Gas flares continue to burn in the Ecuadorian Amazon despite court order to stop them

May 16, 2024 | 0 comments

By Kimberly Brown

Fourteen-year-old Leonela Moncayo gets angry when she talks about the gas flares burning near her home. She grew up on the outskirts of Lago Agrio, a city on the edge of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, at the heart of its oil industry, where patches of tropical forest canopy are interspersed with oil wells spewing huge flames of fossil gas.

Leonela Moncayo, 14, is one of nine schoolgirls involved in the case against the state to close all gas flares in Ecuador’s Amazon. (Kimberley Brown)

For Moncayo, these gas flares have meant disease and death for many in her community, which is why she and other schoolgirls have been leading the fight to have them turned off.

“As young girls, we are fighting for our future because we want our future to be better – to not live with the danger that just by breathing the air we are being contaminated,” says Moncayo.

More than 400 flares are scattered across Ecuador’s northern Amazon, burning the fossil gas that escapes while extracting crude oil from below ground. Oil production accounts for nearly one-third of Ecuador’s GDP, and most of it is extracted from the Amazon.

Local activists as well as Indigenous and campesino (farmer) communities have long warned of the harmful impacts of the industry. Between 1964 and 1990, billions of litres of toxic water were released into the environment in an incident called the “Amazon Chernobyl”.

In 2021, Moncayo and eight other schoolgirls from the region won a historic lawsuit against the state after they sued the ministries of energy and environment for permitting flares to burn for so many years. The girls argued that it violated their constitutional right to a healthy environment.

“There is no drinking water here,” says Moncayo. “All the rivers are polluted. There is not one healthy river. They are all completely destroyed.”

Activist Donald Moncayo Jimenez, of the Union of People Affected by Chevron-Texaco (Udapt), stands next to a mechero (gas flare) from a refinery operated by state-run oil company Petroecuador. (Pedro Pardo)

The court gave the energy ministry 18 months to close the gas flares near inhabited areas in Ecuador’s northern Amazon. The flares farther from populated areas have until 2030 to be shut down.

The court also ordered the environment ministry to coordinate and carry out an annual plan to monitor the restoration of the environment around gas flares and test local water sources for toxins. The health ministry was ordered to undertake a study to better understand the health impacts of oil activity in the region and create a special oncology clinic if necessary. Both ministries had six months to present these plans.

Pablo Fajardo, the lawyer representing the girls in the court case, says none of the ministries have complied with the ruling. Meanwhile, the number of gas flares has increased in the region. “The damage being caused is multilateral. It affects the environment, which is life, water, the economy and health,” says Fajardo.

Last year, the energy ministry said it was committed to complying with the court ruling, and the state-owned oil company Petroecuador was developing a plan and schedule to shut down all gas flares by 2030. As of April, Petroecuador says it has already shut down 145 flares.

But Fajardo says flames are still burning near homes and populated areas.

A Petroecuador gas flare near homes in Shushufindi, Sucumbíos province. (Pedro Pardo)

Neither the energy or environment ministry, nor Petroecuador, responded to requests for an interview.

In January, Moncayo and the other girls involved in the case travelled to the capital, Quito, to put pressure on lawmakers to ensure the court order was carried out. Videos from that day circulated widely on social media, showing the girls in the national assembly yelling at Andrea Arrobo, the energy minister at the time, after she told the girls: “Don’t allow yourselves to be manipulated.”

“What’s wrong with you, señora?” yelled Moncayo.

“We reacted badly. I was just angry because it was really disrespectful,” acknowledges Moncayo. “She doesn’t know what it is like to live with these gas flares, to have it in front of our house, next to your house, or to live in the middle of eight gas flares. She doesn’t know all those consequences that we live with daily.”

The girls have since led protests and press conferences to raise awareness of the issue and run into conflict with the police. Earlier this year, a bomb went off in front of Moncayo’s house, which she and her family believe was due to her activism. Authorities offered her police protection, but she refused as they told her she would have to stop making public statements, being active on social media, and travelling outside the province.

