Oil Spills in the Ecuadorian Amazon

The Pastaza province is in the Oriente region of eastern Ecuador. Pastaza reaches from the central Andes to the Peruvian border, almost 12,000 square miles, most of which is dense Amazonian  rainforest. As of 2010, 83,933 people live there.[1]  Before oil development, the small villages were only accessible via helicopter, small plane, or multi-day trek.[2]

In 1964 Texaco (now Chevron) first discovered oil in the Oriente region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, home to indigenous peoples such as the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa and Huaorani, and shortly after began drilling and extracting operations in 1967.[3]

From 1967 to 1992, the 25 years in which Texaco was in the country, it contaminated over 30,000 people’s drinking, fishing, cooking, and bathing water by dumping large amounts of waste in their rivers and in unlined, open-air pits. At its peak, Texaco dumped an estimated 4 million gallons per day  into 600-1000  pits, a practice that had long been outlawed in oil-producing states in the United States.[3]

Research done by Judith Kimerling, an environmental and indigenous rights activist and attorney, concludes that since production began in 1972, a cumulative amount of more than 19.3 billion gallons of waste water was dumped.[4] Additionally, an estimated 3.2 million gallons of toxic waste was spilled daily at Texaco’s peak.[4]

As a result of this heavy a pollution, today, “almost 10,000 people in Ecuador face a significant risk of contracting cancer in the coming decades due to Chevron’s refusal to clean up billions of gallons of oil waste dumped there.”[4] Further, according to Dr. Daniel Rourke, an American statistician, this number could grow much larger in years to come as these preliminary estimates have been made assuming that cleanup will begin immediately and will be complete within ten years–a proposition Chevron has steadily rejected.[3]

Clearly, the actions of Texaco have had dramatically devastating health effects on rural communities. But what are effects of the company’s practices? Because the responsibility to keep families healthy lies with women and mothers in rural communities, many indigenous women have begun to speak out against Texaco’s destructive practices which they claim have exploited and abused indigenous lands causing many rural families to suffer. Ena Santi, a representative of the Kichwa of Sarayaku Indigenous People Association, said: “Women are defenders of our own Mother Earth. We produce our own food for our sons and daughters and our husbands. We are the watchers of the Living Forest that lives in the Amazon. We are the mothers that fight every day and night carrying our babies to defend our culture, our language and our traditions.”[5] As Santi states, women produce and defend culture, language, and traditions by ensuring the livelihoods and thus health and sustenance of their communities and, by extension, natural environments.

Echoing the sentiment of Santi, women representatives of the Sapara and Shiwiar Nationalities and the Kichwa Kawsak Sacha and Sarayaku Peoples put out this collective statement: “Women are the main victims [of oil extraction]—their ability to feed their families becomes impaired. There is deterioration of family health and they suffer the division of their communities and other forms of violence.”[6] Through their attacks on the environment via oil drilling and mass contamination, Texaco parallely attacks not only women’s bodies directly, but simultaneously threatens their ability to sustain the health and nourishment of their families and communities.

By using ecofeminism as a frame of analysis, we consider and thus better understand the intersection between environmental crises and gender equality, ultimately identifying the ways in which hegemonic power systematically oppresses both women and the earth in a quest for consumption-based progress. In this case, the quest for oil by big businesses like Texaco is supported by a global, capitalistic model that fails to ascribe value to the natural environment, as witnessed by the indiscriminate tons of toxic waste carelessly dumped in rural communities. Further, this same model that encourages this kind of violence against the environment is responsible for the violence enacted upon women in these same rural communities. Women, as primary caretakers, organizers, and nurturers are responsible not only for themselves and their own health, but that of their families and communities as well. The actions taken by Texaco threaten their ability to sustain family and community not only by physically attacking their bodies but by destroying the lands they depend on for their livelihoods. The recognition that this environmental disaster is intimately linked to women’s ability to sustain their families and communities is incredibly important for informing how activists should organize and what they should target.


