How nine schoolgirls stood up for Ecuador's Amazon and won

In 2021, nine schoolgirls sued the Ecuadorean government, saying the use of flares by oil companies in the Amazon violated their constitutional right to a healthy environment. They won their case, but a year later, they’re still fighting to protect their community.

Johanna Alarcon/Reuters/File
Members of indigenous communities protest outside Ecuador's Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources in Quito, Ecuador, March 24, 2022 against the continued use of gas flaring by oil producers in the country's Amazon. The sign reads "Turn off the flares."

When 11-year-old Ecuadorean Leonela Moncayo sees the flames from a gas flare flickering above the jungle canopy near her home in the Amazon rainforest, anger makes her determined to fight the pollution caused by decades of oil drilling.

Leonela lives in the ramshackle tropical town of Lago Agrio at the heart of Ecuador’s oil industry, where young people are leading demands for a ban on the use of flares to burn off the unwanted natural gas that escapes during crude extraction.

“I fear for my future and that of my family,” Leonela told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We live off the land, we’re farmers. The water isn’t safe to drink. The Amazon and its riches are being destroyed.”

There are hundreds of gas flares scattered across the northeastern Amazon provinces of Orellana, Sucumbios, and Napo, which lie among forested slopes and active volcanoes.

For decades, local indigenous people, farming communities, environmental rights activists, and lawyers have said flaring causes serious damage to the environment and health, contaminating the air and water supplies.

White sheets put out to dry one day are covered with black soot the next day, residents said.

Flaring wastes energy that could be used if captured instead of burned, and releases carbon dioxide along with methane and soot as waste gas, which also contributes to global warming.

But as Ecuador’s government plans to ramp up oil production, the country’s courts are starting to recognize the toxic fallout of flaring.

In a landmark case against the government filed by Leonela and eight other schoolgirls, the provincial court of Sucumbios ruled that the use of flares violated their constitutional right to a healthy environment.

It ordered the Energy Ministry to eliminate the flares near inhabited areas of Orellana and Sucumbios within 18 months. Flares in more rural areas can operate until 2030.

‘Rights of nature’

Yet more than a year later, most of the flares continue to blink and burn in the rainforest as communities demand that the government comply with the ruling and provide better access to health care and clean water.

Judges also considered Ecuador’s law of “rights of nature” for rivers and ecosystems enshrined in its constitution in 2008, and ordered the Energy Ministry to issue a public apology.

That rare apology was given by two junior ministry officials at an event last month at a stadium in Lago Agrio where plaintiffs and a crowd of environmentalists and students had gathered.

“I understand your discontent. We all have families, we all have children,” said Diego Erazo, an energy ministry official.

He said an action plan was underway to remove the flares in the area, and that state-owned Petroecuador and foreign oil companies “are aware” they need to use new and cleaner technology to reduce the environmental impact.

A March report by the Energy Ministry details a plan in place to eliminate 342 active flares in the Amazon by 2030.

But the young plaintiffs who sued the government are growing impatient for officials to make good on their promises.

“We want the government to comply with the court ruling,” said 14-year-old Jamileth Jurado, another of the girls who filed the legal complaint.

“We don’t need an apology while our health is being harmed. We need the pollution to stop. We need clean air and water.”

Environmental fears

Data on the links between crude production and human health is insufficient and inconclusive, but many Lago Agrio residents think oil industry pollution including from flares plays a part in numerous health conditions.

Local people suspect that the health of women and girls is most affected by oil pollution because they spend more time in contact with water while washing, cooking, and bathing children, said environmentalists.

But scientist Alberto Izzotti said a lack of robust data meant it could not be concluded that a “causal relationship” exists between cancer and oil production in the region.

“There are so many confounding factors like lifestyles, diet, sunlight exposure, that can influence the correlation between oil pollution and incidence of certain types of cancer that need to be investigated,” said Mr. Izzotti, professor of hygiene, preventive medicine, and public health at the school of medicine at Italy’s University of Genoa.

Chevron vs. Lago Agrio

Ecuador produces 530,000 barrels of oil per day, with crude accounting for its main source of export revenue, much of it pumped from Amazon oilfields.

Ecuador’s oil boom of the 1970s saw paved roads and oil pipelines cut through once pristine jungle on indigenous ancestral lands in one of the world’s most biodiverse hotspots, and the legacy of oil drilling is visible.

Left behind are thousands of open waste pits of oil residue obscured by the jungle.

For the parents of the children who have taken up the fight, the 2021 court ruling against flaring is a new front in their decades-long legal battle to seek justice for environmental damage caused by oil from the state and private companies.

“The fight is against the state as it’s the state that awards permits to the oil companies. They have exploited what they want and then they walk away,” said campaigner Donald Moncayo, Leonela’s father and head of the UDAPT group.

“But we live here, this is our home. Thirty-thousand people are directly affected by the contamination and have no drinking water but it’s really the whole planet that’s impacted,” said Mr. Moncayo, standing ankle deep in a copper-tinted cesspool in the humid forest.

Lago Agrio residents have been fighting in the courts for years to force U.S. oil company Chevron Corp to pay for water and soil contamination in Ecuador from 1964 to 1992 by Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001.

In 2011, an Ecuadorean court ordered Chevron to pay $8.65 billion in compensation, but a U.S. court blocked its enforcement several years later and campaigners are still fighting to get the oil pollution and pits properly cleared up.

Along with his daughter, Mr. Moncayo is nurturing a new generation of leaders to fight against oil pollution by running workshops for about 200 young people on law and leadership.

Meanwhile, as the orange flames roar incessantly into the sky, young environmentalists vow to keep up the pressure.

“What’s happening here is a crime,” Leonela said. “We’ll keep fighting for future generations.”

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. 

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