Mariana lives just outside Nueva Loja, at the entrance to the Amazon, in the northeast of Ecuador. Their house stands set back from the main road on the hillside, only about a hundred meters as the crow flies from an oil drilling rig. Gas is burned here 24 hours a day. It’s been 46 years. Right behind it is a treatment plant for formation water, the water that splashes on the surface with the oil and gas and is highly toxic. Alejandro and I inhaled the gases today. Both of them were shaved after that. The photographer’s headaches have been going on for hours now.
When I tell Beatrice about it on Skype a few days later, she can’t believe it. The 68-year-old Basel native belongs to the generation that grew up with the rise of oil. No other energy source has shaped the life of baby boomers as much as black gold. Back when she was younger, she didn’t think much about it. For half a life she sold trips around the world and got to know all five continents herself. Today, in times of climate change, she sometimes cannot fall asleep.
Impregnated with the blood of the earth
Mariana trembles. This never really happens, because fear is not part of the mother-of-four’s repertoire. After all, it was she who convinced her husband six years earlier to move north. A drought that would not end had rendered the soils of their homeland barren: the bankruptcy of every farming family. And since the government in Quito wanted to assert the territory in the barely populated Amazon region over Peru and therefore offered land to interested settlers, Mariana quickly packed the suitcases and asked her husband: “Are you coming with you?” That was 1972 and Mariana full of confidence.
Thick, black plumes of smoke waft into the sky that morning, robbing the sun of its radiance. It gets dark above Mariana’s house and her children, none older than twelve years old, begin to cry. The family flees to the inside of the cement block, barricades doors and windows, crouches on the floor. They hug each other, listen, tremble, wait. Was that?, Mariana asks, looking anxiously at the thatched roof. A single spark would be enough to put all their belongings on fire.
That is not the way to go. The clouds behind the plumes of smoke bring rain and push the soot to the ground. Trees and plants turn black, as do swamps and rivers. The black gold from the belly of the earth impregnates the rainforest and soon ignites another fire. That of Mariana.
Barefoot over oil
It was employees of the US oil company Texaco who produced the smoke clouds over their house. Instead of properly disposing of the industrial waste, they deposited it in open-air storage tanks and lit it. This is easier and, above all, cheaper. The practice became commonplace in the Amazon.
Texaco, the New York-based oil multinational that later had to answer for these practices under the new company name Chevron (from 2001) before court has been pretending that the industry is not in danger since its arrival in 1964. Without inhibitions, he had the black slag spread like jauche on the freshly cleared streets around Nueva Loja, also on the one that connected the hamlet of Mariana’s family with the city and became the children’s way to school. They returned home regularly with black soles. The heat softened the tar of the road and the tough mass stuck a bit more to the sandals of the students at each step, until it was only possible to move forward barefoot. The children became ill and suffered increasingly from pain in the legs, head, neck and ears. Diseases appeared that the people of the region did not know and therefore could not cure.
In the early 1970s, when the first drilling rigs were planted in the rainforest with the arrival of the new settlers, and industrial waste began to be deposited in soil and water, no one knew exactly where these diseases came from. Information was just as scarce as transparency or protection by the Ecuadorian state. Until now, six indigenous nations had lived here, largely isolated from Western industrial society. But in the Amazon, the right of capital applied from then on. The industry not only played down, but even touted oil as a cure, for example in the case of rheumatism. So some residents went to the reception basins and rubbed their joints with the waste stored there. Health care was a foreign word. And the only hospital ward far and wide was operated by Texaco.
The stomach like a sieve
The unknown product, which was extracted from the depths of the earth using chemicals, spread like an epidemic and quickly poisoned the most important source of life: water. For Mariana and her family, this came mainly from the Teteye River, where jaguars and pumas also fed. Mariana and her neighbors washed clothes and bodies there, emptied the water in cooking pots and bottles, and brought it to their homes.
As oil production picked up and the tanker trucks grew larger and faster, the predators moved into the forest. People, on the other hand, stayed, boiling the water over the fire and hoping to filter out the chemicals. Nevertheless, it mostly smelled like diesel at Mariana’s kitchen table. Even the flesh became inedible. So when Mariana complained to Nueva Loja City Council and Texaco, she was turned away. After all, it had no evidence. But she had it: all 60 pigs that the family held at the time were energized within three days after drinking from an industrial reservoir. When she cut up the animals, she saw the rotten flesh. The stomachs of the pigs resembled a sieve.
Discover the world by plane
Beatrice beams. She sits over a glass of red wine in a bar in Alsace and looks around. She has just decided to emigrate together with Hans and her best friends Doris and André. They want to discover the world before they settle down to start a family. Their list includes Canada, South Africa and Australia. The former seems too cold for them, the latter too far away, and so they choose South Africa. Swissair’s jumbo takes the adventurous to johannesburg in 15 hours. Oil, thank you. That was 1972 and Beatrice was full of confidence.
