Ecuador is one of the largest oil producing countries in South America. Lago Agrio is it's principal oil town - it's ‘black gold’ capital. An urban island in the depths of the Amazon rain forest, Lago was named after an oil well in Alaska known as ‘Sour Lake’.
The town grew up out of virgin jungle in the late 1960's when Texaco discovered vast reserves of crude in the region. In its thirsting quest for the oil, the company acted like a band of conquistadores, operating with blatant disregard for the local environment and indigenous communities. Hidden from the eyes of the world by the thick jungle curtain, the company caused irreparable ecological destruction and displaced, or annihilated, thousands of Amerindians.
Revenues from the oil industry account for nearly half the government budget in Ecuador. But despite the hundreds of thousands of barrels flowing out of Lago Agrio every day, pumped along one, vast pipeline over the Andean mountains and down to the sea for export, the town receives minimal investment from the state. Lago now houses nearly 20,000 inhabitants but has only one surfaced road, very limited electricity supplies and open sewers in the streets. Locals refer to it as ‘la ciudad abandonada’ - the forgotten town.
Nevertheless, Lago Agrio is a growing and dynamic place. People continue to flock there from all over Ecuador, attracted by the prospect of work with the oil companies. Very few find such employment but, having made the long arduous journey over the mountains and through the jungle, many cannot afford to leave. Bars and brothels have multiplied to service the predominantly male population. With the Colombian border only half an hour away, the black market thrives: illegal quantities of gas and loo paper are shipped out daily; cocaine and arms are constantly smuggled in. Because of its ineffective law enforcement, Lago is also believed to be a safe haven for criminals and Colombian guerrilla fighters. Isolated, cosmopolitan and dangerous, Lago Agrio is South America's answer to the Wild West.
San Pablo, Secoya territory, 14/09/97. The main area of oil exploitation between Lago Agrio and Coca, a town 80 kilometres south, has become the site of a major ecological disaster. Wells and pipelines criss-cross the land, destroying the natural habitat and contaminating the rivers that provide the water supply of the local population. Texaco, the worst offender, is currently being taken to court in the US by 30 000 inhabitants of the Ecuadorean Amazon who are claiming a billion dollars in damages. Occidental, meanwhile, has just dismantled its prospection camp, set up in the middle of a Secoya community while the company explored the forest for oil. During their stay a Secoya grandmother was raped by one of the workers.