[1] Statoids. “Cantons of Ecuador.” Statoids. Accessed May 1, 2016.

[2] Lawrence, William. “Ecuadorian Indigenous Peoples Resist Oil Drilling in the Amazon, Jan. 1989 – Sept. 1994.” Global Nonviolent Action Database. January 10, 2010.

[3] Chevron Toxico. “Historic Trial.” Chevron Toxico. Accessed May 1, 2016.

[4] Kimerling, Judith. “Oil, Contact, and Conservation in the Amazon: Indigenous Huaorani, Chevron, and Yasuni.” Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy 24, no. 1 (2013): 44-115.

[5] Gimenez, Jaime. “Indigenous Women Resist Against Oil in Ecuador: ‘We Are Ready to Die for Our Rainforest.” The Dawn, March 25, 2016.

[6] Arasim, Emily, and Osprey Orielle Lake. “Women of the Amazon Defend Their Homeland Against New Oil Contract on International Women’s Day.” Ecowatch. 2016.

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Pesticides & Reproductive Defects in Brazil

The conventional ecofeminist framework focuses on the most classic examples of environmental degradation—water and air pollution, deforestation, oil spills, and the like. In reality, women’s issues and environmental issues connect in many diverse ways, and an ecofeminist lens can be used to analyze a wide range of problems and to identify unconventional solutions. Scholars have used the ecofeminist framework to examine several issues that seem irrelevant at first, including women’s household shopping habits, homophobia, and biopiracy. [1]

On first glance, the issue of pesticide use in Brazil seems to be restricted to the environmental sphere for its damage to biodiversity: the “pesticide treadmill” and eutrophication in runoff waters. The struggle against pesticides is really one facet of the worldwide struggle against industrial agriculture or “agribusiness.”

After the global Green Revolution and subsequent boom in industrial agriculture and pesticide use in the 1970s, ecologists began investigating the potential health impacts of agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides. Rachel Carson’s seminal work Silent Spring unveiled the harm that the pesticide DDT causes through bioaccumulation, or the buildup of small concentrations of fat-soluble toxins in animal tissues. [2]

More recently, scientists have begun to look at the effects of prolonged pesticide exposure on public health, particularly in large production countries that heavily rely on industrial agriculture. Brazil falls into this category as the highest consumer of pesticides in the world, using more than one billion liters of agricultural chemicals per year. [3]

But the question of how pesticide overuse applies to a feminist scholarly outlook still remains. Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari propose a variation of an ecofeminist lens, called feminist political ecology. This new framework brings together three important aspects of any environmental issue to transform it into both a feminist and environmental issue, or, as we argue, an ecofeminist issue. These three themes are gendered knowledge, gendered environmental rights and responsibilities, and gendered environmental politics and grassroots activism.

The theme that is most central to women’s ecofeminist concerns around industrialization is the first: gendered knowledge. Rocheleau et al define gendered knowledge as “an emerging ‘science of survival’ that encompasses the creation, maintenance, and protection of healthy environments at home, at work, and in regional ecosystems.” [4]

Women, as the primary caretakers and nurturers of the family, must face the burden of survival, not only for themselves in their workplace environment, but for their children and family as well. As mothers, women must concern themselves with undue health hazards that are out of their control—these hazards most often arise from industrialization. As Rocheleau et al argue, “This responsibility [of motherhood] puts women in a position to oppose threats to health, life, and vital subsistence resources, regardless of economic incentives, and to view environmental issues from the perspective of the home, as well as that of personal and family health.” [4]

Although there may not seem to be any reason for women to involve themselves with the use of chemical pesticides in industrial agriculture, one must not look any further than the health risks that pesticides pose to understand why this is an ecofeminist issue.

