By Trudie Styler, Daily Mail
7 July 2007
Trudie Styler reveals the suffering endured by tribes in Ecuador after billions of gallons of toxic waste were dumped in the rainforest
Most of us know that our survival as a species may well depend on how we confront the challenge of global warming.
The task ahead has been highlighted by the Live Earth concerts, with the two billion people watching being asked to sign a personal pledge to combat climate change.
But comparatively few are aware that we face another serious challenge: how to hold companies accountable for creating hellish conditions in their quest for oil.
Two months ago, I returned to Ecuador to make a documentary about a lawsuit involving 30,000 Amazonian people and the giant oil corporation Chevron.
I came away deeply moved by the suffering endured by people living in the Ecuadorean rainforests, angered by the lack of respect given to the natural custodians of the land, and compelled to tell their stories to the world.
Oil exploration work in the Amazon began in the Sixties and during its time in Ecuador, Texaco (which was acquired by Chevron in 2001) spilled more than 17 million gallons of oil from its pipeline and dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest.
It contaminated 1,700 square miles of once-pristine forest with poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals.
If the drilling had been done in America, the toxic waste produced would have been re-injected into the ground well below the water table to ensure no environmental damage.
But in Ecuador, Texaco dumped waste water, which contains benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, straight from the pumps into open-air pits gouged out of the jungle floor with no protective lining.
When the pit filled up with the toxic waste, the overflow was piped into the nearest river.
Some of these pits have been covered with earth but many I saw were open, with vertical flares burning off the gas.
The fumes almost knocked me over and within 30 minutes I had a severe headache, a burning throat and felt nauseous.
The soil in this area is so full of toxic oil residues that nothing will grow, rivers are so polluted that the fish have died and all natural sources of drinking water have been poisoned. Cancer rates in the area appear to be rising dramatically.
The indigenous people affected are profoundly connected to their land - it goes against their nature to just move on. But even the few who have begged to be relocated and compensated have been ignored.
When I visited the village of Dureno, an elder said the water started to taste different when the drilling first began. The oil company claimed it was full of vitamins.
The elder said: "We continued to drink from it without knowing how sick it would make us. People started dying."
Although there is a paucity of hard data - most people are too poor to see a doctor - studies indicate that many in this region are afflicted with an unusually high incidence of cancer, miscarriage, childhood leukaemia and respiratory and skin problems.
I met Maria Garofalos, 37, who has cancer of the uterus; her 18-year-old daughter Silvia has liver cancer.
With each chemo-therapy session costing £250 and involving an 18-hour journey across the Andes to a clinic, Maria accompanies her daughter but forgoes her own treatment so Silvia might have a better chance of survival.
In San Carlos, one of the most contaminated sites, nurse Rosa Morena said most of the people who come to her clinic do not realise how sick they are until it's too late. Anyway, the medical resources are so limited only pain relief can be offered.
Lawyer Pablo Fajardo is now leading the people's legal case against Chevron. It's a David-versus-Goliath battle but Pablo, who grew up in a small oil town, is driven by a personal need to put things right.
The lawsuit is not about personal compensation but about the environmental clean-up, which will cost an estimated £3billion.
This is surely a drop in the ocean for Chevron, which earned nearly £97billion in 2005, more than six times Ecuador's gross domestic product.
A verdict against Chevron could revolutionise how oil companies operate but whatever the outcome, the environmental and human catastrophe must be brought to the attention of the world.
I asked one woman I met, Carmen, what I could do to help. "Lady, just get us some water," she replied. It was a simple plea, and one that can't be ignored.
The Rainforest Foundation Fund, which I co-founded with my husband Sting, has pledged to work with Ecuador's indigenous people to bring clean water to this area. Without it, they won't survive.
There is a lot we can do to prevent this tragedy happening again. For instance, Yasuni Park is home to 40 per cent of the varieties of the world's flora and fauna, as well as two uncontacted indigenous tribes.
It is also under serious threat from further oil exploration despite containing only 12 days' worth of the world's needs.
There is far greater value in preserving this pristine forest and its inhabitants than in the oil we would find.
If we are to save the rainforest and its life-giving oxygen supply, we must help Ecuador create new wealth and forgive its foreign debt, which, per capita, is one of the highest in the world.
Luis Macas, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, explained the situation to me in very clear terms: "They came, they took our oil and they left us with nothing but cancer. There is no debt to forgive. It is we who have been robbed."
I have to agree. We owe them.