The gypsy people say that when their women are standing on street-corners, offering themselves and when their old people die alone in old-peoples’ homes, the gypsy people will no longer be a people. The women in these oil zones have been cast to the street corners, punished with violence and are literally submerged in contamination.
The Sarayacu community in Ecuador would have been subdued by the oil companies long ago, if it had not been for their women. Victims and protagonists of resistance to oil, that is what the women are.
There is abundant data and evidence showing the impact of oil activities on the environment and the economy. We ecologists have shown, with data, the impact on ecosystems, health and biodiversity. With their testimonials, local peoples have described the state of their impoverishment and humiliation, and even the IMF has had to recognize that “we have found that over the past 30 years, the Ecuador’s oil reserves have dropped, while its debt has increased, gradually impoverishing the country.”
In spite of the fact that a considerable part of the environmental and social disasters has been recognized and recorded, little is said about the impacts suffered by women and there is even less reflection on these impacts in the long term that is to say, on future generations.
Oil activities have destroyed thousands of millions of hectares in the world. In Ecuador alone, 5 million hectares have been given in concessions, including protected areas and indigenous territories. Contamination is permanent, accidental and a matter of routine. In Ecuador alone, in the year 2001, 75 oil spills took place, lasting 5 days each, with a loss of over 31,000 barrels of oil.
Women have had the worst lot, and are more vulnerable than men to disease. According to a study carried out by Acción Ecológica, which analysed, well by well, the impact of cancer, 32% of the deaths in the oil zone can be attributed to cancer, three times more than the national average (12%) and five times more than in the province studied, and mainly affect women.
People know it, they say there is a lot of cancer, a lot of deaths. For example, the wife of Mr. Masache, 8 months pregnant and healthy, had internal bleeding and died. Afterwards it was know that she had cancer; he said that women are more affected by cancer because they are more delicate, they have children and work.
At Lago Agrio, the oil city of the Ecuadorian Amazon, 65% of the mothers are single, as the oil companies reach the city with single men having resources and offers of a prosperous life. It is the zone with most complaints about violence, in spite of the fact that most of the victims of violence remain silent.
“Years ago, when Shell was exploring the Kichwa territory, an incident took place. Three young women went to the camp to sell chicha (a local fermented beverage), the oil workers followed them to the woods and raped them. They went back to the community, and out of shame did not say anything. Days later one of the husbands heard the oil workers laughing at them… then the men hit their wives in a rage.” I was told this story a while ago by Cristina Gualing, from Sarayacu.
Seventy-five percent of the population living in oil exploitation areas uses contaminated foul-smelling, salty water, with a colour and with oil on the surface. The oil companies say that there is no problem in using it, that the water is healthy, that it has proteins and as it froths, it must even have milk in it.
Women suffer from this contamination and end up by offering it to their families. They are in permanent contact with the water, they wash the clothes, go to the river for the children to bathe, prepare the chichi. Furthermore they are carrying a heavier burden as not only do they have to walk further to fetch water to drink and firewood to cook, but very often have to look after the vegetable garden as the men take part in the circuit of the oil company demands, as daily workers or bargaining and changing their hunting territory to supply the oil camps with meat.
The first time I entered Huaorani territory I was surprised that for four days I never heard a child cry, not one single time. It seems of little importance and perhaps only other women will understand what it means, but those kids were really well off, almost in collective care, and did not need to cry.
Today, after the entry of the oil companies, the Huaorani women tend the Shell Mera bar. The almost drunk men take rides in the company vehicle, before waking up, injured in hospitals as has already happened. And the children, at modern speed, must adapt themselves to these new conditions which separate them from their parents, that destroy their land and therefore mutilate the future of this people.
The Huaorani women and old people fell, like people fall in the midst of a battle. There was too much pressure, making them sign a “friendly agreement” with the U.S. Company, Maxus –an agreement signed in English for a 20 year period. In this agreement, oil operations were permitted on their territory, ending months of resistance. The signing of the agreement was done in the presence of the daughter of the president of the republic and the business attaché of the United States Embassy, and recorded by the press. Alicia Durán Ballen gave her ear-rings to a Huaorani woman and received in exchange a Huaorani pectoral plate. Do you think we won in the exchange she asked the American advisor with a smile. “We won Manhattan like this,” was his reply.
Not far from where this capitulation took place, another people are still continuing with a seven year struggle. The people of Sarayacu are resisting the Argentine company CGC and the U.S. company, Burlington.
The women organized themselves and said that if the men decided to let the companies in, they would have to start looking for other women… and another territory. They said they would not allow their children and the young people of Sarayacu to become workers and slaves of the big oil companies. This was a non-negotiable decision.
The company has responded by creating inter-community disputes, bribing, manipulating and putting pressure on the government to turn the area into a military zone. A little while ago they told the population that the paths had been mined to prevent the population from leaving the community.
The women of Sarayacu decided to walk along those paths so than none of their children would loose their lives. They started the walk with the weight of the fear of imminent death, and ended the walk with the relief of having recovered their right and that of their children, to walk in their territory.
In Sarayacu it is the women who, by resisting, are defending the possible future of their people.
By: Esperanza Martinez, Oilwatch, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org