Photographs and videos: Luis Argüello. PlanV
Published on 2021-04-14
During the day, Sardinas seems to be a community of only children. Dozens of them play in the center of town while waiting for their parents to finish their chores in the fields. They hang from a tree, others kick a ball. They walk through the streets, disheveled, barefoot and many of them hungry.
One of them approached the only dining room in this small town of 800 inhabitants. It was a five-year-old boy who was staring from the outside at some visitors who had come for lunch. A stranger asked him if he had eaten. The boy said no. His four siblings - two of whom were just beginning to talk - suddenly appeared. The visitor invited them all to eat. They received a small plate of rice with chicken. The boy asked for an extra one.
Hunger and poverty have hit this small town, located an hour and a half from the city of El Coca, on the border between the provinces of Orellana and Sucumbíos. Fathers and mothers must work in agriculture in arduous shifts. The cultivation of malanga, a tuber similar to yucca, has become the livelihood of these communities settled on the banks of the Coca river. This river no longer provides them with fish or water after the April 7, 2020 spill of 15,800 barrels of crude oil and fuel, which also affected the Napo River. Last April 14, there was a new spill - which has not yet been quantified - due to the rupture of the Shushufindi-Quito pipeline.
The Sardinas community is located just a few meters from the Coca River, but is rapidly losing ground. The river is taking away their land. It is one of the places where regressive erosion is evident.
Water is a scarce resource. María Buncay, owner of the canteen, usually hands out a small container of water for her diners to wash their hands. In Sardinas, a single tank supplies piped water to a few families living in the center of town. The rest wait for rain to collect the vital liquid for their consumption.
María Buncay has a food stand on the side of the dirt road that runs through Sardinas. She offers dishes from 0.25 cents to 2 dollars. Her prices are low so that her customers can afford them. Her farm was affected by the April 2020 spill.
"They (the oil companies) gave us up to four shipments, four bottles for each family. We use them for drinking and for chicha. We used them for bathing in the river," said Francisco Aguinda, an inhabitant of Sardinas. The private OCP and the state-owned Petroecuador delivered water and food to the affected populations, but they were not enough for the homes where up to 20 people live in a single house. The river neighbors had to continue using Coca water. This caused fungus and pimples, according to Aguinda.
“THE RIVER IS MORE IMPORTANT TO US THAN GOLD. IT IS OUR LIFE. BEFORE, WHEN THE RIVER WAS GOOD, WE BATHED AT ANY TIME AND TOOK THE WATER FOR THE CHICHA”.
Francisco Aguinda, INHABITANT OF SARDINAS.
Buncay, on the other hand, lives in Puerto Madero, a town farther away than Sardinas. There, the oil that passed through her land rotted her crops. "There was quite a stench," recalled this woman about the day of the spill. She then rented a kitchen in an aging house to set up a dining room in order to earn a living.
The inhabitants still remember April 7 as the day they were awakened by a strong smell of gasoline in the early hours of the morning. Fishermen who were at that time in their activities were stained by crude oil and their skin is still affected. Buncay went out to the edge of her land and saw the black stains that were taking over the river. Now she spends her time in Sardinas, on the edge of the stone road, waiting for customers. When she can, she gives away something to eat to the children who arrive hungry.
Aguinda brought back memories of fishing in the river at all hours to bring food home. Tarpon, catfish, bocachico, were part of their diet. "Now we don't even recognize the fish, we have to buy them," she complained. Late in the afternoon, a lone truck with a megaphone promoted tilapia in the sector.
But in addition to water, there is another problem that threatens these communities. Near the Sardinas school, the river has washed away approximately one hectare of raft crops. Fear caused the teachers to abandon their small wooden dormitories located near the river. The children can no longer reach the river because its edge appears to have been cut by heavy machinery that has created a cliff of about four meters. This is due to regressive erosion, that is eating away at the riverside populations.
Unstoppable erosion in Coca
Galo Cerda is one of the boatmen that connects the community of San José of Coca with the city. He learned his trade in a canoe with oars that he can no longer use because they need a motor to cross the torrential river. For the past year, his activity has been full of risks. In the last few months he almost lost his life in an accident while crossing the river when it was rising. He and his wife managed to reach the shore, but the current took the motor of their boat. He had to invest in a new machine.
“WE COLLECTED ALL THE STONES AND WASHED THEM WITH THE CHEMICALS THAT THE REMEDIATION COMPANY GAVE US. WHEN THE OCP INSPECTORS ARRIVED, THEY TOLD US THAT WE WERE TAKING TOO LONG, THAT A STAIN DOESN'T MATTER”, Miguel Andi, TOYUCA COMMUNITY.
In his opinion, the river has been "very ugly" for the past year. Not only because it has become more rushing, but also because the sediments do not allow a safe journey for its users. He has to go around debris, sticks and sand carried by an angry river. That means more time and more gasoline. "It's a tremendous expense what a motorist does here," lamented Cerda, who charges $0.50 to cross the river.