Movements Against Pesticide Use

In 2011, a coalition of Brazilian women from Via Campesina, Agricultura Familiar e Agroecologia, and the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), calling themselves the Women Against the Violence of Agribusiness and Agrotoxins for Land Reform and Food Sovereignty, marched to protest the health risks of pesticides across Brazil. [5] As its name suggests, this cross-organizational movement works in tandem with the decades-long struggle for food sovereignty and agrarian reform in Brazil, coordinating its strategy with well-established activist groups. [6]

Over 100 social movement organizations (SMOs), including the coalition of Brazilian women against pesticides, signed onto a symposium publication about biotechnology. In this mission statement, the SMOs state their firm opposition to all facets of industrial agriculture, particularly the “Big Six seed/pesticide corporations that already control 75% of global private sector research and development in agriculture, [the same corporations that] oblige us to buy their patented GMOs every year as well as their toxic pesticides, indispensable to grow those GMOs.” [7]

Public officials often cite the lack of hard scientific data to justify inaction on pesticide overuse. As Rocheleau et al argue, however, women who are disproportionately affected by environmental risks push for “a more holistic approach to environmental and health issues…based on skills acquired in their socialization as women,” especially given the “inequity of participation and power in science-as usual.” [4]

For most Brazilian women, hard data is not necessary to explain the very real health effects of pesticides on their families—particularly the birth defects that ensue from pesticide overuse. Despite the women’s reluctance to overstate the importance of scientific methodology in justifying the risks of pesticides, the movement believed it necessary to arm themselves with reliable data in order to gain legitimacy and recognition from the government, regulatory agencies, and the agribusiness corporations against which they were fighting. Therefore, several public health collectives have quantitatively examined the biological persistence and health disorders that result from prolonged exposure to pesticides, both in real time and in utero.

In 1989, the environmental agency of the state of Rio de Janeiro deposited tonnes of HCH and DDT, two extremely toxic pesticides, in a poorly managed waste facility in the small town of Cidade dos Meninos, coincidentally where much of the state’s vegetables, milk, and meat are produced. Nearly two decades later, researchers sampled the four most common toxic exposure pathways—surface soil, access roads, food chains, and ambient air—to examine how much HCH and DDT remains in the soil, water, air, vegetables, and grasses in Cidade dos Meninos and the surrounding areas. The researchers discovered extremely high levels of DDT and HCH that have persisted, and found a very high risk of public health problems from the long-term, high-concentration exposure. [8]

In a following analysis of the current level of organochlorine pesticides that remains from the same dumping in Cidade dos Meninos, and compares those figures to the recommended limits of daily exposure. The pesticides HCH and DDT, which are fat-soluble and bioaccumulate in the tissues of all animals, including cows (milk), chickens (eggs), and humans (breast milk), were found to exceed the minimum risk levels by almost one hundred times, especially for women and children who are chronically exposed. [9]

Via Campesina

These analyses are helpful for building a historical argument that cites the disproportionate impact of pesticides on women, particularly the findings on bioaccumulation of chemical pesticides through body fat and breast milk. Another study commonly cited by the women’s movement specifically examines the birth defects caused by pesticides, analyzing 3.5 million births from 26 states in Brazil. The results found that, across the country, pesticide use was highly correlated to mortality and infant death by congenital abnormality, and moderately correlated to low birth weight. [10]

Armed with these weapons that conferred legitimacy upon them, the women marched, closing down highways and striking from their agricultural work, and protesting the elevated risks of reproductive tract abnormalities, breast cancer, and thyroid disease that they face. [5]

Despite the existence of “hard” scientific data on the subject, one must examine the accessibility of such information to the women protesting. As Rocheleau et al argue, women who are affected or whose children are affected do not see the pressing need to examine the larger trends of reproductive defects and cancer from pesticide exposure. Even if no statistically significant relationship exists, that does not negate the daily struggles and lifelong health hazards that disproportionately affect women.

