U.N. SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON TOXIC AND HUMAN RIGHTS 2024 – GENDER AND TOXICS: THE CASE OF ECUADORIAN AMAZON (updated)

In the northern Ecuadorian Amazon, women are disproportionately affected by the detrimental effects of oil contamination, experiencing higher rates of cancer compared to men (Maldonado, Freire and Oña, 2023; 2024). This vulnerability stems from a complex interplay of social, economic and environmental factors that converge to create a scenario where women bear a disproportionate burden of exposure to toxic substances.

The Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest is an oil-rich region that has been exploited since 1967, when the US company Texaco (now Chevron) drilled its first well, known as “Pozo Lago Agrio 1”. Since then, numerous oil companies, both national and international, state-owned and private, have been responsible for an ecocide, the contamination and destruction of the ecosystem, seriously affecting the health of humans and non-humans in the Amazon through unsustainable oil extraction methods.

Ecuador experiences an alarming average of 5.6 oil spills per week (until 2022) (Agila, 2023, p. 69), primarily caused by old and vulnerable pipelines. Texaco’s arrival further marred the pristine Amazonian landscape with the installation of gas flares that have now reached the highest number of 486 in the entire Ecuadorian Amazon (Ministerio de Energía y Minas, 2023) and burns off waste gas from oil production day and night, 24 hours a day (Provincial Court of Justice of Sucumbíos, 2021). This outdated technology, installed in biosphere reserves such as the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve, home of Indigenous communities in voluntary isolation (Facchinelli et al., 2022), releases waste gas containing up to 250 toxic substances into the environment, including carcinogens (Ismail and Umukoro, 2012). The toxins are carried by the wind several kilometres away from the flares, settling on crops, soil, water sources, house roofs, etc. Moreover, when it rains, the same material mixes with rainwater, creating acid rain that contaminates all sources of drinking water (ibid.). Despite the 2021 court ruling that obliges the Ecuadorian state to shut down and gradually eliminate the flares, in addition to repairing the health damages caused, the government has not respected the sentence, increasing risks especially for women, who continue to suffer illnesses.

In fact, the consequences of these practices are dire: the northern Ecuadorian Amazon, particularly in the provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana, where oil activity is concentrated, has the highest cancer rates in the Country, more than double the national average. Shockingly, 73.8% of these cases affect women (Maldonado, Freire and Oña, 2024): between 2018 and 2023, 40 types of cancer were reported, with breast cancer (19.9%) and cervical cancer (19.9%) being the most prevalent (ibid.). Mestizo women bear the brunt of this contamination, accounting for 86.2% of cases, largely due to the highest proximity of their houses to oil extraction facilities (ibid.). However, contamination affects all ethnic groups in the Amazon, including women belonging to Indigenous nationalities (A’i Kofán, Kichwa, Siekopai, Siona, Shuar and Waorani), accounting for 9.5%, and of Afro origin, for 4.3% (ibid.) Of all these cases, 85.1% are diagnosed outside the two provinces due to a lack of diagnostic centres (ibid.). For this reason, most treatments are carried out in Quito, and only 0.91% receive any type of treatment within the two provinces (Maldonado, Freire and Oña, 2023). The significant distance required to reach a hospital capable of diagnosing and treating oncological diseases, coupled with the government’s failure to offer financial assistance to affected people, contributes to an alarming rate of treatment abandonment and late diagnosis (Maldonado, Freire, and Oña, 2024). As a consequence, this exacerbates the already high number of female cancer’s deaths (ibid.).

Cancer is more than just cancer: it is an entry point for a broader investigation of politics and power, culture and capitalism, gender and justice. The environmental and health impacts of oil extractivism in Ecuador represents a compelling paradigm of a larger international problem: the frequent clash between (the western idea of) development and basic principles of human rights (The Center for Economic and Social Rights, 1994).

One key factor contributing to women’s heightened vulnerability is the patriarchal structure within the Ecuadorian society, which restricts women’s access to education, healthcare and economic opportunities, exacerbating their vulnerability to the health effects of environmental pollution. In fact, traditional gender roles dictate that women’s voices are often marginalised in decision-making processes related to land use and resource extraction. As a result, they have limited power to advocate for their own health and well-being or to challenge the activities of oil companies that directly threaten their livelihoods. Hence, in both Amazonian Mestizo and Indigenous communities, women become primarily responsible for domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and the elderly. Thereby, they often spend more time in and around their homes, which are frequently located closer to oil extraction sites and contaminated water sources. This prolonged exposure increases their risk of coming into contact with harmful pollutants emitted during oil drilling and transportation processes. For example, it is commonplace for women to launder their clothes in river water, a practice filled with contamination. Soaking their lower bodies in the water, toxic substances easily infiltrate their skin and private parts. This prevalent harmful practice is a leading cause of cervical cancer among women in the Amazon.

