My Trip to the Amazon, Part I

The Hotel "Black Gold" in Lago Agrio, Ecuador.

The Hotel “Black Gold” in Lago Agrio, Ecuador.

It’s been a long time since my last post, and even longer since I’ve done any significant artwork to share. Most of what I’ve been working on I am still unable to post, because the projects have yet to become public.

Instead of working on art in my free time, for the past few months I have been totally consumed with a cause.

For as far back as my memories go, I have always been enthralled by forests. I remember gazing out the passenger window of my grandmother’s car as we wended our way over the curvy mountain roads of Appalachia, en route to my grandparents’ summer home. The sight of the misty, forested mountainsides pulled at me — made me want to somehow encompass it — to be out in it and to somehow bear witness to every angle of its magnificence all at once. On some level, I remember wanting to BE the forest. When we would finally arrive at the Mountain House, as we called it, my first order of business was to strip and race down a nearby ravine to a cold mountain stream that flowed there. I stalked barefoot up and down the stream, imagining myself as an Indian, perhaps masking my scent from the hounds of some would-be white captors.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained too much knowledge of the way in which we humans are destroying our forests to allow any further such flights of imagination.

Still, forests captivate me — they speak to whatever primal instinct is left in me by our technologically insulated lifestyle. I lament their destruction, and sense they are far, FAR more important to us than we yet realize or perhaps are willing to acknowledge.

For any child or adult harboring such sentiments, the Amazon Rainforest has come to symbolize the ancient, mysterious, primeval world which we have all but scoured from the face of the planet. It is natural for anyone like me to harbor strong feelings for its preservation, and to be equally distraught by the speed of its destruction.

So, earlier this year when I saw an article from the UK’s Guardian reporting that Ecuador was to auction off huge sections of its pristine Amazonian rainforest to Chinese oil companies, I was horrified. I would later learn that this massive region was called the “Pastaza” and is home to some of the most intact primary forest in all of  Amazonia.

In my search to learn more about what was going on, I found out that this was not a new development, and that oil drilling has in fact been going on in Ecuador for over forty years with absolutely disastrous consequences.

I saw a familiar pattern — but one which I thought had already played out. It’s the same pattern portrayed in Hollywood films like FernGully, Pocahontas, or Avatar. White people show up in lands far from home, seeking material riches. Indigenous people standing in the way are first annihilated, the resources extracted, and the exploited land left behind — an exhausted, depleted, polluted waste. Any indigenous people who survive the process are left in poverty in a wasteland incapable of affording them a living.

This pattern, which started with the arrival of the first Spaniards seeking riches in the new world, continues, unchanged, to this day.

Now, though Gold mining continues, the most sought-after resource is petroleum. Instead of Spaniards, it is the descendants of the Indians colonized by them, usually in the employ of businessmen from other “developed” countries around the world. It is, simply put, today’s modern colonialism.

The consequences of oil drilling in the Amazon are summarized as follows:

– Oil Workers arrive in a remote region inhabited only by indigenous people. Their contact is initially peaceful, but a mere handshake spreads disease that decimates the tribes.

– As sicknesses play out and industrial goods (and weapons) are introduced to the natives, the balance of power among them is altered resulting in deadly conflicts.

– The presence of oil workers incites the natives to sell them bushmeat hunted with guns — practices which rapidly deplete the forests of game and leave the natives ever more dependent on goods from outside.

– Oil Roads are cut in order to move personnel and equipment in and out of a drill site, and to lay oil pipelines. These roads attract colonists who cut down the forest to plant crops.

– A town starts to spring up around the oil wells. Workers tend to stay for two week shifts. Merchants move in to cater to the demand for goods. Indigenous and refugee girls are often lured or forced into prostitution for the oil workers.

– As the colonists expand their farms, indigenous tribespeople are pushed deeper into the forest and into ever smaller territories. This causes more intertribal conflict as they compete for resources.

– The oil companies contaminate the land by dumping toxic waste in rivers, streams, swamps and unlined waste pits. This is done deliberately because it is cheaper than cleaning up. Oil spills happen routinely due to negligence or trees falling on pipelines, etc.

– The contamination leads to higher than normal cancer rates, birth deformities and a host of other ills. Contaminated water travels downstream, sickening indigenous people who rely on the rivers for drinking water, bathing, and cooking.

– Areas once rich in plant and animal wildlife are altered forever. The rich Amazonian soil is desiccated by the tropic sun after the removal of large shade-giving trees. Once this happens, the likelihood that the forest can regrow there shrinks to almost nothing. If it did regrow, it would be devoid of many of its original species.

A colonist near Lago Agrio peers out from her home. The barrels in front are used to collect rainwater because the rivers and groundwater are too contaminated to use.

Oil activities have decimated the indigenous populations in the Amazon region. They’ve been pushed off their land, shot, and even told that the black crude oozing into their streams and rivers was full of vitamins and good for them. Entire ethnicities were wiped out. The few survivors, unable to live off the forest in the traditional way,  became destitute peasant farmers, their shacks blending alongside those of colonists who are now settling on what used to be indigenous land. The children of the natives grow up, never learning the sustainable ways of their parents, and they too eventually become a part of this destructive process.

This process repeats itself anytime a new area was opened up to drilling. There was no reason to think the latest round of drilling would be any different.

I decided to go to the Amazon.  There were rumblings of layoffs at my job, I had other work lined up — and I had a window of time in which I was free to plan this trip.

The idea was to gather photos and videos for a Kickstarter campaign. I would raise the funds for a film that would inform the world, and especially Americans about what I had learned. (Especially Americans because literally NO ONE I mentioned this to had any clue what was going on down there).

I came away somewhat disappointed, and I do not believe that the media I collected is anywhere near the quality that would motivate people on Kickstarter to trust me with their money.  That’s not to say that the trip was useless — far from it.  If nothing else, I came away with a clear idea of what it will really take to film a documentary in the Amazon in terms of costs, equipment needed, guides, etc.

I’ll be sharing some of the photos and video I made over the course of these next few posts.

I hope that this series can in some small way advance the cause of the Amazon and its people while I plan my next trip to Ecuador.

There is a lot I want to share with you, so please follow my blog so you can continue to read the rest of this series. Thanks!

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