The ecofeminist strategy that the women’s anti-pesticide SMO took on fits into the larger movement against agribusiness in Brazil, uniting several marginalized groups. The common discourse, as shown in the Via Campesina poster above, advocates for family farms, in contrast to the faceless, capitalist corporate model of agriculture that currently dominates the Brazilian economy. This flows well with yet another tenet of ecofeminism—the capitalist model of agriculture prioritizes profit over everything, particularly biodiversity and women’s interests. The GMOs and chemical pesticides mandated by agribusiness simultaneously destroy soil integrity, eliminate seed biodiversity, and pose irreversible and serious health risks for women and the family, all in the name of maximizing production and consumption. Together, the workers, depicted as a brown, working-class Brazilian family, can rise up against the “false solutions of green capitalism,” and defeat the behemoth corporations that threaten the earth and the lives of women and children.

[1]  Dobscha, Susan. “Women and the Environment: Applying Ecofeminism to Environmentally-Related Consumption.” Advances in Consumer Research 20 (1993): 36-40. Davion, Victoria. “Coming Down to Earth on Cloning: An Ecofeminist Analysis of Homophobia in the Current Debate.” Hypatia 21 (2006): 58-76. Isla, Ana. “An Ecofeminist Perspective on Biopiracy in Latin America.” Signs 32 (2007): 323-332. 

[2] Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1962.

[3] Friends of the MST. “More Than a Thousand Women March Against Pesticides in Ceará.” Friends of the MST. March 2, 2011.

[4]  Rocheleau, Dianne, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari. “Gender and the Environment: A Feminist Political Ecology Perspective.” In Environment in Anthropology, edited by Nora Haenn and Richard Wilk, 27-33. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

[5] Rodale, Maria. “Thousands of Women Farmers in Brazil Protest the Use of Pesticides.” Beyond Pesticides. March 07, 2011.

[6] United States Food Sovereignty Alliance. “USFSA Statement on International Day of Peasants and Farmers Struggles.” La Via Campesina. April 17, 2016.

[7] UN Food and Agriculture Organization. “FAO Symposium on Biotechnology.” La Via Campesina. February 15, 2016.

[8] Brilhante, Ogenis M. and Robson Franco. “Exposure pathways to HCH and DDT in Cidade dos Meninos and its surrounding districts of Amapa, Figueiras, and Pilar, metropolitan regions of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.” International Journal of Environmental Health Research 16, vol. 3 (2006): 205-217.

[9] Asmus, Carmen Ildes R. Fróes, Herling Gregorio Aguilar Alonzo, Marisa Palácios, Alexandre Pessoa da Silva, Maria Isabel de Freitas Filhote, Daniela Buosi, Volney de Magalhães Câmara. “Assessment of human health risk from organochlorine pesticide residues in Cidade dos Meninos, Duque de Caxias, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.” Cadernos de Saúde Pública 24, vol. 4 (2008): 755-766.

[10] De Siquiera, Marília, Cynthia Braga, José Eulálio Cabral-Filho, Lia Giraldo da Silva Augusto, José Natal Figueiroa, Ariana Impieri Souza. “Correlation Between Pesticide Use in Agriculture and Adverse Birth Outcomes in Brazil: An Ecological Study.” Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 84 (2010): 647-651.


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Extractivist Livelihoods in Brazil

“In every community it is the men that sell the forest. But in some regions, the women restore it, they plant and bring back the medicine and fruit trees.”

-Gloria Gaia


The above quote was said by Gloria Gaia, an educator and member of the Secretariat of Women Extractivists of the National Council of Extractivist Populations (CNS).[1] Gloria is one of thousands of women in rural Brazil whose livelihood is tied to the forest in which she lives, a livelihood that is based on extractivism, or the extraction of natural resources from the forest for the purpose of exportation. The forest products that women like Gloria produce are diverse and offer them an economic means of survival, but the forests are so much more than a means for profit; for women like Gloria, the forests provide shelter, food, and health care for their families.[1] For 400,000 babassu coconut breakers in Brazil, the forests “mean [their] whole life” for the bread, charcoal, oil, and soap produced from the nut and husk is integral for their survival.[2] These women maintain deep bonds with the forests that sustain them, and, in turn, dedicate their lives to the preservation of the forests.


