Hesperian Health Guides
Oil and Community Health
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In places where oil is discovered, the economy develops rapidly, but it is an economy of misery. Poorly built oil camps are carved out of the landscape and bring with them many social problems, such as forced displacement, alcoholism, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV (see also Social Problems). Oil companies and governments regularly wash their hands of the communities most damaged by oil development. These communities are often left on their own to try to determine how much and what kinds of harm oil has caused, and to search for ways to restore their community’s health.
Natural gas also causes health problems
Burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide (a cause of global warming) and other pollutants than burning oil. But drilling for natural gas is similar to oil drilling, and it brings many of the same social problems. Almost everything that is true about oil in this chapter is true of natural gas as well.
Communities affected by oil organize a health study
In 1992, a group of health promoters in the Amazon jungle in Ecuador studied the way oil drilling was affecting local communities. They knew oil companies were destroying their land, but there was little understanding about how the oil affected people’s health. So the health promoters began to collect information in their towns and villages.
The health study took a lot of work and a lot of time. When they began, the health promoters did not know what they would learn. They tell their story in their own words throughout this chapter.
For thousands of years this region has been home to indigenous people. In our part of the Amazon jungle live many different peoples: Shuar-Achuar, Runa, Quichua, Huaorani, Siona-Secoya, and Cofan. Each of these cultures has its own language and art, and its own vision of reality. Before modern times, all of these tribes lived in harmony with nature. Then this harmony was broken. If we want to understand what is happening to us, we have to look at our history.
This was the beginning of breaking the balance between our ancestors and nature. First, the Spanish searched our lands for gold and silver. Our ancestors were forced to work as slaves digging gold and silver out of the earth. Then the English came. Instead of gold, they wanted rubber. They made slaves of us to take rubber from our lands. After this, the oil companies came. They did the same thing.
We know the oil companies are destroying our health. This is why our health promoters decided to study the pollution and how it affects us. We want to work together for a better economic, political, and cultural situation.
The health promoters learned that people in oil-polluted communities have more sickness than in unpolluted communities. Women in these communities suffer from many miscarriages. Children suffer from malnutrition, and often die at an early age. Many people have skin diseases that do not go away. (Learn more about the health problems caused by oil.)
This is just some of what they learned. After their study, they produced a book called Cultures Bathed in Oil so other people could learn from the work they had done.
Our team was made up of 6 people: 3 health promoters (2 who worked in communities and 1 who worked in a health laboratory), and 3 health technicians (a doctor, a biochemist, and a medical technician).
The health study led to community action
The work of the health promoters showed people that many of their health problems were caused by oil pollution. Toxic chemicals from oil were found in the water and soil, and in people’s blood, urine, and feces. Knowing this helped them begin to work toward a solution. They knew that as long as the contamination continued, it would be difficult to have safe water, healthy food, or clean air.
A group formed, calling itself the Committee of Affected People, to petition the government for help. And the organization of health promoters continued supporting people’s health and showing how their health problems were caused by oil.
Another organization, the Front for the Defense of the Amazon, began a lawsuit to sue the oil company for the damage it had caused. Huge areas of the rain forest had been destroyed, and environmental laws about how damage had to be repaired were ignored. The foreign-owned oil company just took its profits and left.
The community study and lawsuit inspired other organizations to get involved in the struggle to save the rainforest and its people. Universities and medical schools in Ecuador, England, and the United States did more studies to support the lawsuit against the oil company, and to show that oil caused terrible health problems. These studies also helped the authors of this book learn about the health effects of oil.
But the key work was done by the health promoters. By teaching themselves how to study the health effects of oil, they worked locally on an issue of global importance. By showing how their neighbors’ health was being devastated by the destruction of the rain forest by multinational oil corporations, they brought local issues to the international arena. They were an inspiration to us as we wrote this book.