feed our families. The difference is that there aren’t many fish anymore. Now you can only see a few fish, either dead or skinny.
The river is no longer safe for fishing and bathing because much oil has sunk to the bottom of the river, thus releasing its poison.
As a result, indigenous people had to rely on clean water and food shipments instead of living off the land and river like their ancestors had for centuries. Cuji says community leaders have asked for help constructing wells to get clean water.
The affected indigenous territories overlap the Bajo Napo Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) — home to more than 580 species of birds and animals, for example, jaguars, lowland tapirs, Amazon river dolphins, harpy eagles, and tyrant flycatchers. These species are already at risk because of deforestation (lands are used for agricultural activities like cattle ranching) and poaching for the wildlife trade. Oil spills only make the situation worse.
Satellite image analysis of affected areas can also indicate dire consequences of oil spills on nature. EOSDA obtained high-resolution images of the San Rafael waterfall area to evaluate how oil contamination affected surrounding greenery.
The accident caused vegetation decline near the Coca River. The trees, which acted like cement for the soil on the shores up to that point, couldn’t grow after the destructive impact of oil products. As a result, existing erosion increased.
We analyzed vegetation changes near San Rafael using the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) in the EOSDA Crop Monitoring platform. The results showed a 25% vegetation drop in the area after April 7, 2020. The images also show the green zone of the vegetation had become much smaller due to the soil erosion.
Interestingly, indigenous communities became those who brought the news about the catastrophe. At least to specialists from environmental NGOs working in the region.
Amazon Watch’s ex Ecuador Coordinator Carlos Mazabanda recalls finding out about “some oil in the river” from indigenous communities. Later, official information about a pipeline breakdown from Petroecuador (the state oil company operating the SOTE pipeline network whose pipeline ruptured) was out. According to the specialist, no details on the oil spill size were given at the time. Nevertheless, photos from indigenous communities could provide some insight into the problem.
They [companies] always say the situation is under control, but the first photo from the indigenous communities around this area was awful. For example, I remember the image of one kid fishing when the pipeline collapsed. He got out of the river with oil all over his body. After that, we started seeing many such images taken in other areas.
According to environmental NGOs and local leaders, more than 150 indigenous communities from 22 parishes in the provinces of Sucumbíos, Napo, and Orellana directly suffered the consequences of the oil spill. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie) in their statement estimated that about 118,000 people were affected by the catastrophe, including those who suffered the consequences indirectly. Among them, more than 27,000 people struggled with access to water and food. According to Verónica Grefa, it was impossible to consume the water, go fishing, and do rituals in the river.
People from the communities also developed health issues. The exposure to the crude oil has caused numerous skin and stomach diseases, some of them permanent. Veronica Cuji reports many people in her Seoqueya community have experienced intestinal issues.
Greva notes that among the symptoms locals had shortly after the spill were headache, suffocation, and severe dizziness.
The April 2020 oil spill became the second largest in Ecuador for the last 15 years. In total, around 15,800 barrels were lost and spilled. According to Alexandra Almeida of the environmental organization Acción Ecológica, 360 kilometres of rivers have been polluted. The organization inspected water and soil samples on the banks of the Coca and Napo rivers, on the territory of six affected communities. The report issued in October 2020 concluded the presence of contaminants like hydrocarbons and heavy metals (e.g., nickel, lead, and vanadium). For instance, one of the samples had 191 times more lead than allowed the norm. So, despite remediation efforts, these territories remained dangerous for the locals regarding access to clean water and food.
Unfortunately, signs of pollution remained a year after the spill.
The poison is still here. That spill has left enough sediment on the Napo River banks. I saw that the company responsible for the cleanup of the oil spill didn’t do it. I think they [oil company representatives] made an illusion of remediation to justify themselves in front of the communities. But I see nothing is done. We are fishing, consuming the same river water, and there are fish that still smell gasoline.
Oil pollution affects the human organism gradually.
Let us hope that a few years from now, nothing happens to our young people who are also eating fish.
It Does Not Rain, It Pours
Three factors have been affecting the living conditions of communities, their economic and social rights.
The COVID-19 pandemic. Indigenous peoples had to deal with the health emergency caused by the COVID-19 virus. River water and soil pollution mean a slow death for people whose lifestyles are based on access to natural resources. Moreover, the communities could no longer use polluted medical plants. It was also difficult for healthcare workers “from the outside world” to help people promptly and supply them with COVID tests, medicine, and hygiene supplies, as many settlements are so remote that they can only be reached by water or air.
Environmentally harmful oil extraction. There are negative effects caused by extractivism in the Amazon and the lack of preventive and safety measures of the exploiting companies with respect to the environment. As a result, the area suffered numerous spills and other natural disasters. On the country level, the number of spills is enormous even if we discuss the last two decades. From 2005 to 2015, more than 1169 oil spills were officially reported in the country, out of which 81% (952) oil wells occurred in the Amazon region. And between 2015 and 2021, there 899 registered incidents.
Marginalization of indigenous communities. The communities have been facing historical marginalization and had lack of support by the government. In 2007, Ecuador voted in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ratified the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169. However, people from indigenous communities don’t have full guarantees of civil, territorial, political, and cultural rights. Nevertheless, they put much effort into restoring them in the legal field.
Moral And Ecological Crossroads
Back in April 2020, up to 105 communities filed a class-action lawsuit for environmental reparation, which Ecuador’s Provincial Court of Orellana rejected in March 2021.
As the organization leader, I feel that our rights have been violated; our claim is for a reason. We feel humiliated, and we demand justice.
