Meeting the Secoya

We were lucky to be able to meet with the Secoya community, a native people that have lived near Lago Agrio since long before the oil exploration began. They are open and accepting of foreigners, even though they were uncontacted only fifty years ago. We took a three hour bus ride to visit them, which included barely fitting our big bus on a tiny motorboat ferry to cross a river.

The Secoya have american students from Esperanza International staying with families and working with the community to preserve their culture and adjust to the changing environment around them.

Cultural center. Siekopai refers to the Secoya people in their native language (Secoya).

The discovery of oil brought in foreigners, industry, businesses, diseases, destruction of the forest, and pollution of the rivers. Because of frequent breaks and spills in the oil pipeline that runs along the river, the Secoya have long given up fishing in their once plentiful source. The fish they eat now are raised in small ponds in their village. Many of the Secoya still drink and bathe in the river because they have no choice.

The Aguarico River, now too polluted to fish in.

I spoke with a 51 year old woman in the tribe, Cecinda, to ask her about her experience with the entrance of oil companies and how her village has changed in her lifetime. Her father, uncle, cousin, and friend all have cancer. She told me that they didn’t have these kinds of health problems before their rivers became polluted. I asked her what she thought about all of us Americans coming to the community, and she surprised me by saying that she absolutely loved us. She was very happy that we were visiting the community and hoped that more people would come to stay, not only once, but that we would keep coming back for our whole lives.

I really wasn’t expecting that kind of a response, and it helped me to feel less out of place here - less like a foreigner looking in from behind a glass door. I recognize that I am here with no real knowledge of the hundreds of years of exploitation and colonialism that have rocked this country, largely because of foreigners - foreigners with my skin color. My ancestors have not been kind to this land and its people. But I have to think about the fact that I am here to learn, and that all learning starts from a point of ignorance.

We took a motorboat ride down the river Aguarico to the river Shushufindi and stopped at what we were told were ‘botanical gardens,’ cared for by a local named Alfredo. An American student staying in the village we visited had helped him to market his land to tourists and make it more accessible: they had recently installed a staircase leading up the steep riverbank to the entrance and built signs describing the area’s history, plants, and wildlife.

The ‘gardens’ to my surprise, turned out to be a tract of jungle. It was the densest forest we had yet been through , the kind where the canopy is too dense for rays of light to shine through, vines hanging from the trees and huge mosquitoes flying around, and log bridges laid over streams. We saw trees hundreds of feet tall. Alfredo said a certain kind of tree - the ceibo - were the daytime homes of forest spirits, and when the spirits enter the trees at dawn and leave the trees at dusk, a great noise like a gunshot can be heard ringing through the forest. After seeing two tarantulas by the main house, we had a wonderful dinner of yucca, salad, and fish wrapped in banana leaves.

A few people in the group came up with an experimental design to set up before leaving Lago. Basically, it involved gathering old oil from a pit and mixing it in varying quantities with soil. Then we inoculated the mix with oyster mushroom mycelium to see which batch turns out the most mycelium and mushrooms. This kind of experiment will be able to tell us: how much oil is too much? How well does the mycelium degrade different amounts of oil? What concentration of pollution in the soil is ideal for the mushrooms to grow?

Preparing the experiment.

With simple experiments like these, we hope to get a better idea of how best to remediate polluted soil. We want to come up with a step by step protocol that anyone can follow: local people whose land is contaminated, bioremediation companies, oil companies, nonprofits. The reason why this hasn’t been outlined yet is because not enough published research has been done to show what the right concentrations of soil and substrate and oil should be, and which species of fungi are most effective for remediation.

AMP has had problems with their experimental field installations being destroyed. One was dismantled by the military here and got bleached by the sun, and the other was taken apart by Petroecuador, who was ordered by the government to remediate the site of the spill. We were told that the company came in with high pressure water hoses and presumably salvaged some of the oil up from on top of the water to refine and sell. The rest of it we can still see in the area where the spill was - including on the banks of the nearby river, in which we later saw people swimming and washing their clothes.