Then I had to say goodbye to most of the people in the group, as only five were staying on the last two parts of the trip with me. Some of them stayed in Lago Agrio for a few days to finish up the experiment and conduct ecological surverys. Some went back to the Secoya to find out more about the oil pollution there. Some went back to the US, and some are still traveling around South America.
We drove in a van from Lago Agrio to Papallacta, following the oil pipeline that flows to the coast. Along the way, our guide Christian, an ecuadorian who lives in Mindo, told us about the frequent pipeline spills and bursts that occur along its length. Near the volcano, the pipeline bursts whenever the volcano erupts, which is at least once a year. The pipeline has a ‘failsafe mechanism’ - a valve that automatically stops the flow of crude oil when it detects a leak. These valves are positioned every 18 kilometers along the pipeline, which means that when there is a break, 18 kilometers’ worth of oil spills out from the pipe.
In 1989, a landslide damaged the pipeline, and thousands of barrels spilled into the Papallacta river. Christian told is that the municipal water for the city of Quito is piped in from Papallacta. So a few years ago, there was a major pipeline break in Papallacta that contaminated all of the public water in Quito.
We stayed the night in Papallacta, high up in the mountains at over 10,000 feet. It was beautiful and green, freezing cold, misty, and drizzled constantly, essentially like being inside of a cloud. The medicinal hot springs made up for the weather, though.
Further on the way to the coast, we walked down to look at the San Rafael waterfall. I had never seen a waterfall before, so you can imagine what an impact the largest waterfall in Ecuador made on my little eyes.
I later learned that this waterfall might not exist in a few years: the river that forms the waterfall is scheduled to be diverted for hydroelectric energy. This is one of many projects in Ecuador being financed by Chinese investors. Many of Ecuador’s current social reforms are being paid for through more oil drilling concessions to Chinese companies.
This article explains the hydroelectric issue in more detail: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12680487
How can we avoid ecological disasters like hydroelectric dams while still using the power from our environment for our own use? We had a guest speaker earlier on in Mindo named Jeff Metcham. He is a conservationist, among other things, and he co-authored a proposal for sustainable and ecologically sound hydroelectric power in Ecuador. The proposal involved setting up small, community-managed plants that would put the power in the hands of the community while maintaining ecologically sound practices. Looking at these pipelines and dams, we should ask ourselves what we are willing to give up as we - as consumers - continue to support unsustainable and destructive ways of harvesting energy. An important thing that I am realizing here is that we do not have to destroy our home to capture its energy, we just need to think of better ways of working with what is already in place for us to use.
We visited another waterfall, one that we could walk right up to. The wind and mist were so powerful the more we neared the falls that it was like walking in a hurricane. The roar filled the valley as my shoes were slipping off the rocks and my clothes got soaked through. It was unreal standing next to such power.