Sadly, privatization of forest lands due to private companies and big business interests funded by national and international capital are threatening these women’s livelihoods and preventing their access to the forest lands they depend on.[3][4] Further, “extractive reserves are currently rife with problems of management, organizational uncertainties and paternalistic leadership” that work to exclude women from any forest conservation policy despite the fact that they practice “multiple-use of forests through the collection, use and processing of diverse forest products” and hold the knowledge necessary for successful forest conservation.[1]


But this silencing of their political voice has not left women who depend on extractivism for their livelihoods powerless. Instead, extractivist women across Brazil have been empowered, organizing successful social movements, local associations, cooperatives, professional associations, and more as forms of resistance to the forces threatening their livelihoods.[4] The Quebradeiras de Coco, or babassu nutbreakers, assembled to confront unfair government policies that favored cattle ranchers and private monoculture plantations, ultimately organizing the first large scale demonstration of rural, Amazonian women known as the Interstate Movement of the babassu Coconut Breakers (Movimento Interestadual das Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçu) which attempted to utilize collective action to advance local structures.[1][2] To further their fight, the Quebradeiras de Coco, partnered with ‘If Not Us Then Who,’ a film series created by Handcrafted Films that communicates firsthand the unique personal stories of indigenous peoples as they battle to protect their lives, their cultures, and forests.[5] The film below, directed by Paul Redman, is the result of this cooperation, and acts as a platform for the Quebradeiras de Coco to share their story to a wider audience.

The film gives a more in-depth look at the livelihoods of the babassu nutbreakers. It highlights their extractivist lifestyle, the threats they are facing, the actions of resistance they are currently taking, and the progress they have made thus far. A film such as this is an incredibly powerful tool for the babassu women—it offers them a medium through which they can garner support for their struggle that may otherwise have been left unheard. By spreading their story, they can forge connections with other rural women and grassroots activist organizations in the hopes that through collective action, meaningful and effective changes may be implemented. That being said, it is important to retain a critical lens while viewing this film and ask ourselves in what ways does the film romanticize indigenous women’s relationship with nature? It is obviously true that these women retain a deep knowledge of the forest that allows them to make the most of its products like the coconut, but there is danger in folklorizing their harmonious relationship to nature. Indigenous peoples, especially women, have often been victims of cultural appropriation stemming from the mythicization of their historical symbols and traditions by the West without any interest in other aspects of indigenous culture. In some ways this film can be seen as guilty of this—it projects a purely harmonious relationship of these women with the forests, claiming that they are “milk sisters of the babassu” and ultimately projecting a Pocahontas-like fictional narrative that erases these women’s value beyond their distinct connection to nature.[2] That being said, the women’s willful participation in this film perhaps renders this criticism obsolete—if the women can utilize this Western romanticization and mythicization to further their own livelihoods, does it really matter? These questions are not easily answerable, but are crucial to think about while the struggle for maintaining extractivist livelihoods in Brazil continues.

Inspired by the actions of the babassu women, the National Council of Extractivist Populations (CNS) established a division known as The Secretariat of Women Extractivists, inviting the leader of the Quebradeiras de Coco to be its founding director.[1] The Secretariat tackled huge issues and set out to strengthen extractivist communities through women’s empowerment expressing their belief that “without women’s full participation and equal rights, the mission of the CNS to create sustainable, thriving communities in extractive reserves would never be realized.”[1] To do this, the Secretariat created a program entitled A Bagagem das Mulheres da Floresta (Baggage of the Women of the Forest) that brought workshops to remote reserves throughout Brazil that utilized indigenous knowledge and focused on topics such as health, gender, income, and community organization.[1] These ongoing workshops work convey the threats that big business and government pose to rural communities and encourage community organizing with the ultimate end result that “where CNS is active, there is the strengthening of extractivist populations and inclusion of women. But where there is no community organization or workshops, there is often no vision, orientation or initiative.”[1]  You can find a Portuguese version of the book used in these workshops here and an English version here.[6][7]

