Spotlight on Environmental Catastrophe Effecting Indigenous People in Ecuador Illuminated by Celebrity Visit

By Shelley Bluejay Pierce, Native American Times
11 June 2007

QUITO, Ecuador- Far from the bright lights of Hollywood, Daryl Hannah and Q'orianka Kilcher are drawing international attention to the environmental damages and ongoing catastrophe effecting indigenous people living in Ecuador. The two actresses and human rights activists are touring remote rainforest communities ravaged by cancers and other diseases where environmental damage has wreaked havoc on human lives. Petroleum giant, Texaco, now owned by Chevron, had drilling operations in the region and is alleged to have left behind an environmental catastrophe.

On June 6, 2007, both Daryl.Hannah and Q'Orianka Kilcher attended the opening for the art exhibit, "Crude Reflections," at Quito's prestigious Guayasamin Museum. The photos, by award-winning Bay Area photographers Lou Dematteis and Kayana Szymczak, have previously appeared in large venues across the USA, but this is the first time they have been on display in Ecuador. Dramatic photos and storylines combine in this exhibit to reveal the enormous toll that toxic waste has laid upon the communities in remote areas within the rainforest.

This exhibit and the visitation by Hannah and Kilcher comes at a time when a historic $6 billion lawsuit against Chevron nears its final phase. Mounting evidence may reveal that the oil giant is liable for environmental contamination in the rainforest. Scientific reports reveal some water samples contain toxic chemical levels thousands of times higher than permitted by Ecuadorian and U.S. environmental laws. This lawsuit alleges that toxic waste dumped by Texaco into rainforest rivers, wetlands and unlined pits the company dug near their wells, polluted the water supplies of inhabitants.

The list of plaintiffs, nearly 30,000 in number, includes five indigenous groups- the Quechua, Siona, Cofan, Secoya and Huaorani. Approximately 80 communities allege that Texaco dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into Ecuador's rainforest during its operations. Waste by-products from petroleum operations often contain identified cancer causing agents that can lead to skin disease, reproductive abnormalities, nerve damage and many forms of cancer. The waste contains such known carcinogens such as benzene, toluene and xylene.

Cancer rates are the highest in the region where Texaco operated its drilling operations and the toxic waste is being blamed for hundreds of lives lost and contributing to the extinction of one indigenous group and the endangerment of two others.

"The results of the court case may provide environmental clean-up for the regions' inhabitants in the future. However, the $6 billion does not include costs for providing potable water to the residents nor does it cover necessary health care expenses that the people need immediately. The final decision rests with the courts and in the meantime, the Ecuadorian government is attempting to pull resources together for the people there," commented Simeon Tegel, with Amazon Watch.

Between 1971 and 1992, more than 1.5 billion barrels of oil was extracted from this area. The plaintiffs in this case blame Texaco for the disposal of highly toxic wastes in a manner that they contend is responsible for the area's high rate of cancer, birth defects, skin conditions and death. Texaco's waste dumping sites are spread across this remote area in Ecuador consuming an area equivalent in size to Rhode Island.

"I was truly and deeply inspired by these indigenous communities. Even with the enormous obstacles before them, they put personal differences aside and came to the aid of their fellows. Though separated by great distances in some cases, they are a unified, proactive group battling to protect their homelands and care for each other," explained Amy O'Meara, spokesperson for Amnesty International, who visited the area in Ecuador in 2006.

Pressure on Chevron over this $6 billion lawsuit increased significantly this past month when trustees from the three largest public pension funds in the United States called on the company to take action to resolve the dispute. These claims prompted the Security Exchange Commission to open an investigation on whether Chevron management deliberately misled their stockholders by not disclosing its Ecuador liability to them.

Chevron is also reported to owe between $25 and $50 million dollars in fines as part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department for its involvement with the "oil-for-food" scandal. During the time that the Ecuadorian people and their legal representatives were attempting to gain international attention to their desperate situation, the now Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was on the Board of Directors for Chevron Oil. Secretary Rice headed Chevron's committee on public policy until she resigned to serve within the Bush administration in 2001. Chevron claims in a recently issued press statement, that the toxic contamination poses no risk to human health.

The court trial is expected to reach a final conclusion in early 2008 but the appeals process could take an additional three years.

"Amnesty International is monitoring Chevron's performance in both Ecuador and Nigeria. Our work is ongoing to keep these issues before the public. Our primary role is advocacy and as long as Chevron is attempting to draw out this lawsuit, we will continue drawing attention to the suffering of the residents living in Ecuador. That suffering is continuing daily and is being exacerbated by using distraction and delays in an attempt to lessen the responsibilities that Chevron has in this case," stated Amy O'Meara, Amnesty International.

Both Daryl Hannah and Q'Orianka Kilcher are due back in the U.S. next week following this visit to the rainforest communities and the premier of the exhibit, "Crude Reflections" that documents the plight of the indigenous people suffering in Ecuador.

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