The negative impacts of the oil industry’s gas flaring and venting have long been documented. These processes release millions of tonnes of carbon, methane, black soot, nitrous oxide and other toxic elements into the atmosphere.

The group of young activists to which Leonela Moncayo belongs, sometimes called ‘las 9 niñas’, demonstrating in Quito. (Karen Toro)

One study by Rice University in Houston, Texas suggests that gas flares in North Dakota and Texas have led to breathing disorders and respiratory and heart disease in nearby populations. Another study from the University of Tehran, and the University of Guilan in Iran found that gas flares were releasing high rates of benzene, a dangerous cancer-causing chemical, while a study authored by researchers from the University of California and the University of Southern California suggests that gas flaring can cause women to give birth prematurely.

In Enokanqui, about 35 miles (55km) from Lago Agrio, many people still live within 100 metres of four large flares. Flames can be seen from back yards and kitchen windows, and the smell of gas permeates the humid tropical air.

Jaime Ruiz moved to Enokanqui with his family more than 16 years ago, when just one gas flare burned beside their house. He didn’t pay much attention to it. They were never consulted or warned about the expansion of flares over the years.

Today, they suffer from recurring tonsillitis and have developed allergies, he says. Other neighbours tell of chronic bronchitis, sore throats and extreme headaches, all of which become worse at night when the smell of gas is strongest.

In 2021, two local environmental groups – the Union of People Affected by Chevron-Texaco and Clínica Ambiental – conducted a health survey of communities living near oil operations in the northern Amazon. They found that nearly 480 people in the region suffered from cancer, and the numbers increased the closer they lived to gas flares.

Valeria Ochoa-Herrera, an environmental engineer with San Francisco University in Quito, says the study lacks data to directly correlate the various forms of cancer with gas flaring in Ecuador’s Amazon. However, she adds, there is also a lack of studies showing the impact of gas flares in the region.

These include understanding how and how far the gas particles are dispersed from the flame, what chemicals humans breathe in directly, and how much of that gets into crops and river systems to be subsequently consumed by humans.

Ochoa-Herrera says more studies also need to be done on the effects on the region’s large array of insects. Many of these are attracted to the flame and charred when they fly too close, and are then eaten by birds and other small mammals.

“There are things that they just don’t know yet. Unfortunately, there are very few studies,” says Ochoa-Herrera.

There are, however, studies showing other benefits to turning off gas flares, such as reducing the impact on the planet. The World Bank estimated that in 2022 alone, the CO2 released from gas flaring and venting were equivalent to the emissions from 83m cars.

In 2015, the World Bank launched the zero routine flaring initiative to encourage governments and oil companies globally to stop gas flaring by 2030, but so far progress has been slow. The Ecuadorian government and Petroecuador have endorsed the initiative, however.

Tomás de Oliveira Bredariol, an energy and environmental policy analyst with the International Energy Agency, says eliminating gas flares doesn’t have to be complicated. The transition could include building a fossil gas pipeline connecting various oil wells in one region and making it easier to sell or compress the gas for transportation by truck or ship. It could also be generated into electricity for use onsite in the company’s operations.

Though it may cost tens of thousands of dollars, he says the income from selling or using the fossil gas would offset a large portion of those costs.

“If you take into account the community’s perspective, the health gains, the climate gains, and all of the other gains related to reducing flaring, then it will certainly be economical,” says Bredariol.

An 18-month timeline to transition away from gas flaring, according to Ecuador’s court ruling, may be challenging but not impossible, he adds. “It can certainly be done in all places in a matter of a few years.”

In Lago Agrio, Moncayo, who is inspired by Greta Thunberg, says she will ensure things change in Ecuador.

“We are fighting because we do not want to be the next victims of this cancer,” she says. “It is not only for us but also for the generations to come.”

Credit: The Guardian


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