Oil and Water: Reflections from the Toxic Tour

After visiting a community in the Amazon heavily affected by toxic waste, Olivia wrote “Oil and Water.” Below are her lyrics and reflection from this experience.

Oil and Water

I lost myself on cobbled roads Left a piece of me beneath each stone I saw my hands, they were blacker than coal I washed them and your river swallowed me whole The drive is winding up and down The highway cutting through this mountain town And I got no sleep at all last night I arose to bloody noses, sparkling in the light Who will I be When the clock's reset and you're just a memory? Shame on me I built my house by cutting down your tree We taught each other melodies we knew all day yesterday I wonder what you think of me now I've gone away I wanna write a love letter to everything I see But you can't go back home again, and it's all because of me And my feet are aching And my heart is breaking But I think that's the way it ought to be I lost myself on cobbled roads How different would the picture look, if I reaped what I sowed?

When we visited Dureno, our first day was spent touring around different drilling sites and hearing the guide explain what Texaco had done to the land and to the people. We put on gloves before we touched the soil and water. At the end of the tour, we were asked to go around the circle and indicate with a show of fingers how many people we knew who had died of cancer. The average number was two or three. Our guide went last, and he said the number, “238,” and then we all piled into canoes and crossed the river into the Cofan community. The Cofan people in Dureno were the most violently affected by the drilling; when Texaco first started, they told the indigenous people that oil was medicinal and they should rub it on their skin.

Meanwhile, the surrounding earth was steadily and irreparably devastated by the oil efforts, rendering the land on which the Cofan people had lived forever, unlivable. Eventually the Ecuadorian government offered the Cofan people “housing,” which came in the form of identical concrete houses all crowded together on the same square mile of land, completely compromising their identity as a hunting/gathering people. This is the community we visited. We shared meals and bought art and played games with the children and listened to the adults talk about identity and tradition and culture and the threat of those things being lost in the coming generations because of how drastically their way of life had been changed.

One afternoon I made friends with some boys my age and we spent hours playing music, teaching each other songs on the guitar/ukulele. That night we attended a quinceanera and we danced and we celebrated and then in the early hours of the morning a fight broke out and people scattered a bit...everything about the experience made me feel so strongly. I couldn’t put my finger on precisely what I was feeling, but I tried to write a song about it.

I tried to write a song about how beautiful the earth around me was and how much I loved being there but I couldn’t do it. It felt wrong. I felt sick. I sat on the bus all the way home, agonizing over what it was that was affecting me so strongly. I think that as people in positions of privilege we’re accustomed to being absolved of our guilt. We make a mistake and then we pay some sort of penance: an apology, an act of service, a donation. We’re capable of escaping accountability, so we do. But being there in that space changed something in me: I realized that I am complicit. Simply by matter of existing, even, I am complicit in the violence those people suffer.

My privilege and comfort and entire way of life is all a direct result of the wealth of our country, and I realized in that moment that no matter what I did from then until I died, that would never be less true. I would never be less complicit, less responsible. That didn’t mean giving up and doing nothing, rather it meant a shift in my motivation to do social justice work. Because it isn’t about making good or righting a wrong; I can’t. No amount of effort that I make will undo what’s been done. To dedicate myself to doing environmental work and having those difficult conversations with those more reluctant to accept their complicity, it isn’t a matter of working off any sort of karmic debt that I owe. It is truly the least that I can do, and I fully intend to do it for the rest of my life.

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