By Alex Goff, Field Coordinator
Before a day of physical labor in the Amazon, it’s customary for the Kichwa people to follow breakfast with a huge bowl of chicha, a thick, slightly fermented yucca beverage. Chicha wards off hunger until the next meal, whenever that may be, and provides a buzz that adds a hop to my step as I head out the door. Today I’m accompanying Kichwa technician Eduardo Cuji as he installs rainwater catchment systems in his community of Rumipamba. The chicha that fills our stomachs was lovingly prepared by Eduardo’s shy but kind wife, using clean water from the family’s rain catchment system. Eduardo downed two large bowls of the stuff, so I know he’s ready to work.
Eduardo was lead technician in the last round of installations in his community, when 53 systems were installed, including the one at his house. He knows the system design well. This time he is working with his son and nephew as assistants. “In the way that my father taught me to build canoes, knowledge is the inheritance I want to leave my children,” Eduardo explains. “I hope they can learn new skills working on this project.” Eduardo is a qualified teacher. He has worked in construction, carpentry, as an electrician, and for the different oil companies operating in and around the Auca oil field where Rumipamba is located.
Eduardo, along with his assistants, will be installing 40 new rainwater catchment systems. Every family in Rumipamba, perhaps the indigenous community most affected by oil contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon, will have access to clean water. Up until now, most families in Rumipamba lived without the reassurance of knowing where their clean drinking water would come from, or if they would have any at all. Parents had to worry about the invisible contents of the water likely doing harm to their children. “It’s a good feeling to be able to build these systems for the families in my community. I know that they will last for years to come and that when people drink the water from the systems they will remember all the work that went into building them.” He reveals a thin smile. Eduardo is a humble guy, but the pride he has in his work is evident.
Technician Eduardo Cuji builds a rain catchment system with his son. “In the way that my father taught me to build canoes, knowledge is the inheritance I want to leave my children.”
It’s a good feeling to be able to build these systems for the families in my community... when people drink the water from the systems they will remember all the work that went into building them.
The sun has already risen above the trees and warms the back of my neck as we reach Maria Aguinda’s son’s house where we will be building a rainwater catchment system. Maria is the lead plaintiff in the legal case against Chevron-Texaco. She, along with 30,000 other indigenous and farmers, filed a lawsuit against the company for the environmental harm and public health crisis left in the wake of its operations in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Kichwa families of Rumipamba continue to experience ongoing impact from oil operations. Petroamazonas, the state oil company, currently operates several wells within the community. Standing at certain vantage points, one can see the glow from nearby gas flaring towers. A massive drilling platform towers above the trees, dwarfing the nearby homes. The steady clanging of heavy machinery rings out across the community, a melancholy soundtrack to daily activities. Perhaps the most conspicuous bi-product of oil extraction in Rumipamba is the constant transit of semi trucks carting gas tanks and massive machinery that thunder along the Via Auca, the road that slices through the center of the community. The ground trembles as they pass. The din from the passing trucks accompanies us the whole day, interrupting conversation as hot dust blows in our faces.
It is difficult to imagine life in this community without oil. “My family moved here when I was a kid,” Eduardo tells me. “The company had not yet arrived. We reached this place by walking; there was no road. At that time this was all rainforest, full of animals. We would drink the water from the stream behind our house without getting sick.” Now, many of the Kichwa in Rumipamba work for the oil company, either in extractive operations or in the remediation efforts described in a previous blog. Of the young men I know in Rumipamba, the vast majority have either worked for an oil company in the past, are currently working for an oil company, or are seeking work with the company. “There isn’t much other work around,” Eduardo plainly states.
As we install the canal that diverts rainwater from the metal roof of the house into the filter tank of the rainwater catchment system, I ask Eduardo about the experience of working on this project and the challenges that have arisen. “As with anything,” he begins, “there are always people who value the results of a project like this and will take good care of the system. There are also those who take things for granted— people who don’t realize that if you want something you have to work for it.” Eduardo wipes sweat from his brow and drives the final rivet into the metal canal. “After the first round of installations I had to speak frankly with some families. They weren’t taking proper care of their rainwater systems and then they complained that they weren't working. I told them ‘If you don’t take care of something how do you expect it to work? You can’t expect others to do everything for you.’ I think this had an effect because now no one is complaining and the families seem to be taking care of the systems.”
Eduardo highlights an important issue in the region. The oil industry has impacted indigenous communities on many profound levels. Gifts and work projects have created dependency on the companies and, in some cases but certainly not all, fostered the attitude that if something brought in from outside the community breaks or doesn’t work, there will be something else to replace it. In this context, creating dependency is a strategy. It makes it hard for people, particularly young people, to envision a reality without the oil company. Empowering communities by involving them in the work process of a project— from planning, to labor, to general coordination— is necessary to overcoming this historical relationship of dependency and control.
"The din from the passing trucks accompanies us the whole day, interrupting conversation as hot dust blows in our faces."
Sometimes things move slowly, mistakes are made, but that’s a part of it. We have to be willing to work for what we want.
I ask Eduardo why this project is important for Rumipamba. “It’s important because we didn’t have access to clean water for years. We have been a part of this lawsuit for decades but were still living in same conditions. It’s important because it’s a project being carried out by the indigenous nationalities. Sometimes things move slowly, mistakes are made, but that’s a part of it. We have to be willing to work for what we want.” I ask Eduardo if he’s learned anything from this experience. “Oh sure,” he says, “there’s always something to be learned.”