By César Chelala and Alejandro M. Garro, Common Dreams
14 June 2007
It can be considered one of the most unequal battles in the world today. It pits a group of indigenous people in Ecuador, almost totally devoid of material resources, against one of the most powerful oil corporations in the world. The outcome of this battle will impact them for the rest of their lives.
From 1964 to 1992, Texaco (which later merged with Chevron and is now called Chevron) carried out oil exploration and exploitation in forested areas of the Amazon basin in Ecuador. Chevron is now facing a multibillion-dollar suit, accused of polluting significant portions of the Amazon region.
Drilling for oil produces several waste products which are stored in special pits. If these pits are not properly lined, toxic materials can contaminate surrounding areas. Once toxic waste leaks into water basins, rivers and lakes, it kills fish and makes people and livestock ill, and threatens their very survival.
Oil activities conducted by Texaco in the northeast Amazon region in Ecuador have caused significant environmental damage and serious health consequences for the indigenous population. Texaco spilled more than 70 billion liters of toxic waste into more than 600 unlined pits in an area of more than 5,180 square kilometers. This toxic dumping has affected a community of 30,000 and has led to the loss of 1 million hectares of rain forest. It has made of the area one of the world's most contaminated industrial sites.
The health damage incurred by the indigenous population has been documented in the village of San Carlos, which contains more than 30 oil wells constructed by Texaco. One of the first studies on the effects of oil pollution on people's health in that village was carried out by two physicians in collaboration with the London's School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The study, called the "Yana Curi" report (yana curi is the local indigenous term for "oil" or "black gold,") found that some cancer rates (such as cancer of the larynx) in San Carlos exceed the average by up to 30 times.
For several years the residents of San Carlos had been exposed to more than 3.8 million liters of oil and toxic waste-water dumped by Texaco. Exposure occurred through several routes, including absorption through the skin, ingestion of contaminated food and water, and inhalation of oil and related gases.
According to the plaintiffs' lawyers now suing Chevron, Texaco used inadequate extraction techniques, in the process spilling waste products into creeks and rivers rather than pumping it back into the ground, as is commonly done elsewhere. Because of pipe breakages, the amount of crude pumped into the ground was nearly double the volume spilled into Alaska's Prince William Sound by the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
In a letter to Vanity Fair, Donald Campbell, Manager in Media Relations for Chevron Corporation stated, "Texaco did the right thing in Ecuador. It operated responsibly, followed its contractual obligations and the law, made a significant contribution to the economy and to social, health and education initiatives, and carried out an effective remediation program."
According to Amazon Watch, an environmental and human rights organization based in San Francisco, "Of 45 oil production sites inspected by court-appointed technical experts, many of which were part of an earlier remediation, several show concentrations of carcinogenic chemicals at hundreds and sometimes thousands of times higher than U.S. norms."
In November of 1993, a class-action lawsuit on behalf of residents of the rain forest area known as "Oriente" was launched in a U.S. District Court in New York. Although the plaintiffs wanted the case to be tried in New York, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that it should be conducted in Ecuador. But in a significant decision, the court also stated that any judgment against the oil company would be enforced in the United States. U.S. courts will also reassert jurisdiction if Chevron refuses to cooperate with the litigation in Ecuador.
The suit charges that Texaco dumped nearly 70 million liters of toxic waste into hundreds of unlined open pits, and from there the waste seeped into estuaries and rivers thus exposing residents to carcinogenic pollutants. The plaintiffs want a through cleanup of the area, an assessment of the long-term health effects of the contamination and damage compensation, which could total $6 billion.
According to the Amazon Defense Front, an Oxfam partner organization, "the waste that Texaco dumped contains some of the most toxic, cancer-causing chemicals known to man, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, so dangerous, not one drop is allowed in any river or stream in the U.S. But tests of the waters polluted by Texaco found levels as high as one part per hundred."
If Chevron is found liable in a fair trial, it will be not only a victory for the environmental movement but also for thousands of indigenous people whose survival and quality of life have been affected by the careless exploitation of oil on their lands. As Simeon Tegel, a spokesperson for Amazon Watch told us, "This case has the potential to set a legal and moral precedent both for transnational corporations operating n the developing world and for indigenous peoples protecting their lands from the extractive industries."
César Chelala is an international public health consultant and an award winning writer on human rights issues. Alejandro M. Garro is a professor of Latin American law at Columbia University in New York.