Her parents were less so. They had expected the eldest daughter to return to a Belgian monastery school after her year abroad and help pay off the new house. The father was a waiter in the hotel “Three Kings”, the mother went to the restaurant “Brauner Mutz” in the evening after the household was done in order to earn something. Beatrice saw that. But she also saw that it was a good time to pack her bags. When, if not now?, she wondered.
The environment was not an issue
She married Hans, moved with him to a furnished apartment and began to save. She had left her apprenticeship as a travel saleswoman and now organized business trips for the chemical company Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis). Jobs were enough at the time and in Switzerland it lived relatively cheaply. So cheap that Beatrice could afford a car almost at the same time as her father. It was a Döschwo, green and used. With its nine horsepower, it brought “the duck” to about sixty kilometers per hour and consumed no more than eight liters of gasoline on a hundred kilometers.
Beatrice did not worry about consumption and the environment at the time. The environment was not an issue in post-war Europe. Instead, they celebrated the upswing, praised industrial agriculture, plastic and polyester dresses, and enjoyed the new mobility, thanks to oil. It did not matter where the raw material came from and how it got to the petrol stations. The Döschwo drove, that was the main thing.
It was only in the year of their emigration, when the Club of Rome first mentioned the “Peak of Oil” in its report “The Limits of Growth”, that some in the industrialized nations listened. However, few dared to think that the most important industrial energy source of the last few decades could eventually be depleted.
Namibia, Brazil, Hong Kong
Beatrice and her friends had other things in mind. All four still passed the driving test in Switzerland, because they knew: Without a car you won’t get far in South Africa. The white leadership in the black country was delighted with the newcomers from Europe. She deliberately attracted international companies and their employees to the Cape, including Oerlikon-Bührle. At the end of the 1960s, the Swiss arms company supplied weapons not only to the apartheid regime, but also to the country of civil war in Nigeria. From there, a large part of the oil still comes for the Swiss market.
Beatrice, who emigrated on three months’ wages, began her work at the tour operator Kuoni, where she stayed for 35 years. She sold trips all over the world and also began to discover them herself: our neighbours, Czechoslovakia, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Hungary, Romania, Scotland, Cyprus, Turkey, the Scandinavian countries, England, Israel, the USA, Canada, many countries in Central and South America, Australia, Asia and the southern part of Africa.
When she was invited to Europe by hotel chains, she set up the trip in such a way that it was enough for a detour to Basel. What is now self-evident was a privilege back then. Businessmen and wealthy families were mainly on board the plane.
“Denver Clan” and “Dallas”
In the mid-1970s, during the oil crisis, it was only possible to refuel from Monday to Friday. On weekends, the South African fuel pumps remained closed. The young woman first became aware that she was consuming a raw material every day, from which she had no idea where it actually came from.
She knew he was coming out of the ground, but how was neither her nor her generation aware. Where did you come from? A look behind the scenes was undesirable. Instead, TV series such as “Dallas” or “Denver Clan” flickered across the screens, in which the protagonists were splashed with formation water from the oil industry and rejoiced.
The pollution is outsourced
As the Earth begins to rumble in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Edwin Drake’s staff get to safety. They fear that the rig will explode and hide behind a hill. They do not know that the black mass that is shooting out of the ground will be the new gold, nor do they suspect that their employer, a former train driver from New York, will go down in history as the discoverer of oil – at least in the US.
That was 1859. In Venezuela, the slag is said to have been discovered before the arrival of the Europeans. In Baghdad, streets were tarred with “alquitr in” as early as the 8th century AD. But it is European emigrants on the other side of the Atlantic who are systematically beginning to exploit the underground forests.
The world floats in oil
In the middle of the 19th century, oil was only intended as an interim solution to protect the forests and to bridge the lack of wood at that time. An age arose from a lack: the fossil one. For the first time in the history of the planet, a living being exploited an energy source that does not grow. It was neither a tree nor a plant, neither an animal nor a fungus. It was a mineral. And minerals take millions of years to form.
They drilled as if there was no tomorrow. Oil has been discovered in Venezuela, Canada, Sweden and Ukraine, as well as in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq. The Allies secured access to important deposits in the Middle East before the outbreak of World War II.
Mariana is in her mother’s belly at this time. Beatrice’s father stands with the rifle in The Raid in Riehen and sees bombs hitting and planes crashing on the other side of the border. Oil, thank you.
When the war comes to an end six years later, Europe is in ruins and the oil industry is in the starting blocks. It will shape the world in which we live today.
Disposal under the ground
In order to better understand the process of oil extraction and the associated danger to nature, we listen briefly to an oil engineer who teaches at a private university in Quito:
To get the oil out of the earth, a hole is drilled into which chemicals are inserted, including the carcinogenic benzene. The chemicals ensure that the corrosive formation water, which is usually located hundreds, if not thousands, of metres deep in the earth together with the oil and provides the necessary pressure with the gas, does not damage the equipment of the industry.
