Mycelium in the Ecuadorian Amazon to Clean-up Toxic Oil Wastes
The Mushroom: celebrated in infinite stories,
enjoyed in billions of kitchens around the world, used for medicine and to
invoke spiritual visions as long back as history can tell; it is a curiosity of
collective lore and awe. Yet, the nearly supernatural properties of certain
mushroom strains to restore damaged environments are lesser known. The mushroom
— with all its power to make Alice grow and shrink in size throughout her
adventures — is only the fruiting body of a larger organism with even more
magic that transcends cultural and hallucinatory metaphor. In many cases hidden
beneath the ground, fungi mycelium is actively breaking down toxins and
transforming polluted ecosystems into healthy ones. What follows is my personal
story of discovering mycelium's promising hope for ecological renewal in one of
the most contaminated regions on earth.
Branching from the base of mushrooms are thin,
threadlike mycelia that communicate so much information between plants and
trees that it has become known, due to the scholarship of mycologist Paul
Stamets, as the neural network of the terrestrial biosphere. Mycelium is found in soil or other
substrates, sometimes spreading beneath a forest floor as one gargantuan
organism, such as in Oregon where a 2,400-acre contiguous growth has been
recorded as the largest organism in the world.[i]
Mycelium uses its reach to communicate vital information throughout the
ecosystem. For example, if a tree at one end of a forest becomes sick, the
mycelia can send this information to the other trees, so that they can boost up
their immune systems and prevent contagious spread. As if that were not enough
to demonstrate its intelligence, mycelium moves beyond being the connective internet-type network for forests, to conducting large-scale
environmental restoration by neutralizing toxic wastes through digestive
As decomposing agents, mycelia of certain
mushroom species have the digestive systems to break down long, recalcitrant
bonds of many organic pollutants produced by human beings. With proper
knowledge of this appetite, mycologists have been learning how to feed toxic
wastes such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons of oil wastes to mycelia in
what plays out as a magic show of ecological transfiguration. Mycelium not only
shows us how, but also shares with us the power to transform our toxic
environments into once again thriving, healthy, abundant ecosystems.
very trick of mushroom alchemy is what spurred me to travel with a
mycology-centered eco-restoration team The Amazon Mycorenewal Project (AMP) to one
of the most contaminated places in the world: a town in the Ecuadorian Amazon
called Lago Agrio, literally translated as Sour Lake. Given this name in the
late 1950s by Texaco it was changed from the original Ecuadorian name, Lago
Manantial, meaning Source Lake, foreshadowing the demise of the primary rainforest
and people living in the region for the sake of unregulated and exploitative
oil extraction. I had long been aware of the toll oil extraction has had on the
Ecuadorian Amazon, because my research as a cultural anthropology student had
brought me to the region on two separate occasions prior. Interacting with
locals about their experiences at a global center of oil production I learned
about ongoing health and economic impacts on the community and I saw firsthand
dozens of oil waste pits, blackened waterways, and countless abandoned farms.
When I returned to the States and started to learn about permaculture and the
promises of using mycelium to restore oil-polluted environments I was ready to
return to Ecuador with new tools.
The oil-town of Lago Agrio sits
within the home provenance of one of the largest environmental lawsuits in
history. Taken to courts in 2003 by over 30,000 Ecuadorian residents, Chevron
was put on trial for allegedly dumping 18.5 billion gallons of toxic oil wastes
into open and unlined pits, and directly into streams and rivers in the region
during its 20 years of operation in the region.
These wastes currently sit in more than 600 open pits, bleeding toxins to all
parts of the Amazon. Texaco´s
legacy continues today in this region by many other petroleum companies with
spills emptying into waterways, forcing whole Amazonian communities to have drinkable
water shipped in by tank trucks or to relocate and rebuild their communities
elsewhere (often only to be met once again with acid rain and contaminated
The damages of this mechanistic
destruction are innumerable, ranging from the obliteration of indigenous groups
to the creation of a hot house in the very ecosystem that helps moderate
Earth´s global temperature. At such a tremendous level of environmental
destruction impacting the entire globe — as with all catastrophes of this scale
— the question that holds most importance is how we, as the survivors that we
are (and in some regard, the perpetuators), can begin the healing process of
both the planet and of our own souls that have been stricken by this trauma.
What if we were to give up our dependence on a lawsuit, government, or
corporation to initiate this healing for us? What if we, as individuals and
communities committed to this healing, were to begin to clean up these toxic
waste pools out of our own initiative? AMP is holding ongoing investigations to
determine the extent to which mycelium might provide the means to do just that.