From May 2020 onwards, the company stopped delivering food. It didn’t even come back again to ask the inhabitants of these communities if they felt well or if they needed urgent medical attention.
Indigenous peoples expected more help and understanding of their needs from the oil company and the state.
Regarding food, the governmental institutions no longer want to attend to us. We had been surviving on our own. The company responsible for the pipeline stresses it came with plenty of food that would last for 15 days. And I ask myself, what were we going to do with 3-5 pounds of rice, a bag of noodles and oatmeal, and a tin of sardines? This food is not in the diet of our culture.
We got one large drinking water bottle. It’s a glass for each of us, but we also need water for cooking, washing, and bathing. They gave us four gallons of technical water, each of which is enough for just a few hours. During those 15 days, we had to go back to the river.
Indigenous communities also worried that oil spills will continue killing their Amazonian home. And they were right: the new accident happened in less than two years.
History Repeats Itself In 2022
As if it were a macabre joke, the same situation repeated on January 28, 2022. Once again, the OCP pipeline burst (though it happened in another sector of the Napo province, Piedra Fina), and nearly 3,600 barrels of crude oil flowed into Coca and Napo rivers. The incident occurred due to a rockslide after heavy rains in the previous hours.
The OCP Ecuador oil transport company assured that the rupture detection system worked and stopped pumping crude oil, and, thanks to the construction of pools, only “small traces” of crude (1000 barrels) leaked into the river. The remaining 5,300 of oil were reportedly collected and stored for export.
The spill polluted about 2 hectares in the Cayambe-Coca national reserve (estimates differ from 16,913 to almost 21,000 square meters). The national park’s biodiversity is impressive: 100 endemic plant species, 900 species of birds, 200 mammal species, 140 reptiles, and 116 amphibians live there.
The indigenous communities around the Coca river were, once again, in a situation of vulnerability as they couldn’t count on one of their primary natural resources until all the contamination was eliminated. While the company promised compensation to everyone affected, many communities haven’t been reimbursed for the 2020 disaster.
It is also unclear what compensation for the latest accident indigenous peoples will receive and whether or not it will allow them to go on with their lives. Indigenous peoples don’t appreciate material things as much as residents of big cities. They must have access to natural resources — clean water, fish, plants, or soil.
The pipeline restarted 11 days after the spill, on February 7.
Satellite Imagery Analytics For Monitoring Oil Extraction And Transportation Areas And Evaluating Damage Done
Monitoring of territories with oil fields and petroleum pipelines using satellite imagery is one of the measures government agencies and oil companies can take to know about the state of infrastructure and surrounding land.
Specialists can keep track of erosion-prone areas to know about risks to pipelines’ integrity in advance and take needed actions to avoid incidents. For example, shut down a pipeline and strengthen river banks. Or if the spill did happen, satellite imagery can be used to define the affected areas
Time To Act
Indigenous communities who suffered two ecological catastrophes in two years are determined to fight until the Amazon is safe from disruption to wildlife and land damage caused by oil extraction.
Since oil is essential for modern economies, the least the petroleum industry players can do is take necessary precautions and assume responsibility for people and the environment affected by pipeline collapses and spills.
We defend our collective rights. We protect our territory, traditions, culture, and access to water and food. That’s all we have.
EOSDA’s mission is to help preserve our planet’s environment by providing software solutions and expertise in satellite imagery analytics to manage its resources wisely. We use satellite data and machine learning to analyze this data for solving tasks, and our solutions focus on sustainable practices. At the same time, we admire the knowledge indigenous communities have been acquiring by living in harmony with nature. These people set the example of sustainable resource management. For this reason, we believe that their voice must be taken into account when making any decision about the territories they live in.
On February 4, 2022, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador made a ruling that allows indigenous communities to decide on mineral and oil extraction projects that may affect the lands on which they live. The verdict derives from a lawsuit dating back to 2018 when the A’i Kofan community of Sinangoe requested to cancel up to 52 gold mining concessions along the river they use for everyday needs.
The event could set a powerful legal precedent for protecting 23 million acres of indigenous territories. Activists expected the ruling would prevent Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso from implementing his plan to double oil extraction to 800,000 barrels per day in the next five years. It didn’t, unfortunately. In April 2022, it was known that the country started pumping oil from a third field partly located in Yasumi park. The field called Ishpingo along with two others (Tiputini and Tambococha) make the so-called ITT block, which holds over 40% of Ecuador’s proven crude oil deposits.
Indigenous people don’t give up their fight to protect their lands from harmful oil extraction. They took to the streets in June 2022 demanding the authorities increase fuel subsidies, prohibit new oil and mining projects, and curb plans to privatize state assets. We hope indigenous peoples and environmentalists will reach their goals at least partially.
Find out more natural disasters 2022, their devastating effects, and how satellite technologies contribute in their management and recovery process.
About the author:
Natalia Borotkanych has been working in the space sector for more than 15 years now. Her experience includes working in business, science, education, and government projects.
Natalia has a PhD in space history, Master’s Degree in Foreign Policy from the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine, as well as Master’s Degree in Public Management and Administration from National Academy for Public Administration under the President of Ukraine.
Building upon her experience of working in the State Space Agency of Ukraine, Natalia now specializes in helping the state bodies and NGOs to implement the satellite monitoring technologies for solving real-world problems and for smart decision-making.
Natalia is an active science communicator. She is a scientific editor at The Universe. Space. Tech magazine. She also teaches a “Space diplomacy” course at the National Aviation University.
Natalia's experience in project coordination and scientific expertise in the space sector are much appreciated at EOS Data Analytics.
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