Furthermore, the socio-economic dynamics of the region exacerbate women’s vulnerability. Historically, the Ecuadorian government has prioritised economic benefit of a small portion of the population through oil extraction, at the expense of environmental and collective well-being, especially affecting minorities, including women. This approach has led to the establishment of oil infrastructures and facilities in close proximity to rural communities, disregarding their human rights and, thus, exposing them to pollution and environmental degradation. Despite the known risks, regulatory oversight and enforcement are often lax, allowing oil companies to operate with minimal accountability for their actions. This has contributed to restricting access to public health services. In fact, health investments between 2017 and 2019 have decreased by 167 million dollars (Acosta, 2020). These health policies, coupled with the health crisis caused by the pandemic, have led to a reduction in the national budget for the health coverage of the national Public Health System. This health issue is more evident in the periphery of the Country, especially in the Amazon region.

From a political perspective, the last two governments (Lasso’s between 2021 and 2023, and Noboa’s from 2023) have been characterised by a lack of respect for the law, with direct consequences for the Ecuadorian population affected by catastrophic diseases. Specifically, women with cancer in the Amazon region no longer receive the minimum benefits established by law. This situation is demonstrated by the five lawsuits filed and won by a group of 52 people affected by cancer from Sucumbíos and Orellana against the Ecuadorian Ministry of Public Health, the Technical Secretariat of the Special Amazonian Territorial District and the State Attorney General’s Office (Judicial Civil Unit of the Canton of Francisco de Orellana, 2023; Multicompetent Chamber of the Provincial Court of Justice of Orellana, 2023; Multicompetent Penal Judicial Unit of the Canton of Lago Agrio, Province of Sucumbíos, 2023; Multicompetent Penal Judicial Unit of the Canton La Joya de los Sachas, 2023; Multicompetent Chamber of the Provincial Court of Justice of Sucumbíos, 2024). All this occurs while the Ecuadorian state finances oil production in the Amazon rainforest, ensuring continuous monetary income and causing cuts.

All this can be defined as “necropolitics”, a term coined by Achille Mbembe (2003) describing the politics of power and control over life and death, particularly in contexts where certain populations are subjected to structural systemic violence and oppression.

In the Amazon region, this stark reality underscores how the nexus of gender, oil contamination and necropolitics conspires to render certain bodies “killable” – disposable casualties of profit-driven resource extraction. The consequences of this gendered environmental injustice are clearly evident in the disproportionately high rates of cancer among women in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon region. This health disparity highlights the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to address the root causes of environmental degradation and gender inequality in the interested region.

Thus, this analysis considering cancer more than just cancer sheds light on the unequal distribution of power and vulnerability in the Amazon, where minorities, particularly women, are deemed expendable in the pursuit of economic gain. Addressing these structural systemic injustices requires not only environmental remediation and regulation but also the recognition and empowerment of those most affected by the destructive capitalist forces of profit. Efforts to mitigate the impacts of oil contamination must prioritise the inclusion of women in decision-making processes and ensure their access to resources and support services.

This requires recognising and challenging the structural inequalities that perpetuate women’s vulnerability, advocating for stronger environmental regulations and enforcement mechanisms, and promoting sustainable development practices that prioritise both human health and ecological integrity. Only through concerted action and systemic change can we begin to address the complex intersection of gender, environment and health in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Acosta, A. (2020). “El Coronavirus en los Tiempos del Ecuador” Análisis Carolina.

Agila, G. R. (2023). ¡Al Gobierno Pido que me Dé un Rio! Ed. Abya-Yala, Quito: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung-ILDIS, p. 69.

Center for Economic and Social Rights. (1994). Rights Violations in the Ecuadorian Amazon: The Human Consequences of Oil Development. Health and Human Rights, 82-100.

Facchinelli, F. et al. (2022). “Extreme Citizens Science for Climate Justice: Linking Pixel to People for Mapping Gas Flaring in Amazon Rainforest” Environmental Research Letters 17.

Ismail, O. S. and Umukoro, G. E. (2012). “Global Impact of Gas Flaring” Energy Power Eng. 4, 290-302.

Judicial Civil Unit of the Canton of Francisco de Orellana (2023). Special Trial No. 22301202300042. Republic of Ecuador: Judicial Function.

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Maldonado, A., Freire, H., and Oña, P. (2024). “Decimo Informe del Registro de Identificación de Casos de Cáncer Abril/2018 a Diciembre/2023”.

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Multicompetent Penal Judicial Unit of the Canton of La Joya de los Sachas (2023). Constitutional Protection Action No. 22252202300030. Republic of Ecuador: Judicial Function.

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