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Brittany: Coca, an oil town in the Oriente

November 13, 2010

Last week, Mallory and I took a bus five hours north to Coca. We met up with our environmental professor. He was taking another group of students around the city to learn about oil, but had invited us to come along.

Coca was very strange.  It was horribly hot—a lot worse than Tena. By 10 am sweat would be dripping from everyone. The town basically exists because oil companies set up shop here back in the 70s.  Texaco was first, but now there are a bunch, including Haliburton.  The town has a different feeling than Tena.  It’s hard to say what that feeling is exactly; it just has a bad vibe. The entire economy is commercial—everyone is selling something. It isn’t that safe and there are a lot of problems with drugs and alcohol abuse. A lot of people work in the oil industry. The poor workers live in neighborhoods surrounding the city; the wealthier only live in the city during the week.  During that time they live in fancy compounds and on the weekends they all go home to other cities where their familes live.

Apparently there are two nice hotels in town and the rest are scary hostels, with nothing in between.  So our hotel was definitely a lot nicer than the places we normally stay in when we travel. There was a pool and our rooms had air conditioning—something I haven’t seen the whole time I’ve been in Ecuador.  There were also some birds and (mischievious) monkeys running around. It was a little sad though because the birds’ wings were clipped and the monkeys had obviously been brought there to entertain the guests, possibly illegally. That type of monkey—barisos—are often trafficked illegally and made into pets.

We spent a few days talking to different people about oil. One farmer took us to Sacha, outside of Coca but in the same province (or state), where most of the oil activity is happening Looking through the fence at a PetroEcuador site, we could see a huge fire. When they drill for oil, gas is also released, which they just burn. That is obviously terrible for the environment and one reason it is hotter in this region—there is all this terrible gas being sent into the air, creating an umbrella-effect over the area.

He used his machete to show us the oil in the soil

The man also took us took us to see different oil pools that had been created and then “cleaned up” by Texaco. In one, you could clearly see the oil in the water and the soil. In another, the pool was completely covered up, but the contamination was still evident. The fruit that grows there isn’t safe to eat and the animals that feed there are sick.

We visited the man’s home too, which was frightfully close to some of the pools. He said there is more untapped oil in the region and the oil companies keep trying to expand, even though people live and depend on the land they want to exploit.

Oil pipelines

We also talked to different government departments at the local and providence level about the different problems in the area and what they do (which sometimes seems like not much). The Ministry of the Environment, for example, only has 3 investigators that deal with oil companies in the whole providence.  Bureaucracy is to blame of course, but a general lack of resources is also a problem.

I learned a lot about the Yasuni-ITT proposal, which I wrote about here.  Mallory and I were hoping we’d get to go to Yasuni while we were out here living in Tena, but it doesn’t seem likely. It is really expensive and you need at least 5 days for the trip. You also have to go with a guide, and the trips seem to be organized around “seeing how the native people live,” which is really awkward and uncomfortable. And it seems a little contradictory. The government offices say that part of the goal of this proposal is to protect indigenous people living in voluntary isolation…but in the same breath they push tourism to see these people. Mainly I would want to see the wildlife. Yasuni is one of the most diverse places in the world, but there is a good chance it won’t exist in 10 years.

–Brittany Libra

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