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How oil spills like BP's can reshape politics, from the Amazon to America

Like oil pollution in Ecuador and California years ago, the BP Gulf catastrophe could – and should – lead to profound political change across America.

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As the plumes of sickly fluorescent oil begin to wash up on Gulf shores, the immediate focus is on how – and whether – officials can mitigate the destruction of wetlands, fisheries, and the lifeways of coastal towns.

An equally powerful question: Will the political impact be just as significant?

Clues to this may lie in the Ecuadorean Amazon, whose lands and politics have been transformed by devastating oil pollution wrought by Texaco and the country’s own national oil company, Petroecuador.

Twenty years ago, near the beginning of that transformation, I sat beside a campesino-turned-community activist, Segundo Jaramillo, as our small plane banked low over the company oil town of Lago Agrio.

Below lay the grimy hub of Texaco’s former operation in Ecuador, with its maze of pipelines, pumping stations, and Wild West bars. Mr. Jaramillo gripped his armrests and looked out the window nervously; it was his first flight.

Heartsick and angered by the oil-smeared landscape that surrounded his home and threatened his family’s health, he had come to Quito by an arduous bus ride through the Andes.

In the capital, he met with Texaco critics and antipetroleum activists, who introduced us. Now we were returning to the Amazon so he could show me his homeland.

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