World Rainforest Movement

Death and disease: The oil curse

Thousands of indigenous peoples are displaced from their land, which is militarized and expropriated in an unending genocide. Oil exploitation is carried out – causing damages that go uncompensated – without consulting the communities and with the connivance of the government of the time. Transnational companies such as Shell, Repsol, and Maxus appropriate territorial spaces under the pretext that they are of “public utility”, they contaminate bodies of water and river beds, they deforest virgin forests and generate impacts destroying the future.

In Colombia, the Guahibo indigenous peoples who inhabited the Arauca savannahs were decimated by the activities of the Occidental Petroleum Company. The Yariguis and Aripis were exterminated by the Standard Oil Company in 1915; in 1931 the Bari-Motilon people were violently attacked by the Gula, Mobil and Texas Petroleum Companies that indiscriminately murdered, set up electrified fences or gave out poisoned salt which they threw from planes as presents. In 1960, the Inga, Siona and Cofan peoples were scattered and their rivers turned into sewers by the oil industry. In 1980, Occidental and Shell subdued the Saliva and Sicuani, Betoye, Hitnu or Macaguane, Hitanu or Iguanito and Dome Jiwi, expropriating 70-95% of their territories and leaving them in utter poverty. In 1991 243 indigenous leaders of the Zenu, Koreguajes, Pastops and Pijao peoples were murdered. In 1992, the exploration company Fronteras launched the genocide of the Nukak people and at the end of the nineties Occidental frontally attacked the U’wa people.

These are not isolated cases. In Ecuador, companies such as Texaco wiped out the Tetete people and attacked the Signa, Secoya, Cofan and Huaorani people, almost exterminating them. In Peru, Shell pushed the Nahua people to the brink of extinction.

In Nigeria, the United States oil company Chevron Texaco continues to be accused of committing atrocious violations of Human Rights against the Niger Delta communities, in three incidents perpetrated between 1998 and 1999 against the Ilaje, Opia and Ikenyan communities. The attacks included assaults on unarmed people with firearms, summary executions, torture, maltreatment, unjustified destruction of properties and razing of their environment and way of life.

Environmental degradation included the loss of fresh water sources while the company opened up numerous channels from the sea towards the coast to install their equipment. According to Bola Oyibo, leader of a group of one hundred and twenty-one young people from 42 communities advancing on the Chevron Parabe platform to protest against the continuous destruction of their environment “For years Chevron has systematically undertaken a war against our lands, forests and waters. Come to the Awoye Community and see for yourselves what they have done. All is dead, mangroves, tropical forests, fish, fresh water, wildlife. All has been killed by Chevron…”

For its part, also in Nigeria, Shell started drilling oil wells in Owukubu without consulting the Odioma community. This led to a community crisis that snowballed into a series of fatal events, leading to the death of over 1,500 people, hundreds of injured, 3,000 people arrested as hostages and a considerable part of the population fleeing to the mangrove forest and other villages (see WRM bulletin No. 92).

In Indonesia, the Province of Riau, on the Sumatran coast has long been classified as a rich zone because there are oil fields, in addition to mining, gas and thousands of hectares of oil palm plantations. However the income from these activities has not enriched the lives of the Riau community. On the contrary, the poverty rates have reached 40.2 per cent of its population of 4.5 million inhabitants. The main actor in the exploitation of oil is PT Caltex Pacific Indonesia (CFI), owned by Chevron Texaco.

Within this picture of poverty in Riau, the Sakai tribe is the direct and indirect victim of oil action. They live on the forest edge and along the Siak River, using its waters to bathe, eat and drink. However the waters are polluted and they continue to use them as they have no other option. Their staple food is a kind of tuber, the ubi manglo, which grows around their houses. Although it is considered to be toxic, the Sakai people continue to eat it because they have become used to its secondary effects, but more because now they have almost no other food options left in the forest.

To the genocide of entire peoples are added isolated, concealed deaths caused by oil accidents and by the terrible contamination they generate.

The contact of pollution with the organism comes by way of personal hygiene, consumption and breathing, thus generating skin diseases, diseases of the respiratory system, the digestive apparatus, eyes, nose and throat and gynaecological troubles. However, it also contributes to increase malnutrition, anaemia, tuberculosis and miscarriages. The cancer prevalence rate has increased enormously in the peoples close to the sources of contamination, and most affects children under 14 years of age.

The wells close to the crude oil ponds are polluted by the chemical products that infiltrate them, also killing domestic animals which for many members of the communities, fulfil the functions of consumption, trade and economic reserves in times of emergency. For these families, their disappearance leaves them in poverty and deprives them of their food sovereignty.

Once it starts depending on oil, the State finds it hard to diversify its economy and promote other sectors that contribute more direct benefits to underprivileged sectors. The dependence on oil becomes an obstacle to types of economic activities that favour low-income sectors of the population.

Far from being the so-called “black gold” bringing prosperity and welfare to the peoples, oil ends up creating a cursed circle of impoverishment, contamination, disease and death.

Article based on information from: “América se escribe con sangre” (America is written in blood), Adolfo Maldonado Campos, May 2005, Acción Ecológica, ; “Chevron, mano derecha del imperio”, 2005, Oilwatch report,; “Ecuador ni es ni será ya país amazónico. Inventario de impactos petroleros”, 2001, Acción Ecológica,