The Observers

Ecuador: Oil spill in Amazon rainforest 'could have been avoided'

A pipeline in Ecuador burst on January 28, causing more than a million litres of oil to spill into nearby rivers.
A pipeline in Ecuador burst on January 28, causing more than a million litres of oil to spill into nearby rivers. © Observers

More than a million litres of oil spilled in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador after a pipeline ruptured on January 28. The company that manages the pipeline said it was damaged by falling rocks, brought down by erosion and heavy rain, claiming that the incident "could not have been foreseen". But our Observer says this excuse isn't enough.

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The pipeline, managed by the private company OCP, is located in Ecuador, at the border of Napo and Sucumbíos provinces. 

The rupture in the OCP pipeline in Napo province on January 28.

The equivalent of 6,300 barrels of oil – more than a million litres – flowed into the nearby Coca and Napo rivers. The spill impacted up to 21,000 square metres of the Cayambe-Coca reserve, a protected area. 

Aerial view showing oil flowing into the Coca River on January 29. © Nicolas Mainville (Amazon Frontlines)

 

After the pipeline ruptured on January 28, the oil flowed into the Coca and Napo rivers, toward Peru.
After the pipeline ruptured on January 28, the oil flowed into the Coca and Napo rivers, toward Peru. © Observers

'Indigenous communities live on the Coca and Napo rivers'

Our Observer is Luis Xavier Solis, a lawyer specialised in human rights issues with the Alejandro Labaka Foundation. He lives in Orellana province, which was impacted by the spill. Solis told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that he considered the spill a disaster, for local inhabitants as well as the environment. 

The indigenous communities live on the Coca and Napo rivers. We're talking about 27,000 people, Quechuas. They drink the water from the rivers. They bathe in the rivers. They travel on the rivers. They eat food that comes from the rivers. And all of that has been spoiled.
In a video taken on February 3 in the province of Orellana, a man points out the oil stains on the banks of the Coca River.

In Ecuador, two pipelines transport oil from the Amazon to the Pacific coast: one managed by OCP, a private Ecuadorian company, and the other by PetroEcuador, a public company. 

A pipeline in a high-risk environment

On January 28, OCP said that its pipeline had been damaged by falling rocks in an incident that "could not have been foreseen".

However, oil transit had been suspended in the area in December 2021, due to the soil erosion that OCP said caused the problem. Both OCP and PetroEcuador had built diversions into their pipelines.

Luis Xavier Solis said:

We have repeatedly said that the leak on January 28 was foreseeable, and that it could even have been avoided. There have been several warnings from scientists and organisations like ours that we cannot continue to have a pipeline on the banks of a river, and in an area so exposed to landslides and rock falls, and so close to a volcano. These warnings were ignored by the Ecuadorian state and by private companies, which led to this new leak.

Hundreds of oil spills in recent years

Plus, there have been other oil spills in the area in the past, of varying degrees of severity. In April 2020, both Ecuadorian pipelines were damaged in the same place, leading to more than 15,000 barrels of oil being spilled. In May 2013, the equivalent of 11,000 barrels were spilled a few kilometres farther away. The equivalent of about 14,000 barrels were spilled in the same location in February 2009.

These aren't the only cases – various sources say that hundreds of oil spills have occurred in Ecuador in past years. 

According to the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador, "every week there are more than two oil spills in the Amazon", or more than a hundred a year. An investigation by the Ecuadorian website Plan V confirms this figure, adding that "between 2015 and June 2021, 899 oil leaks have been recorded". NGO Amazon Frontlines says: "According to the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment, more than 1,169 oil leaks were officially reported between 2005 and 2015 in Ecuador, 81% of which took place in the Amazon."

Luis Xavier Solis concluded:

When a spill occurs, the companies transporting the oil always say it was due to extenuating circumstances, to show that they aren't responsible. And they always tend to minimise their own impact.

Vidéo tournée à la limite entre les provinces de Napo et Sucumbíos, le 28 janvier. On y voit le pétrole s’écouler le long d’une route, en direction de la rivière Coca.
Vidéo tournée à la limite entre les provinces de Napo et Sucumbíos, le 28 janvier. On y voit le pétrole s’écouler le long d’une route, en direction de la rivière Coca. © Vidéo amateur.