As the enzymes secreted by certain
fungi digest substrate (i.e., wood, straw, sawdust), they also break down many
toxins that have chemical bonds similar to wood. Through this process, they can
be acclimatized to digest toxins. Some mushroom strains are thus able to
denature chemical toxins, such as petroleum hydrocarbons, chlorine, PCBs,
dioxin, and many others (See Paul Stamets on "Mycoremediation and its
Application to Oil Spills" for a more in-depth explanation of the use of
mycelium in oil remediation.
In the case of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the
greatest concern lies with petroleum hydrocarbons and with heavy metals
associated with petrol contamination (High levels of zinc, cadmium, mercury,
lead, chromium and arsenic have been recorded at many sites in the region[iii]).
While petroleum hydrocarbons can be broken down into less toxic molecular
compounds, heavy metals present a more complicated rehabilitation process.
Heavy metals can become concentrated in mushrooms, and must be dealt with
carefully. One notable technique involves extracting the heavy metals from the
mushrooms, which can be recycled by companies specializing in metallurgy.[iv]
A less invasive technique is to plant the mushrooms at precise proportions
under plants and trees, facilitating a process of break down and absorption of
the metals at levels deemed safe.
There are many factors that account for the
success or failure of mycoremediation projects. Factors include, but are
certainly not limited to, matching the appropriate mushroom species to the
pollutant, providing the most suitable substrate/food source, and applying the
most effective ratio of mycelium to substrate to toxin(s). AMP has been
meticulously monitoring plant performance tests, substrate and mycelium growth
percentages, and soil health for over three years in an effort to build the
mycological knowledge base particular to this local ecological regime. As an
immediate and long-term solution, Nicola Peel of AMP has been installing
rainwater tanks with sand and charcoal filters for local residents who have
lost access to clean drinking water as a result of the oil contamination in
these areas. 
Opening an in-situ experiment set up by the AMP
team one year prior to my visit in January 2010, we were able to glimpse the
first indication that mycoremediation with Pleurotus
(oyster) species could work in the Amazon. While mycoremediation has been
applied with great success in temperate regions- most notably by Paul Stamets
in North America — it has never before been experimented with in the Amazonian
biosphere until now. In this initial qualitative experiment, two large samples
of toxic soils had been piled along the edge of an oil-contaminated flood zone
— one treated with mycelium and substrate, and the control only with substrate.
One year later, the pile that was not treated with mycelium has maintained its
high toxicity in which the crude could still be seen and smelled and had an
oily feel. The soil treated with the mycelium, on the other
hand, neutralized the toxins, inviting a plethora of insects and worms to
make it their home, and had no evidence of crude remaining.
Mycoremediation presents a benign, inexpensive,
and sustainable solution that locals can immediately implement in their own
backyards with minimal work. Without having to wait for a government or a
corporation to take action, individuals may gain agency with this method. Part
of AMP's long-term vision is to provide myceliated substrate to any person
interested in doing research on soil or water clean up in the area. In December
2009, the AMP team installed its first two mycelial lenses, which are compost-like
piles of mycelium and substrate working as a lending library of spawn by
reproducing mycelium. Mushroom mycelium can be considered immortal if it always
has enough food. Therefore, as long as it is continually fed and the humidity
and temperature stay within its comfort zone, the mycelial lens will
indefinitely initiate mycelial growth. Team leader
and mycologist, Mia Rose Maltz says,
"Tapping into the exponential power of mycelial growth, we are able to provide
a cost-effective solution to remedy some of the problems that oil extraction
has inflicted on this landscape."
More data is needed to determine the extent and
scale to which mycoremediation is appropriate for oil waste clean up in the
Amazon region of Ecuador. As of now, the AMP team is interested in
mycoremediation as a low-cost, immediate solution for areas like backyards and
AMP has ongoing projects and is always happy to
connect with inspired minds. The next Mycoremediation course to be held in
Ecuador will be scheduled for Summer 2011. Current work is also needed in the
Gulf. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
for more information. See also Nicola Peel's film Blood of the Amazon.
Teaser image by Danny Newman.
 Recalcitrant molecular bonds are resitant to breaking
down into smaller, less toxic molecular bonds.
 Chevron and Texaco merged in 2001 whereby Chevron
inherited Texaco's toxic legacy in Ecuador.
sources have documented varying statistics on the exact number of oil waste
pits. The majority of the literature, including documents presented at the
trial, estimate approximately 600-900 oil waste pits in the Oriente región of
[iii]Kimerling, Judith. Crudo Amazónico. 1st edition in Spanish.
Quito, Ecuador: Abya Yala, 1993.