Goldman Prize Comes Two Weeks After Court Expert Estimates Chevron Damages at up to $16 Billion
13 April 2008 - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Karen Hinton at +1.703.798.3109
Media briefing and photo opportunity with Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza and other plaintiffs' leaders, lawyers and scientific advisors at 10am PDT, Monday, April 14th at Garden Room, Lobby Level, Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA 94108
SAN FRANCISCO - Two campaigners who have spearheaded a landmark class-action lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador have been awarded the Goldman Prize, the world's most prestigious environmental honor, for their efforts to make the company clean up what experts believe is the world's worst oil-related disaster.
The award for lawyer Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and community leader Luis Yanza comes just days after a court-appointed expert submitted an official damages assessment to the Ecuadorian judge recommending that Chevron be ordered to pay compensation of between $7 billion and $16 billion. Under the Ecuadorian legal system, the judge must now decide whether Chevron is culpable.
Mr. Yanza co-founded umbrella group the Amazon Defense Coalition to organize 30,000 inhabitants of the northern Ecuadorian Amazon to file the lawsuit against Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001. Mr. Fajardo, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs is a resident of one of the affected communities and only recently received his law degree after taking a correspondence course.
Down the years, the pair have suffered intensive harassment including death threats, the unresolved murder of Mr. Fajardo's brother, the attempted kidnapping of Mr. Yanza's nine year-old daughter and the theft of legal files relating to the case. The intimidation became so serious that both the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have publicly intervened on behalf of the plaintiffs.
From 1964 through 1990, Texaco dumped 18.5 billion gallons of drilling wastewater directly into an inhabited area of the Ecuadorian Amazon the size of Rhode Island that was home to six indigenous tribes, one of which has now disappeared. Now suffering a public health crisis, the region's inhabitants are demanding a complete clean-up in arguably the most important environmental lawsuit currently taking place anywhere in the world.
Mr. Fajardo said: "This award belongs to all of the 30,000 plaintiffs. It sends out a powerful message, one which I hope Chevron management and the oil industry more broadly are hearing - you cannot walk away from the environmental and human tragedies that you create. The world is watching you and you will be held to account. It is time that your behavior at long last matched the green rhetoric churned out by your expensive PR machines. Clean up your mess in Ecuador and start truly respecting communities and the environment."
The lawsuit demands that Chevron pay for a complete clean-up, including removal of all "formation waters" - a toxic byproduct of the drilling process, laced with heavy metals, carcinogens and crude oil - and equipment; remediation of all contaminated water bodies and lands; recovery of forest and river fauna, flora; and health care for local people.
One of the most biodiverse places on Earth, the Ecuadorian Amazon is home to five percent of the world's plant and animal species. By Texaco's own estimates, it spilled nearly 17 million gallons of crude oil directly into forests and natural waterways, and another 20 billion gallons of formation waters. It also left more than 1,000 unlined, open waste pits filled with crude scattered throughout the area. In 1992, Texaco left Ecuador, leaving behind what experts regard as an environmental disaster.
The region's 30,000 inhabitants primarily draw their water from local, natural sources such as rivers and streams, which have been deemed contaminated by experts involved in the case. According to the plaintiffs, many of the waste pits continue to pollute the water-table. In some areas, all water sources are contaminated and few fish survive in the rivers. The plaintiffs claim they suffer increased incidences of skin disease, respiratory ailments, reproductive disorders and, in a cancer rate up to 30 times higher than average. They also claim that the regional devastation includes more than two million acres of deforestation. Chevron, however, claims the region's environmental and health problems are not a result of the pollution left behind by Texaco, and that they are no longer responsible.
"The case is a symbol for every Ecuadorian," says Paulina Garzón, co-founder of Ecuadorian environmental group Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales (Center for Economic and Social Rights). "It represents so much - the impact, the human rights violations and even today's economic problems, how much Texaco profited, how indebted we are and how legislation favors international companies. The people are angry. All of this has become a symbol in our national conscience."
The impact on Ecuador's oil industry is already far-reaching. Chevron's legacy in Ecuador is now part of the national collective consciousness, and Mr. Fajardo and Mr. Yanza recently hosted the president of Ecuador on a tour of Texaco's former operations, leading to a pledge by the government to relocate several contaminated communities. The case is also gaining recognition internationally: Mr. Farjado won the CNN Environmental Heroes Award in 2008, and the two are featured in the documentary "Justicia Now" (viewable online at www.justicianow.org), being screened April 17 in San Francisco.