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Photo Essay: Crude Reflections from the Amazon

After enduring years of toxic dumping and rising cancer rates, indigenous Ecuadorians took oil giant Chevron to court to fight for the life of the rainforest—and its people.

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Click to play - Photos by Lou Dematteis

Chevron photo by Lou Dematteis 19

A member of the Ecuadorian Special Forces keeps an eye on Huaorani women before the start of a march against Chevron (formerly Texaco) in Lago Agrio.

Photo by Lou Dematteis.

I first traveled to Ecuador’s northern Amazon region in 1993 to investigate reports of extensive environmental contamination and damage from years of oil development, and to photograph its consequences.

I had been working as a photojournalist in Latin America for over a decade, spending much of that time covering the wars that raged throughout Central America. What I found in Ecuador was not a shooting war, but a war nonetheless—a war on the environment.

I visited old Texaco (now Chevron) oil well sites and saw toxic wastewater being dumped into open-air pits filled with crude oil. It looked like infected sores on the floor of the rainforest. This was one of the results of Texaco’s decision to dump oil waste into the environment instead of re-injecting it back deep into the earth.

Crude Reflections book cover

Crude Reflections: Oil, Ruin, and Resistance in the Amazon Rainforest
by Lou Dematteis
City Lights Publishers, 2008, $24.95, 128 pages.

Even though Texaco left Ecuador in 1992, the dumping continued at its old wells and facilities. To make matters worse, many pits were set on fire in order to burn away the waste crude, a practice started by Texaco. The scene looked like something out of Dante’s Inferno.

During my trip, I spoke with a doctor at Ecuador’s Ministry of Health. He believed the region was sitting on a time bomb as a result of the toxic waste contamination. He said it would take ten years or so for cancers and other health problems to fully manifest themselves, but once they did, the result would be an epidemic of serious and fatal health conditions.

When I returned to the northern Amazon in 2003 to cover the opening of the trial against Chevron, I found that the time bomb had exploded. Everywhere I turned, I encountered people who were living with the impacts of this ecological tragedy. Returning again in 2004 for the start of judicial inspections of old Texaco wells and waste sites, I stayed on after my initial assignment to photograph some of those affected by the contamination.

Chevron multimedia, screenshot
A Big Surprise for Chevron:
Hours before the oil giant released its new ad campaign, the Yes Men released their own version.

One of the first people I photographed was Angel Toala, who had been an activist with Amazon Defense front, a grassroots organization dedicated to environmental justice in the area where Texaco operated. Angel was dying from stomach cancer and was so weak he couldn’t speak. His wife spoke for him (her testimony is in my book). I found out later that Angel died the day after I took his photo.

Since Angel’s death, I have continued to visit the Amazon, to tell the stories not only of people like him who have suffered greatly, but of the brave men and women who are fighting for environmental justice, and also of the movements to protect and preserve the Ecuadorian rainforest.


Lou Dematteis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Lou is a photojournalist who covers social, environmental, and political issues of international importance. He is the author of A Portrait of Viet Nam, Nicaragua: A Decade of Revolution—a photographic journey through the Sandanista years—and Crude Reflections: Oil, Ruin, and Resistance in the Amazon Rainforest.

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