An Ecofeminist Framework

As shown, in communities dependent on extractivism women play deeply important roles through their use and production of forest products, income generation, and conservation of trees which provide food and medicine for their families. “Although their role in forest use and management is far less documented in the literature than that of men, women’s role in the use and processing of forest resources is substantial.”[1] For these reasons, “if and how women are involved and how they view and interact with forests can be critical, as management decisions often determine land use.”[1] In a workshop conducted by The Center for International Forestry Research, fifteen hundred male and female participants were asked, “What is the importance of the forest in your life?” and, “Which species are priorities for your community?”[1] The responses found showed marked differences between men and women: men generally defined timber species as those of greatest value for they provide the most money. Conversely, most women also considered the of species for food, nutrition, medicine and culture in addition to economic value, and thus their responses included a variety of species differing  in plant type and plant part used. “The statement of a woman in Baião, Pará echoed the sentiment of others: ‘The forest is a grand womb generating life; because of this we preserve her.'”[1] Clearly, women retain expert knowledge on forest habitats, practice multiple-use of forests, process and produce forest goods, and sustain the extractivist livelihoods of their families by providing food, medicine, and income. This makes forest conservation and the preservation of extractivist livelihoods an ecofeminist issue: the exclusion of women from forest management policy due to paternalistic models of leadership and government effectively silences women and, thus, prevents the valuable knowledge that women retain from making an impact on conservation strategies. This threatens not only these women’s livelihoods, but the overall health, success, and preservation of the natural forests.

Room for Progress

The role women play in political forest management is ambiguous and developing—groups of women like the Quebradeiras de Coco and Secretariat of the CNS are slowly but surely amplifying women’s presence and roles in forest management and conservation, but there is still much progress to be made. “Forest conservation for many rural women in Amazonia signifies sustenance for their families, cultural continuity and a place and means to live independent of oppression. This union between forest conservation and health care reflected in the daily lives of rural Amazonian women” is an inextricable link that the Secretariat of the CNS has recognized and utilized as a platform for their recent work.[1] Continued recognition that threats to these women’s livelihoods and threats to the natural forest as a whole are stemming from the same place has been crucial for the progress made thus far and will continue to be necessary for successes to be made in the future.

[1] Shanley, Patricia, Fatima Cristina Da Silva, and Tribly MacDonald. “Brazil’s social movement, women and forests: a case study from the National Council of Rubber Tappers.” International Forestry Review 13, no. 2 (2011): 233-244.

[2] Brazil’s Warrior Women. Directed by Paul Redman. London: Handcrafted Films Ltd., 2014.

[3] Sirica, Coimbra. “Brazil’s Women Warriors Face New Challenge in Battle for Babassu Palm.” The Burness Effect Blog. August 21, 2015. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://www.burness.com/brazils-women-warriors-face-new-challenge-in-battle-for-babassu-palm/.

[4] “Organizational forms of the Babassu coconut breakers in a context of mobilization.” If Not Us Then Who. 2016. Accessed April 21, 2016. http://ifnotusthenwho.me/story/babassu-brazils-warrior-women/.

[5] “About.” If Not Us Then Who. 2016. Accessed April 21, 2016. http://ifnotusthenwho.me/about/.

[6] Shanley, Patricia, and Gabriel Medina, eds. Frutíferas e plantas úteis na vida amazônica. CIFOR, 2005.

[7] Shanley, Patricia. Fruit trees and useful plants in Amazonian life. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2011.


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