Lago Agrio, Ecuador -Donald Moncayo scrapes the sandy soil with his shovel, kneels down, and scoops up a handful of dirt. Then open the palm of your hand, carefully separate the dark mass and select one insect after another: beetles, moths, wasps, ants. "Here thousands of insects of all kinds die every night," says Moncayo, dumping them back into their common grave. A mass grave in which generations of small cremated animals lie. Charred snakes have even been found. Ten meters above its remains a flame burns skyward. Depending on the pressure of the well, it can be seen even from space. Thus the flame turns the night into day and the day into hell. And this has happened since 1974.
After a few seconds the sweat drips from the forehead. One cannot stay here for long. Smells like burning gas. And suddenly in danger too. Because on the horizon, where most of the Aguarico 3 station of the state oil company Petroamazonas is located, two security men have appeared. Moncayo says that everything is fine. But as a precaution we continued the conversation in the forest. Also because of the heat.
We are an hour southeast of Nueva Loja, in the Ecuadorian jungle, where most of the country's oil is extracted. When the first flames of the Ecuadorian lighters came out, there was still no talk about the protection of the environment and much less about climate change. Starting in the 1960s, the industry made its way into a sparsely populated area: first with bulldozers, as we know them from the movie Avatar, then with huge trucks, and even helicopters, loaded with metal tubes and tanks.
The oil accumulated underground is almost always accompanied by water and gas. This water, called formation water, is highly toxic. It rises to the surface along with the crude oil and for decades it was dumped into the moors and rivers; The gas, in turn, burns and long carbon dioxide, heavy metals, sulfur, nitrogen oxide and methane. These polluting gases enter the atmosphere, and when it rains in the region soot falls from the sky.
Associated gas could be used
The oil industry a few years ago began to show itself aware of this problem. The reason is not the damage caused to flora, fauna and humans, but the international debate on carbon dioxide (Co2) emissions and their influence on climate change. Scientists have calculated that at least one percent of global CO2 emissions originate from the combustion of the gas associated with old-time lighters. Obtaining exact data is not possible, due to the lack of reliable studies on gas composition.
Russia, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq and the United States top the list of countries that burn the most associated gas in the world. Followed by Algeria, Kazakhstan, Angola and Saudi Arabia. Ecuador lags further behind with considerably lower cargo values. Likewise, the mass grave of the Aguarico 3 station continues to grow day by day. And this despite the existing technology that makes the use of this gas possible. In Canada, for example, it has been used for almost a hundred years, in Norway and Saudi Arabia (at least in part) for almost fifty. Associated gas can not only be used to generate electricity or liquefied gas, but also for petrochemicals.
We leave the lighters behind and go into the jungle. Moncayo a few weeks ago had to clear the trail again. Company employees or local helpers, the 45-year-old says, have filled in the old access to Aguarico 3. That happens every two times three. "But it's important to me," he says, "that people see what is happening here up close." Consider putting yourself in danger as part of your job.
The path to the river bed without water is steep. Moncayo lays down the machete and drives the shovel into the hard bark. The piece of dirt peeling off the wall is black inside and smells like tar. "Oil spill," he says, holding it to the camera. When the industry took hold in the region, the tap of the pipe (goose tap) was opened for an hour to evaluate the amount of oil. The crude leaked without precaution or concern to the environment "so they knew how much oil can be extracted in 24 hours and what that means in barrels."
Brad Pitt and Calle 13
Donald Moncayo stares into space. For nearly twenty years he has guided people from all over the world to the most polluted places. Also those that the industry claims to have cleaned. Moncayo's shovel shows the opposite. He knows the area and its history like few others. Relatives, neighbors, friends and acquaintances, many of them employees or former employees of some sector of the oil industry provide information and anecdotes. It also has a good international network, regularly travels to events, participates in panel discussions, and obtains information from the Internet.
Public interest in the trial of the century against the multinational oil company Texaco / Chevron, one of the first companies to operate here, led personalities such as Brad Pitt, director Trudie Styler (Sting's wife) and the musicians of Calle 13 to travel to the region. Moncayo took them on the Toxic-Tour to the same places that environmental politicians from Europe, representatives of NGOs from the United States and Canada or students from Quito visited. The Toxic-Tour created a window into a world that hardly anyone wants to see.
The state loses taxes
International decision-makers became aware of the combustion of associated gases thanks to public pressure. In 2015, for example, the World Bank beganWorld Association for the Reduction of Gas Burning all over the world. This involves 25 governments, 31 oil companies and 15 NGOs. The objective of the initiative is to stop gas burning before the year 2030. Ecuador also participates. However, to date only a few of the 380 oldest lighters in the country have been rectified.
