Young Ecuadorians join the fight against oil production pollution in the Amazon

May 23, 2022 | 8 comments

By Anastasia Moloney

When 11-year-old Ecuadorean Leonela Moncayo sees the flames from a gas flare flickering above the jungle canopy near her home in the Amazon rainforest, anger makes her determined to fight the pollution caused by decades of oil drilling.

Young people living in Ecuador’s Amazon are taking up the battle against pollution, including the practice of burning off natural gas.

Moncayo lives in the ramshackle tropical town of Lago Agrio at the heart of Ecuador’s oil industry, where young people are leading demands for a ban on the use of flares to burn off the unwanted natural gas that escapes during crude extraction.

“I fear for my future and that of my family,” Moncayo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We live off the land, we’re farmers. The water isn’t safe to drink. The Amazon and its riches are being destroyed.”

There are hundreds of gas flares scattered across the northeastern Amazon provinces of Orellana, Sucumbios and Napo, which lie among forested slopes and active volcanoes.

For decades, local indigenous people, farming communities, environmental rights activists and lawyers have said flaring causes serious damage to the environment and health, contaminating the air and water supplies.

White sheets put out to dry one day are covered with black soot the next day, residents said.

Flaring wastes energy that could be used if captured instead of burned, and releases carbon dioxide along with methane and soot as waste gas, which also contributes to global warming.

But as Ecuador’s government plans to ramp up oil production, the country’s courts are starting to recognize the toxic fallout of flaring.

In a landmark case against the government filed by Moncayo and eight other schoolgirls, the provincial court of Sucumbios ruled that the use of flares violated their constitutional right to a healthy environment.

It ordered the Energy Ministry to eliminate the flares near inhabited areas of Orellana and Sucumbios within 18 months. Flares in more rural areas can operate until 2030.

Yet more than a year later, most of the flares continue to blink and burn in the rainforest as communities demand that the government comply with the ruling and provide better access to healthcare and clean water.

Judges also considered Ecuador’s law of “rights of nature” for rivers and ecosystems enshrined in its constitution in 2008, and ordered the Energy Ministry to issue a public apology.

That rare apology was given by two junior ministry officials at an event last month at a stadium in Lago Agrio where plaintiffs and a crowd of environmentalists and students had gathered.

“I understand your discontent. We all have families, we all have children,” said Diego Erazo, an energy ministry official.

He said an action plan was underway to remove the flares in the area, and that state-owned Petroecuador and foreign oil companies “are aware” they need to use new and cleaner technology to reduce the environmental impact.

A March report by the Energy Ministry details a plan in place to eliminate 342 active flares in the Amazon by 2030.

But the young plaintiffs who sued the government are growing impatient for officials to make good on their promises.

“We want the government to comply with the court ruling,” said 14-year-old Jamileth Jurado, another of girls who filed the legal complaint.

“We don’t need an apology while our health is being harmed. We need the pollution to stop. We need clean air and water.”

Data on the links between crude production and human health is insufficient and inconclusive, but many Lago Agrio residents think oil industry pollution including from flares plays a part in numerous conditions, among them cancer.

Jurado’s mother, Fanny Silva, 51, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer eight years ago, said she believed her illness was caused by pollution emitted by flares and chemicals – such as the cancer-causing substance benzene – that seep into the soil and rivers after oil spills.

“We live 500 meters (1,640 feet) in front of a gas flare. No one is safe from cancer,” said Silva, who has since been given the all-clear.

She, like many cancer patients, had to get care in the capital Quito, a five-hour drive away, due to a lack of cancer treatment facilities at the local hospital.

Credit: National Post


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