Going Undercover for Water Quality

By Alex Goff, Field Coordinator I probably should have put more thought in to a backstory I realized as I reached the door of the agrochemical shop. Upon entering I was hit with the chemical stench of industrial fertilizer. The shop was rather bare. Several shelves displayed bottles of different shapes and sizes, whose contents I imagined to be composed of a harmful variety of toxic elements. Along with oil and sewage from nearby cities, African palm is contaminating the ancestral waterways of the Secoya people. The following week, ClearWater would be heading out with Secoya technicians on the rivers in their territory to test waters for different sources of contamination. I was here to find out the names of the most commonly used pesticides in palm production, in order to know what to look for in the water.

A stream passes through miles of one of Ecuador's largest African palm plantations before flowing into the Secoya people's territory.

The shop owner, who I’ll call Don Victor, greeted me with a firm handshake and invited me to sit in a white plastic chair. “What can I do for you?” He asked. I made up a story on the spot about how I was a foreigner living in Ecuador who was interested in the lucrative prospects of starting a small African palm plantation in the Ecuadorian Oriente. “For oil or biodiesel?” “Uh, both!” I replied. Despite the fact that I really didn’t look the part, he seemed to believe my story. Don Victor was the president of the newly formed Small-Scale Palm Producers Association of Sucumbíos and he seemed to know everything there is to know about palm. I had come to the right place. He promptly shared with me the techniques to starting a successful palm plantation and what the associated costs would be. He took me around to point out the various herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and fertilizers with names like Agripac, Aminapac, Nutripalm, and Double Win that I would want to employ to produce a “healthy” crop of palm. I quickly scribbled down the chemical ingredients of each product: Paraquat, Cypermetrin, Glycine, and so on and so forth. Now we would know which chemicals to look for in our analysis of the streams that flow through miles and miles of palm fields before reaching the rivers in which the Secoya fish, swim, and collect water. When talk turned to a payment plan I made an excuse about how I would have to talk with my associates and headed for the door. He looked disappointed, but amicably shook my hand and saw me out. Just before I left he stopped me. “Remember,” he said. “Palm is money!” Don Victor might be right about that. But more importantly, we want to know if palm is poison for the rivers that indigenous peoples depend upon for their survival.

The surface of the Shushufindi River, one of the most important ancestral waterways of the Secoya people.