30 November 2005 - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Karen Hinton at +1.703.798.3109
Amazon Watch is calling on Representative Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to respond to a letter from Ecuadorian rainforest leaders urging Congress to resist Chevron's lobbying to kill a $6 billion environmental lawsuit.
In the letter, from the Amazon Defense Coalition, Chevron (formerly Texaco) is accused of "inappropriately lobbying" the US Congress to intervene in the legal fight over the corporation's devastation of a large swathe of Amazon rainforest. Regarded by experts as the world's worst oil-related disaster, more than 30 times more crude than the Exxon Valdez spill were dumped into the pristine rainforest.
The letter, sent on November 22, urges Members of Congress to respect the integrity of the Ecuadorian judicial process and resist Chevron's behind-the-scenes moves to exclude Ecuador from the Andean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA). Signed by leaders of the Secoya, Siona and Cofan indigenous peoples, whose lands have been severely contaminated by Texaco, the letter was copied to dozens of other US Representatives as well as the Ecuadorian President, Alfredo Palacio, and Jorge Illingworth, the Commerce Minister, who is negotiating the trade agreement for Ecuador.
"Chevron's backdoor attempts to sway Congress to prevent Ecuador from participating in AFTA negotiations exposes two truths: First, that Chevron is desperate to find an extra-judicial solution to its legal problems in Ecuador, as the evidence against the company piles up in court; and second, that AFTA itself is a corporate-led trade agreement designed to protect transnational corporations' profits at the expense of local communities and the environment," said Jennifer DeLury Ciplet, Amazon Watch spokesperson.
The suit has been brought by 30,000 local people whose land and lives were ruined as Texaco dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste from its oil drilling operations into the rainforest, from 1972 to 1992. Local cancer rates have since sky-rocketed, doctors say. The standard industry practice of the time in the US was to reinject the highly carcinogenic waste into the ground. But Texaco forwent this practice in order to save $3 per barrel, at the expense of rainforest communities and the environment.
In the letter, the indigenous leaders warn that Chevron's lobbying on the Hill would "subordinate the interests of US foreign policy in Latin America to the private economic interests of Chevron" and undermine democracy and the rule of law in Ecuador.
They add: "In the past, the US's own Department of State has denounced the ‘politicization' of the Ecuadorian legal system, but it hardly envisioned the possibility that such a problem would be the result of pressure asserted by the Ways and Means Committee, on behalf of a party to the litigation. Any interference in the judicial process by a third party, whether direct or indirect, would be an obvious effort to undermine the rule of law."
The maneuverings by Chevron come as trial evidence mounts against the corporation. Soil and water samples presented to the judge from all 18 contaminated sites in the Ecuadorian rainforest have shown high levels of contamination, often exceeding national norms.
The letter points out that Chevron's sway inside the beltway is huge. The oil giant has spent more money on US politics than any other energy firm in the last 15 years, it notes. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice sat on Chevron's board of directors from 1991 to 2001 and now has an oil tanker named after her. Chevron also gave more than $750,000 to Republican candidates during the 2000 election cycle and one of its main lobbyists, Wayne Berman, is married to a senior White House aide, the letter adds.
"The US has devoted countless years, dollars and personnel to fomenting and nurturing democracy - and the hallmarks of democracy - in Ecuador," the indigenous leaders warn in the letter. "Arguably the most important of these hallmarks is an independent judiciary, a concept enshrined in Article III of the US Constitution and held sacred in the US. That the Ways and Means Committee would think of intervening, even indirectly, with the Ecuadorian judiciary by dangling a sought-after carrot in front of the Ecuadorian executive to induce them to pressure the judiciary is to violate a fundamental principal of democracy --- and no less so, because it is not the American judiciary being victimized
"No one suggests that the plaintiffs are entitled to a victory in the Ecuadorian legal system. However, after the investment of several years of time and effort in this case, the possibility of a fair and impartial judgment, of a legitimate and valid victory, should not be taken from the plaintiffs - and certainly not at the behest of Chevron. We urgently request that you refrain from taking any action on behalf of Chevron, that you permit negotiations between the US and Ecuador to proceed organically, and that you accord the proper respect to an independent judicial process, regardless of where it occurs."
The letter also labels Chevron's fiercely-contested defense as "inherently hypocritical"; when the case was originally brought in the US, in 1993, Chevron argued that it should be heard in an Ecuadorian court. However, when the case was switched to the South American country in 2003, Chevron lawyers then argued that Ecuadorian courts had no jurisdiction over the California-headquartered company.
AFTA is viewed by the Ecuadorian and US governments as a key tool for development in Ecuador, despite widespread opposition from environmental and human rights groups. Among other corporate-friendly measures, the treaty would prevent Ecuadorian citizens from suing foreign corporations for environmental damage or human rights abuses committed in Ecuador.
If AFTA were passed, the current class-action lawsuit against Chevron could be the last such litigation in Ecuador, rather than the start of a new era in which corporations may be held accountable for their actions under local law.