Ecuadoran Takes Rain Forest Plea to Chevron
By Tyche Hendricks, The San Francisco Chronicle
22 May 2003
Bay Area - Eduardo Silvio Chapal Quintera has traveled more than 3,000 miles by foot, canoe, bus and plane from his village in the Ecuadoran Amazon in hopes of telling ChevronTexaco's CEO David O'Reilly how destructive oil drilling has been to his land and his people.
As he stands on the manicured lawn of ChevronTexaco's San Ramon headquarters, SUVs whipping by on a six-lane boulevard, he is looking at an alien world.
Chapal, 53, a member of the Cofan nation, is one of a dozen farmers and indigenous leaders who have spent the past two weeks in the Bay Area talking to churches, schools and community groups about the contamination of the soil, air and water where they live at the headwaters of the Amazon River basin.
"The saddest thing I see is that so many people are dying," said Chapal, whose infant daughter fell sick and died two weeks after she tumbled into the oil-coated Aguarico River in 1982.
"We used to hunt and fish, but most of the wild animals don't exist anymore," he said.
O'Reilly has not responded to the group's request for a meeting. Today he is due at the ChevronTexaco shareholder meeting in Midland, Texas, although a company spokesman would not disclose his whereabouts as a matter of security.
The spokesman, Jeff Moore, said it would be inappropriate for O'Reilly to meet with the group while a lawsuit is under way.
That suit was filed two weeks ago in the remote Ecuadoran oil town of Lago Agrio -- or "Sour Lake" -- on behalf of Chapal and 30,000 other residents of the Amazon who say Texaco left behind an enormous toxic dump of 18 million gallons of spilled crude oil from drilling carried out between 1964 and 1992.
The $1 billion case was originally brought against Texaco in U.S. courts 10 years ago and wound through the legal system until last year when a federal appeals court in New York ruled the matter should be decided in Ecuador.
In a landmark decision, the judge also warned Chevron-
Texaco that U.S. courts could step back in if the company tried to avoid any financial penalty imposed in Ecuador.
Plaintiff's lawyer Steven Donziger called the contamination, which covers 100 square miles, 'the worst ecological disaster in the Americas right now."
But ChevronTexaco points to its $40 million cleanup, certified by the Ecuadoran government in 1998, and says Texaco's subsidiary there was never more than a minority partner with PetroEcuador, the state oil company.
"Texaco Petroleum complied with all Ecuadoran laws and used practices that were consistent with internationally recognized standards for the time," said Moore.
The plaintiffs counter that there were no meaningful environmental laws in Ecuador when Texaco went in. And they say Texaco dumped wastewater laden with oil and heavy metals into hundreds of unlined open pits, rather than reinject it deep underground, as has long been standard practice in the industry.
The roads that opened up the rain forest to oil exploration also paved the way for struggling peasant farmers from other regions to colonize the area, leading to widespread deforestation.
Although there has been conflict between peasant settlers and indigenous peoples, they are finding common ground in fighting the oil company.
Mariana Jimenez, 62, a peasant woman who settled in the rain forest in 1971, said she lost her sister and two infant nephews to the poisoned water, as well as 40 of her pigs.
"I want to invite Mr. O'Reilly to come and see," she said. "Amazonia is the lungs of the world. The whole planet will suffer from this, not just us."
Jimenez and the other Ecuadorans came the Bay Area with help from an Oakland nonprofit, Amazon Watch. The group is hoping to take delegations of community leaders and high school students to the rain forest to see the situation firsthand.
Meanwhile, in San Ramon, they passed out leaflets to some of the 3,600 employees at Chevron-
Texaco's headquarters, which moved this year >from downtown San Francisco.
A few workers were curious to see Chapal, who wears a traditional cotton shift and a headdress of porcupine quills and macaw feathers. Most tried to ignore the protest.
"I have no idea what's going on," said one woman on her lunch break. "I just want to go back to work."
But Thomas Nieborowski, a computer consultant to the company, stopped to chat for a minute with the Ecuadorans. He said he was confident the oil company is trying to do the right thing.
"I think ChevronTexaco isn't this big bad machine," he said. "They're just people too. You can talk to them. I'm sure the last thing they want is to be accused of being environmentally negligent."
PHOTO; Caption: Eduardo Silvio Chapal Quintera holds a protest letter accompanied by attorney Steven Donziger. / Michael Maloney/The Chronicle
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