Cerda lives in San José of Coca, a commune of 600 inhabitants, also affected by the lack of water. In winter, its inhabitants used to collect rainwater and in summer they consumed water from the river, since this community does not have potable water. Faced with the need, the people continue to consume water from the Coca river in summer, despite the spill.
Galo Cerda is a boatman who connects his community of San José of Coca with the city of Coca. Because of erosion and the enormous amount of debris brought by the river, his life and that of his clients are at risk.
In these chocolate-colored waters, as the locals describe them, Cerda navigates every day. PlanV interviewed him during one of his tours. He insisted on going downstream so that this journalistic team could record the changes the river has caused. He pointed out the palisades - fences made of sticks, pipes, etc. - that have formed in the middle of the river. Traveling at night is impossible because you can't see the obstructions. If someone needs medical attention in San José at night they must travel for hours to Coca or wait for the daybreak.
"That's where it used to be", said the boatman as he pointed to a cluster of sticks at what used to be the river's edge. A five-minute drive from San José reveals an island. The current has left it without 20 hectares. It is now a small mound of trees and vegetation that has been orphaned in the middle of the imposing affluent.
On the other side of the river, a water tank has been left without use. The inhabitants claim that it was used to capture water from the river and distribute it to the population. Now they take water from the Payamino River, an affluent of the Napo.
The origin of this erosion was the collapse of the San Rafael waterfall. Why did it collapse? It is a question that still does not have a single answer. The Government has attributed it to a natural phenomenon, as well as some geologists because every waterfall tends to erode. But Emilio Cobo is one of the experts who believe that the construction of the intake works for the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant - which is 19 kilometers from the waterfall - could have accelerated the erosion process.
One water well serves the entire community of San José. Rómulo Salazar, vice-president of this community, explains that in the summer -due to the drought- they continue consuming water from the Coca River.
In San José (above), Sardinas and the rest of the communities along the Coca City, families have dedicated themselves to growing malanga (below) because its price is higher than that of other products such as bananas. The river used to provide them with fish, but this is no longer the case due to pollution and erosion.
"The waterfall was quite high. It was almost 150 meters high, which the river now needs to compensate for and that is why the erosive process is so large", explained Cobo, a researcher of fluvial systems, and said that the river has to level its height. But that could take decades.
In areas like Sardinas that are flatter, Cobo explained, sediments are deposited. "The problem is that with the regressive erosion we have an abysmal amount of sediment. It's more than 100 million cubic meters of sediments that have come down since the process began".
That large amount of sediment has been deposited in sectors such as Sardina, Toyuca and San José. "This causes the river to lose the capacity to transport water because the river channel is filled with sediments", he clarified. In other words, in order to gain that lost space, the river erodes the banks.
The images captured by PlanV's drone show immense sandbanks deposited in the middle of the river. When the river rises, a large amount of sediment flows down to the Amazon plains and stays there. When the erosion began last year, Cobo warned that these changes would occur downstream of the river with consequences for navigability and the risk of flooding.
Huge amounts of sediment have been deposited in the flatter areas of the Coca River, which has changed its course and affected the communities.
In Toyuca, the municipality sent excavators to dredge the river. This was the demand of the community, which sees the advance of erosion in this sector as a threat.
He regretted that no measures have been taken downstream. Upstream, the Electric Corporation of Ecuador (Celec), through its Coca Codo Sinclair Business Unit, began scientific, geological and topographical studies on the causes of erosion to implement works to ensure the hydroelectric and oil infrastructure. But in the lower basin of the Coca and Napo rivers, where the communities are located, there are no mitigation plans or the local authorities have barely made decisions due to pressure from the inhabitants.
For example, the community of Toyuca asked the municipality to build dikes and dredge the river, but had no response. Then they went on strike and got the Mayor to send machinery for dredging, but it was not enough. In an Assembly, the Municipality committed to relocate the population that was on the edge of the river in a safe area.
“IT IS NECESSARY TO EVALUATE THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS, ON FISH POPULATIONS, FOR EXAMPLE. A RISK PREVENTION MAP MUST BE DRAWN UP, THE RIVER BANKS WILL BE FURTHER ERODED AND THE FARMS WILL BE DESTROYED”.
Emilio Cobo, RIVER SYSTEMS RESEARCHER.
Miguel Andi, vice-president of Toyuca, said that seven months ago the river was 900 meters away from the town. Now it is only 100 meters away. "With the sediment, the river began to look for other channels to leave. Since April 7, the land has begun to erode with the erosion of the river". But in addition, every time the river rises, the remaining crude oil is removed, which, he said, is covered by the sediments.
The Coca river not only received a pollution shock, whose remediation has always been questioned. But also a geomorphological stroke, concluded Cobo. The neighbors of the Coca hope that soon the river will be transparent again and leave that murky color, because they have eaten from it and survived the historical neglect of the State to these communities. But now not even the river is their ally.
Translated by Manuel Novik