The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) has investigated what lighters mean for the environment and the economy. The 36-page study looks like an instruction manual for inefficient management: more than 140 billion cubic meters of associated gas are burned worldwide each year. This corresponds to the CO2 emissions of 77 million cars or the annual consumption of natural gas of Germany and France together (2011). Additionally, oil-producing countries that burn gas lose about $ 10 billion annually in tax revenue as a result of burning. In 2008, the same amount that the Swiss government needed to save the United Bank of Switzerland (UBS) was burned in gas: 68,000 million.
“We must understand that the air knows no borders. Today it is here, tomorrow in another town, in another city, in another country or another continent, along with the gas that is burned in these lighters. So when we talk about global warming we have to think about what is happening here. "
Donald Moncayo, environmentalist, Ecuador
The reason behind this economic and ecological madness: the lack of infrastructure and the lack of a market. This is what governments say and this is also what the BMZ report says: “The high investment costs for the development of infrastructure hinder the economic use of associated gas. You can even question the profitability of the entire project. " Similar are the arguments of the Ecuadorian government, which Donald Moncayo vehemently contradicts. "Investments for the use of associated gas would pay off in a short time," he says. And yes, there is a market. "But behind the lack of use of this energy there is a business of the central government in Quito that prefers to buy derivatives."
And really: according to figures from the state company Petroecuador in 2016, almost 50 million barrels of petroleum derivatives such as diesel, gasoline or liquefied gas were imported. Fuels that are later used to operate plants such as Aguarico 3. By the way: the residents of this plant do not cook with gas, but with wood from the forest ...
A mother dies after washing clothes in the river
At the end of the Toxic-Tour we visit the aunt of Donald Moncayo, a 78-year-old woman who has witnessed oil contamination for decades. Mariana Jiménez lives just a hundred meters away from one of the old lighters and, depending on the wind, her whole house smells like a gas station.
Donald Moncayo sits on one of the plastic chairs on the terrace and remembers his childhood: “To be able to bathe in the river we had to remove the layer of oil with a piece of soap. Only then could we get more or less safe. Logically, the small oil particles still remained in the water ”. The first time he left Nueva Loja, he saw that there were unpolluted sources of water. "Until then it was normal for me to see rivers poisoned with oil and chemicals."
However, he and his family only became aware of the poisoning when his mother went to the river to wash clothes. Like many other women in the area, the river was the place where they washed and where whole families gathered to share a picnic on the weekend. Recently, her mother had healed from an abscess on her hip, the scar was practically covered. But a few hours later, when she was found suffocating on the shore, the old injury turned into a balloon the size of a soccer ball. 24 hours later, the 33-year-old was dead and the 13-year-old Donald was an orphan; his father had already died before.
Below the terrace, a few meters from the burner, is the family cocoa plantation. Many of the pods have dried out or are rotten, also due to soot and acid rain. Today the population of Nueva Loja (Sucumbíos Province) and its surroundings (Orellana Province) is better informed. Many of them are aware of the high rate of cancer around oil rigs and lighters, the death of livestock and miscarriages. Donald's mother had three miscarriages and lost two babies within a few months of birth. The three children who still live - including Donald - grew up far from oil wells and with access to clean water. Donald smiles and says, "Here in the zone death moves by leaps and bounds."
One would like to laugh along with the intrepid environmentalist who fights for the rights of nature and hopes that his daughter will one day be able to swim in a living river. But the man with the shovel in his hand and cynicism on his lips does not live without danger. Insults and threats are common. He also had to kick people off his property who were photographing his house from the street. He himself says dryly: "If I die where I was born, that's good."
"We want to live!"
A few weeks after our visit to Lago Agrio, Moncayo appears in a video. On his back the lighters of the Aguarico 3 station hiss, around him are a dozen activists from all over the world: “We must understand,” he says in a calm voice, “that the air knows no borders. So when we talk about global warming, we have to think about what is happening here. "
The video was the result of the call for a demonstration against the burning of associated gas, in which several hundred people participated, at the beginning of October in Nueva Loja. The motto: We want to live!
Author: Romano Paganini
Main photo:Donald Moncayo shows visitors one of the pools on the outskirts of Nueva Loja, Ecuador, where the oil industry dumped its waste for decades, and which to this day continues to pollute water and land.(Alejandro Ramírez Anderson)