Once on the surface, the water is separated from the oil with heat and ends up in a tank sealed by gas. The oil is pumped through a pipeline to the refinery, the gas is used, burned or fed back into the deposit. Something similar happens with the water: either it lands back where it comes from, so that the pressure in the ground increases further and the last oil deposits of the well are exhausted. Or the machines pump it 1000 to 1500 meters below the ground, where it is fed into a layer of sand for final storage.
The perfect vicious circle
So much for theory. The practice in the 20th century was different and varied according to means, world region and interests. In Ecuador, the highly toxic water was discharged into the swamps and waters of the Amazon for decades. Nobody cared about that in the 1970s and 1980s. Although Mariana organized herself with other women, she made representations to the ministries in Quito and complained to the companies. But the residents around Nueva Loja were increasingly dependent on the industry. The settlers, who had hoped for a better life in the Amazon, became cheap labour and sick people. They helped with the clearing in the rainforest, the creation of new drilling rigs, the maintenance of the machines and thus financed the doctor’s visits of their families at Texaco.
You hardly get much of this in Central Europe. Here the oil is only refined and then sold to end users like Beatrice. The pollution is taking place elsewhere, in Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan.
In the course of the 20th century, the industrial society of the 19th century transformed into a service society. Exploitation, production and transport of raw materials are financed and controlled, but not responsible. Sweeteners mixed with gasoline do not even allow motorists to know that oil actually has an extremely nasty smell. Everything runs like a string. And as black gold floods the Blue Planet, the understanding that industrialization always means pollution is increasingly being lost. Europe is developing into a cleanliness island, a single large gated community north of Africa.
Co-responsible for imbalance
Since 1945, the curve of oil consumption has risen sharply. The industry managed to refine the raw material to such an extent that it is indispensable in our everyday life: shampoo, detergent, soap, hairspray, toothbrush, car seats, floors, buckets, foils, mattresses, credit cards, computer housings, paints, Packaging, window frames, Vaseline, pesticides – this is just a small extract from the list of products that contain petroleum. And actually you could put the oil on another list: along with alcohol, cocaine or heroin. We are, sometimes ignorant, dependent on oil, as if it were a drug. In the event of a cold withdrawal, our daily life would collapse in the shortest possible time.
From this point of view, the rhetoric of Trump and his associates, who continue to rely on fossil fuels, seems like a suicide squad based on the motto: “Please continue to sleep, we are not finished with the earth yet.” Climate change, which makes us come together as a species. instead, it creates ideological trench warfare.
Anyone who is informed knows how much material we have scratched, drilled, pumped and redistributed from the planet over the past hundred years via emissions into the atmosphere. And anyone with even a minimum of common sense understands that we humans are partly responsible for the current imbalance on the planet – whether we call it climate change or not. After all, this is only a term to give a name to the incomprehensible.
The helplessness of the hopefuls
Mariana puts on rubber boots, takes a machete out of the closet and takes a dog puppy on her arm. We go down to the cocoa plantation. It is bordered by a two-metre high wire fence, behind which is the bilingual drilling tower. When the wind turns, the smell of burnt gas penetrates into the kitchens of the neighborhood. The plant belonged to Texaco for a long time before it was taken over by the state-owned Petroamazonas in the early 1990s. A treatment of the earth, as it was once promised, has not yet taken place. And it is questionable whether this will ever happen. Recently, an arbitral tribunal in The Hague declared the fine imposed in Ecuador against Texaco/Chevron of USD 9.5 billion inadmissible. Thirty thousand Indigenous people in Ecuador had sued the company for damages because more than two million hectares of land were contaminated by toxic liquids and oil residues. The Group rejected responsibility for the environmental damage.
Mariana is one of the leading activists in the region. She has told the story of the plumes of smoke a hundred, if not a thousand times: in front of national and international journalists, in courts and in front of lawyers, at podiums and seminars, in Latin America, the USA and in Europe. And now she’s back in her cocoa plantation to show what no one wanted to see. With the machete, she chops up a rotten fruit and holds it into the camera. “A third of the pods,” she says, “cannot be sold.”
We didn’t even know where to go
Mariana is now 78 years old. She has lost dozens of neighbors, friends and family members to the cancer: stomach, lungs, uterus, intestines, skin, liver, brain, bone, breast, ovaries, prostate, blood. The cancer rate in the region is 130 times higher than usual in the country. While Texaco shipped thousands of gallons of oil north every day, giving the US a starring role in the theater around world power, entire families died away in the Amazon. “Once we thought of moving away,” Mariana recalls. “But we didn’t know where to go. We have put all our wealth into this house.”
