The sprawl of scorched pavement and crumbling cement buildings in the heart of the Amazon rainforest — Lago Agrio, Ecuador — was once a small oil boomtown. Founded by Texaco in the late 1960s (and given, appropriately, the name “Sour Lake,” after Texaco’s hometown in Texas), Lago Agrio is now a bewildering and feverish mess of oil workers, drug traffickers, street children, shopowners, impoverished farmers, and indigenous people stripped of their ancestral territory and forced to survive, as the Cofán people say, in the kokama kuri sindipa ande (“white man’s world of money”).
Earlier this year, at the edge of the pavement on the city’s outskirts, where the Cofán people have recovered (read: purchased) a narrow tract of their ancestral territory, I spent the afternoon with Marina Aguinda Lucitante, an elder of the tribe. She was born along the banks of the Agua Rico river. She was married at a young age to a Cofán Shaman, Guillermo Quenama, who died, she says, “because the oil company poisoned him with alcohol.”
She remembers when the forest was filled with animals. And she remembers when the river ran black with crude oil. She seems to remember everything — and all of her memories are divided into life before the oil company, and life after the oil company.
It has been nearly 50 years since Texaco began oil operations here in the northeastern Ecuadorian Amazon. Nearly 50 years since the death of Marina’s husband. Over that time, the effects of Texaco’s (now Chevron’s) reckless pump-and-dump oil operations have been well documented: abandoned oil pits littering the rainforest, billions of gallons of toxic wastewater dumped into rivers and streams, clear-cut primary old-growth forest, noxious gases rising into the sky from 24-hour-a-day flaring, crude oil sprayed on roads, towering black plumes of smoke from spilt-and-burning crude, and the resultant public health crisis wracking indigenous and mestizo farmer communities including cancer, spontaneous miscarriages, and birth defects.
But what has not been documented — what cannot possibly be understood by anyone who has not endured the last 50 years of oil operations — is how the oil conquest has affected the spiritual life, the inner world of those who live here.
Marina has asked me to share with the world a song that she has been carrying within her for these last 50 years. Marina is one of the last Cofán women who remember how to sing in the way of her ancestors. This is her song.
This post was republished from our friends at Clearwater, an indigenous-led movement for clean water and cultural survival in the Ecuadorian Amazon.