Reflection by Kyle Molchany, Elizabethtown College
The week of my fall break, I spent 6 days in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and I can honestly say it was probably one of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had. The previous BCA-Ecuador (my study abroad program) resident director, Daniel Bryan, set up and coordinated this program for us, and it was very different from what has become the norm in study abroad programs. The program we participated in was done through the foundation Daniel is now working with, Pachaysana.
Traditionally, study abroad is very one-sided. We visit another country, learn a ton about other cultures, have incredible experiences, and leave more cultured than we were when we arrived. Those who we learn from however, the natives to the country, basically gain nothing, and often we just interrupt their lives for the sake of our own experiences. Pachaysana is working to change this trend.
In line with this ideology, we 20 BCA students had 10 Ecuadorian counterparts from a small Amazonian village, the Mariscal (kinda funny because the club district of Quito goes by the same name) accompany us for the entire experience. Every tour, hike and activity that we did, we did together. We all learned a lot; about oil, nature, and most importantly we learned about each other. For the first time since I arrived in Ecuador, I shared my experiences with Ecuadorians, rather than just taking one from them. This had a profound effect on me, and I cannot begin to describe it.
We left early Tuesday morning, met up with our counterparts, and spent our first two days on a “Toxic Tour,” traveling to various sites, towns, and villages that have been affected by the severe amounts of oil pollution in the Amazon. The pollution is mainly the result of the work done by Texaco-Chevron from the mid-70′s to the early 90′s. Since then however, the Ecuadorian government has not been so environmentally friendly either. We saw horrific sites, some of which can be seen below.
Our guide for this portion of the trip was Donald Moncayo. We were especially fortunate to have him with us, as he is one of the lead environmentalists involved in suing Texaco-Chevron on the behalf of the Amazonian communities affected by their work. He had a wealth of information to share with us and really opened up our eyes to what had gone on in the Amazon in the past 50 years with regard to oil exploitation.
In those first 2 days we also visited an indigenous Cofan community, named Dureno, that has been severely affected by the exploitation of oil. They have lost severe amounts of land to oil production sites. Additionally, their population has decreased by over 90%, and they are now left with only 1000 people in their community. This population decrease is due to both people leaving the community, and a large amount of deaths due to pollution of the land and waterways that they live off of. They bathe, drink, and wash their clothing in the polluted water, because they have no other choice. As a result, the mortality rate with regard to cancer is 12 percent, while the international average is about 3 percent. It was saddening to hear the Cofan people talk about the terrible effect oil production has had on their community and population.
After our “Toxic Tour,” we spent 4 days in the small community of the Mariscal, the home of our Ecuadorian counterparts. This small village was 45 minutes from the closest city, and home to a mere 200 people, all of whom work in sugarcane farming, producing and selling both sugar and alcohol from the cane. We stayed with host families in the community, who were all very kind and fed us mountains of rice with every meal.
In our few days there, we hiked, visited another local indigenous village, swam in waterfalls, and played with the abundance of adorable Ecuadorian children. It was impossible to walk anywhere without having one (or five) of them attach themselves to your legs or ask to sit on your shoulders.
While in the Mariscal, we went on two hikes, both of which were led by the most badass tour guide I’ve ever encountered. His name is Juan, he has lived in the Amazon for 40 years, and knows EVERY animal, insect, and plant that grows there. The first of these hikes took about 7 hours round-trip, and was all hills. It made the Laurel Mountain Trail in Western PA look like child’s play. The trail we hiked was only a few years old, and due to its level of difficulty, not many from the community had hiked it. Along the way we came across three different waterfalls, and swam in the third. It was incredible. Even cooler, with how new the trail is, it is fair to say I am probably 1 of the first hundred people to see these waterfalls. I still can’t get over it
Just when I thought Juan couldn’t get any cooler, we went on our second hike, which was a night hike. We saw tons of huge insects, some monkeys up in the trees, and finished by finding a snake curled up in a tree. As we were all excitedly taking pictures of the snake, Juan asked if anyone wanted to touch it. After our enthusiastic response, Juan casually reached up and grabbed the snake from the tree branch. It immediately started going crazy, throwing its body in all directions and disemboweling itself all over Juan’s arm. It then darted its head at Juan’s hand, and sunk it’s fangs into his skin. We all stared horrified as blood began to appear. Meanwhile, Juan merely said, “Wow,” and waited about twenty seconds for the snake to release him. We all then got a chance to touch the snake. Overall, it was a pretty awesome hike.
My entire experience those few days living in the Mariscal community were life-changing. While much of the community was related, even those who weren’t, including us, we were treated like family just the same. The sense of community and love was so strong and we all felt it the moment we arrived. The children were a perfect example. Without question, they swarmed us, playing games, tickling, or even just coming up and hugging you. I really envy the lifestyle these people live.
I don’t think I will ever realize truly how large of an impact this trip has had on my life. I hope that what I have said will help some of you to see overseas oil exploitation and study abroad differently. Hopefully you’ll not only change your perspective, but also take action. We must recognize the problems in both areas, and do what we can to change the norms.
If you want to learn more about the Chevron-Texaco case, I recommend watching the documentary Crude. It’s pretty biased, but very educational all the same.