Today, the widow sometimes feels tired and weak. She has pain in her head, eyes and stomach. Nevertheless, she wants to continue to be a witness – partly because she is one of the last of her generation to still be alive. “It’s not easy,” she says, breaking off. Her tears reflect fifty years of suffering. “I hope,” she begins anew, “that the land I once settled will eventually throw something off for my descendants.”
Granddaughter and nephew take over
One of Mariana’s granddaughters now works as a volunteer in the same NGO as her grandmother, and a nephew organises the so-called Toxic Tour. It shows people from all over the world the outdated drilling rigs, the polluted swamp area and the catchment basins with industrial waste. Film stars and musicians such as Brad Pitt or the duo “Calle 13” were already here, trying to generate publicity and donating dozens of water tanks with activated carbon filters. These tanks stand on the roofs of those affected and filter the rainwater. Nobody wants to drink water from the ground here.
“No one should close their arms now,” Mariana demands. The struggle must continue: “The only legacy we can leave to our great-grandchildren is a more balanced environment.”
Don’t know what to do
Three days later I skype Beatrice. She dropped the shops in the room and a cup of cold rosehip tea next to her. She doesn’t like it, the July heat. “You can’t get out of the house, especially as you get older.” That’s why she and her husband walk early in the morning.
Beatrice settled on Lake Greifensee after returning from South Africa at the end of the seventies and stayed there. She founded a family, sang in the church choir, worked part-time with Kuoni in the Glattzentrum and flew with us in the summer to Crete, Turkey or the Canary Islands. When the war for oil broke out in Iraq in 1991, she was on a study trip to South Africa.
I tell her about Mariana: about the diseases and miscarriages, the animals that have died and about the drilling tower, about the threats and attempts at bribery by the industry, so that the family may finally leave Nueva Loja.
On my last visit to Switzerland two years ago, we discussed helplessness; about the inability to take action and somehow bring the multiple crises onto the streets. On that road, built and maintained by cheap workers from Portugal, Spain and Albania, on which 200 to 300 hp-powered SUVs drive, burning between 12 and 16 liters of gasoline. “I think it’s horrible,” Beatrice once said, “but you don’t know what to do anymore. It’s all become so complex.”
Perplexity and powerlessness
I am referring them to their recent holiday in South Africa, to the two cars that she and her husband had until a few months ago, to products from overseas, soy lecithin, palm oil, bananas, almonds, chocolate, coffee, Asian clothes and the Shoes from Eastern Europe – and notice: she knows all this. She has been buying organically and regionally for years, has long dispensed with strawberries in winter and rarely indulges in a mango. She often stands in front of the supermarket shelves and is overwhelmed by the large selection. The consumer society, which was co-designed by the generation, leaves behind perplexity, a feeling of impotence and a badly stricken planet.
Then her voice becomes hard, the rhythm faster and the outrage greater: “Since Fukushima, the environment has not been an issue in politics anymore. We’re all concerned with Trump, enemy images and refugees. But what does this help us when the climate goes before the dogs?! "
This is not the first time we have had these discussions and our arguments are repeated today. But in the end she mentions a point that remains to me: “I know people around me who don’t fly or fly little, don’t have a car, eat little meat and are still insane egotists. They are ploughing around in their own little world, moaning about everything and everyone, and are not at all satisfied with their lives.”
A few weeks later, I fly over the Transcript of July again and wonder: Did she mean me?
Epilogue: For Beatrice to travel, Mariana must die
It will not end as drastically as history has begun. After talking to the two women, researching on the ground and meeting with doctors, lawyers and engineers in the oil industry, I cannot say whether the sentence is really justified. Instead, I enter the term “contradiction” on Google and come across a quote from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900):
Necessary contradictions in thinking in order to be able to live.
So watch the climate change and the number of cars continue to increase, as oceans drown in plastic and supermarket chains double-pack their products, how people flee because of climate change and flee in the cities, like war on oil and other raw materials and the displaced people drown in the sea, how people in emerging countries want to live in the same way as in Europe and who in Europe are afraid that they will soon be unable to do so, as I get on the plane and consume organic vegetables.
Now just don’t lose your nerve. There are also Transition Towns with their own currency and repair cafes with their attitude. There are farmers who enter into contracts with their customers, so that both sides come closer together as human beings. There are urban gardening projects where green replaces grey and brings a breath of fresh air to the cities. There is the common living of young and old, which creates understanding between the generations. There are mud house builders, dry clone designers, food-sharing communities, degrowth movements, silent anarchists. And there are the silenced somewhere out in the countryside who do not preach environmental protection, but live. They all need little or no oil and offer the descendants of Mariana and Beatrice a perspective.
As the saying goes, there are generations that sustain a civilization, and others that build one.
- Despite several re-energising snobs at the state-owned company Petroamazonas, which is responsible for the plant next to The house of Mariana, the company remains silent.