Just Tourists on Broadway, but Barefoot and Craving Roast Monkey

By Robert F. Worth, New York Times
12 March 2002

Ecuadorean Indians traveled about 3,000 miles to attend a hearing in court in Manhattan about a lawsuit over pollution on their land. One hopes to visit ground zero.

In most ways it was a typical courtroom hearing, but sitting among the lawyers in their pinstripe suits and wingtips at the United States Court of Appeals in Manhattan yesterday were two barefoot men in palm skirts with blow-dart guns around their necks, and a third wearing a blue-and- yellow
crown and a necklace made of feathers.

They were Ecuadorean Indians from a remote region near the Amazon River, and they had come roughly 3,000 miles to lend their support to a class-action lawsuit.

The suit, filed on behalf of some 30,000 Ecuadoreans, seeks $1 billion in damages from ChevronTexaco for the company's role in oil-drilling operations that polluted water and land in Ecuador's remote Oriente region over two decades. First filed in 1993, the lawsuit has been dismissed twice by a federal judge here, and it will be several months before the appeals court decides once and for all whether the case should be heard in this country or in Ecuador.

The men were brought here by their lawyers, who held a news conference yesterday at a downtown law office and were clearly not blind to the publicity value of their colorfully dressed clients.

Still, as the three short, wiry men walked barefoot and lightly clothed in 40-degree weather down Broadway and gazed up at the skyscrapers, they appeared genuinely overcome by the strangeness of their journey. None speak English; they related the tales of their odyssey, in Spanish, through interpreters.

Two of those men served as further interpreters for the third, Tementa Nenquihui, who speaks only a few words of Spanish and spoke in his tribe's language, Huaotiriro, a unique tongue that is unrelated to any other language. His tribe, the Huaorani, numbers about 1,000 people and had virtually no contact with anyone outside the rain forest until the 1960's.

The men had scarcely slept the night before, kept awake in their rooms at the St. Marks Hotel by the unfamiliar sounds of cars, ambulances and shouting strangers outside on St. Marks Place in the East Village. One of the men, Luis Ahua, also a member of the Huaorani, laughed as he imitated the sound - "Bing! Bing!" - of cars whizzing past his hotel.

The food, too, was strange. Their diet at home consists largely of bananas, fish, manioc - an edible root - and roast monkey, a far cry from the nouvelle Southwestern cuisine of grilled salmon and herbed chicken they sampled at an East Village restaurant on Sunday night. Then there was the unfamiliar cold, and the wind. "Is it always like this?" asked Humberto Piyaguage, a member of the Secoya tribe who was in New York once before, in February 1999.

Still, the men were glad for the opportunity to appear silently in court as their lawyers gave a 20- minute presentation. The Indians, who never addressed the court themselves, were not barred from bringing their blow-dart guns into the courtroom, apparently because the court officers were not aware what they were. The guns were not loaded with poison-tipped darts, the men noted.

The problems on the Indians' land began in 1972, when a Texaco subsidiary started drilling oil in an arrangement with Petroecuador, the state-owned oil company. According to the lawsuit, the oil companies dumped toxic byproducts into hundreds of unlined pits instead of injecting them safely into the ground, as oil companies do in the United States. From there, the lawsuit says, the toxic waste spread into the soil and the rivers, and continues to do so. A team of researchers from Harvard University found high
concentrations of petroleum-related toxins in the water in 1993.

"There are no more fish in the rivers, and you can't even bathe yourself there," Mr. Piyaguage said. "It's a very big wound to us."

Lawyers filed the class-action suit a year after Texaco's involvement in the Ecuador venture ended. The lawyers say that because there are no class-action lawsuits in Ecuador - and because the country's legal system is too corrupt and threadbare to handle such a large case - there was no way to use the courts there to compel the companies to do a thorough cleanup.

"The court that would handle this case has one courtroom and no computer," said Cristobal Bonifaz, the lead lawyer for the suit, as he left the courthouse yesterday.

Worse, the area where the oil pits are located is near the Colombian border, a region where kidnappings and killings have taken place in recent years. And Ecuador has a law stating that plaintiffs who have sought to bring an action in one jurisdiction and failed cannot bring it in another, Mr. Bonifaz said.

"If we can't do this case here, we're done," he added.

Lawyers for ChevronTexaco say the company obeyed all laws during its time in Ecuador and that the plaintiffs' environmental claims have not been proved. ChevronTexaco signed a $40 million agreement with the Ecuadorean government to clean the toxic sites in 1995, and has also argued that the case should be filed in Ecuador.

"Our position is that this has everything to do with Ecuador and nothing to do with the United States," said Chris Gidez, a company spokesman. Mr. Piyaguage said yesterday that if the case cannot be tried here, "we would feel ridiculed."

But he said he would not regret his trip New York, even if the lawsuit fails. When he was here in 1999, he had a meal at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center. This time, he said he hoped to see the World Trade Center site. "For me, the towers were like two huge trees in the jungle," he said. "Because I had been there, I had a terrible feeling when I heard that they fell."

© 2002 New York Times

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