The Waorani Beat Chevron, But Their Water is Still Contaminated

What happens when you beat out the oil company that destroyed your land in court, but your land is still destroyed? That’s the question being faced by Amazonian tribes in Ecuador who may have finally received some justice on the legal side of things, but who still need environmental justice.

After decades of ravaging the Amazon, leaving pollution behind them, oil and gas companies are refusing to take responsibility for tainted air, water and soil; moreover, they’re continuing operations, adding to the already existing environmental problems in the region.

The Waorani are among a number of indigenous tribespeople who inhabit the northern reaches of the Amazon in Ecuador. The region they have called home for thousands of years is ecologically fragile, and their culture is complex, built upon centuries of living in and with the forest. That began to change in the 20th century with the advent of oil and gas exploration that started to penetrate deeply into the Amazon as Ecuador’s easily-accessible reserves dwindled and companies like Texaco (now owned by Chevron) began putting their feelers out into the jungle.

Oil companies pressured the Waorani, along with neighbors like the Cofan, Siona, Kichwa and Secoya, to shuffle themselves into small reserves near roads and settlements, in a radical departure from their former way of life. Many were forced into poverty and dependence on the outside, rather than living on their own as hunters and gatherers, and the rate of environmental illnesses also began to increase as their rivers ran black and sludgy, making the water impossible to drink; even touching the water created peculiar rashes and sores.

In a complex, multi-year suit, Amazonian tribes took the matter to court, demanding justice from oil companies for the damage done to their lives. Their entry into the courts was accomplished by banding together as a group with farmers as well as legal advocates, and eventually, they won a substantial judgment, one Chevron refuses to pay, arguing that it shouldn’t be forced to bear environmental liability to anything Texaco might have done before the acquisition.

Legal, and physical, battles have raged back and forth in the oil-torn region, but one thing has remained consistent: The once-clean air, soil, and water are no longer safe for the people who count on them for survival.

After years of pleading for justice, the Waorani have taken at least one thing upon themselves: They’re working to rectify the clean water situation on their own, instead of relying on makeshift rainwater collectors, dangerous river water or supplies rationed out by Repsol, the Spanish oil company that now controls much of their lands. Repsol, in addition to paying out paltry benefits to members of the tribe, also claims that it’s tried to provide water filtration in their village only to be rebuffed. The tribe’s demands for clean water tell a different story.

In conjunction with ClearWater, an organization working with tribes in the Amazon to provide clean water sources, the Waorani are building their own water collection, filtration and storage systems. Intriguingly, ClearWater is one of a new wave of organizations working on the ground in disadvantaged communities.

Rather than taking a top-down philosophy, the group approached the Waorani, asked them what they needed and worked side by side with them to meet the goal of providing clean, fresh water for the community. Their goal is to help the tribespeople create their own sustainable clean water systems, so they can live independently, without having to ask for outside support — a departure from the often colonialist and patronizing approaches used historically to “help” communities like the Waorani.

Empowered by the ability to create their own water source, Amazonian tribespeople are better prepared to take on the fight for environmental remediation and the assignation of liability for same; because the people who looked after the rainforest for generations should hardly be held responsible for the damage done in just a few decades of oil and gas exploration.

Photo credit: Jean François-Renaud

46 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Mark Donners
Mark Donner3 years ago

Never buy gas from Chevron. Criminal company.

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Jennifer Hayes
Jennifer H3 years ago

Thanks for sharing. Now BP has company with Chevron. Must be nice to be able to be so irresponsible and no one can do anything about it.

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Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

Such a shame.

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Anteater Ants
Anteater Ants3 years ago

How can Chevron be forced to clean the water???

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Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Allow their right of basic need

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John chapman
John chapman3 years ago

Just look at the damage that the oil companies did to Louisiana back in the 20's.

I wish them luck, but I don't hold out much real hope.

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Sara G.
Sara Away G3 years ago

It seems the oil companies get away with anything they want. And even when they get an occasional ruling against them here and there, it's like one grain of sand off the beach. They continue as ever before, raping the earth in the interests of profits and greed.

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Sherri Foster
Sherri Foster3 years ago

Another example of the callous irresponsibility of big oil companies and their egregious self serving agendas to be met at any ecological or humanitarian cost.

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Catrin K.

We should make the oil companies drink that contaminated water until it is cleaned up . We would see results very fast !

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