Why We Still Need to Talk About Disasters in the Time of Covid-19

The recent spill in the Ecuadorian Amazon may have been the largest in 15 years. Credit: Danny Gualinga.

On April 7th, 2020, as the world buckled down to fight the coronavirus pandemic, Ecuador’s San Rafael waterfall suddenly eroded, rupturing two main oil pipelines that spilled thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Coca River. Given heavy rainfall, the spill quickly made its way into Ecuador’s Napo River, the largest tributary to the Amazon River, and the lifeblood of over 150 indigenous communities.

Videos came flooding out of areas near the Peruvian border, hundreds of miles from the spill, where community members show destroyed fish stocks and their children sickened from bathing in crude oil. The Ecuadorian government originally stated that 4000 barrels had been spilled; a few weeks later the number was revised up to over 15,000 barrels.

A girl shows off a rash after bathing in the Napo days after the spill. Credit: Danny Gualinga.

This revision makes the April 7th spill the worst in the past 15 years in Ecuador.

“This spill has been one of the worst oil spills we have ever seen in the Napo River; our lives have been changed by this spill,” said Olger Licuy, general manager of Sani Lodge, an indigenous-owned ecolodge along the Napo River.

Unfortunately, spills are so common in Ecuador that the local media now provides cursory coverage of each one; global media probably only covers one in ten Amazon spills. And amidst the world’s largest pandemic in a century, this news has been quickly buried in horrifying statistics published from around the world. Ecuador is among the hardest-hit countries, struggling to control the epidemic in the coastal city of Guayaquil.

Why Covering Disasters in the Media Matters, Even Now

The world may feel like it has stopped because of Covid-19 stay-at-home orders. Mental health, the economy, and canceled plans are top of mind over international disasters. But the pandemic and disasters like this spill are just two sides of the same coin: a result of unsustainable environmental exploitation.

Yet Ecuador, crushed by the coronavirus response, pushed to get oil production running again as quickly as possible to save the economy. Up to one-third of Ecuador’s exports come from petroleum extraction, mostly in the Amazon Rainforest. Petroecuador, the state-run oil company responsible for the spill, handed out four-liter plastic water bottles to nearby indigenous communities and has made some cleanup efforts, but communities are still suffering. Some have even admitted they were turned away from medical care related to the spill because of fears of spreading Covid-19.

Local communities are desperate for help. Unable to go upriver to buy supplies to prevent the spread of coronavirus, many indigenous families were depending on the Napo River for fish and freshwater. Now, the fish are gone and a black slick covers the river, even over a month after the spill.

The Napo River in days following the spill. Credit: Olger Licuy.

The Sani Isla, an indigenous Kichwa community living along the Napo River, normally operates an ecolodge that helps their 700-person community protect over 40,000 hectares of virgin rainforest from oil companies. Without tourism, they have no way of bringing urgent necessities downriver from the town of Coca — three hours away by boat. Many communities further downriver are in the same position.

“We were doing our part and staying home,” said Olger Licuy, General Manager of Sani Lodge. “All our boats stopped coming to Coca for the past three weeks. Our families were depending on the fish in the Napo to survive, and now the fish are gone.”

Scientists in Ecuador had repeatedly told the government the Coca River would erode due to hydroelectric activity further upstream, and were ignored. Several experts claim further major erosion is inevitable, putting downstream communities at risk if the dam is not reinforced or dismantled completely. Petroecuador claimed it would clean the affected areas and visit nearby communities in a show of support, but those living along the Napo River have seen little signs of help from them and no signs from the national government.

“We’ve been waiting for the authorities, and no one showed up,” said Fernando Alvarado, the leader of the Kichwa community of Alta Florencia, near the Peruvian border. “The Ministry of the Environment should be here taking stock and helping. They only come when they need something from us.”

Covid-19 and Current Crises are Connected

The Ecuadorian Amazon isn’t the only place struggling to manage parallel crises. Tropical Cyclone Harold battered Fiji, Tonga, and Vanuatu just last month. The Southern US has faced numerous destructive tornadoes, even as families try to shelter in place, and hurricane season is on its way. In East Africa, where massive locust swarms have destroyed crops, remote communities are struggling for food supplies as humanitarian aid focuses on the pandemic.

The world is overwhelmed and struggling to assess the far-reaching impact of this pandemic. As we watch our favorite businesses close their doors, it feels like no one can take any more bad news. But for those of us who are lucky enough to have food, shelter, and our health during this time, quarantine is also a time to reflect on how this situation, like many of these disasters, arose from the overexploitation of our natural world.

The conservation of global biodiversity directly protects us from zoonotic diseases like the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a study in The Royal Society, mammal populations that have been reduced by loss of habitat or poaching by humans share more viruses with humans. The same goes for mammals that have seen their populations boom as they adapt to living near humans, like rats.

The more we intervene in wildlife habitats and interact with wild animals, the more likely a virus can adapt and jump from an animal to a human host, just like Covid-19 did. Areas like the Sani Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon play a valuable role in conserving global biodiversity, indirectly protecting us from future viral threats by conserving healthy populations of mammal species with low human interaction. Yet constant incursions by oil companies in biodiversity hotspots, including world-famous Yasuní National Park, put this balance at risk. And indigenous communities like the Sani Isla are caught in between.

The global pandemic, while destructive, has also revealed beautiful stories of communities supporting each other as our society changes. It has also reminded us of the importance of protecting our planet and caring for the vulnerable communities that stand on the frontlines of climate change and biodiversity loss. The virus, and these disasters, disproportionately affect these rural and indigenous groups.

It is more important than ever, in this time of global crisis, to continue to pay attention to disasters like the recent oil spill in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Natural and man-made disasters exacerbate the challenges posed by the virus, especially in emerging economies. We must resist the urge to turn inward and rather use this time to build compassion to help those most affected by our changing environment.

CEO @ Friends of Wallacea // ex-ghost writer, ex-vc // harnessing the power of tech for conservation, and writing about it.