Natives Seek Redress for Pollution
Ecuadorans Blame Texaco for Environmental Destruction
By Alan Zibel, Oakland Tribune
10 December 2002
San Francisco, CA - Oil drilling has so damaged the environment in Ecuador that water is contaminated, few fish or game are edible and cancer cases are on the rise, tribal leaders from Ecuador and U.S. activists alleged Monday.
Three Ecuadoran leaders who live on tributaries that feed into the Amazon River described at a press conference in San Francisco a litany of environmental damage they said was caused by Texaco Inc. over more than 20 years.
Lawyers for the indigenous groups said Monday they intend to file a lawsuit in Ecuadoran court next year against ChevronTexaco Corp., formed when Chevron and Texaco merged last year, seeking $600 million to $700 million in damages against 30,000 people.
Wearing a crown of bright green and yellow parrot feathers, Toribio Aguinda, president of the Cofan people indigenous to the Amazon region of Ecuador, said oil drilling devastated his homeland.
"Texaco came to our home, destroyed our home, our land and our territories," Aguinda said in Spanish through a translator. "We came here, (to) their home, to manifest our concerns and present our demands."
Fred Gorrell, a spokesman for ChevronTexaco, which is completing its move to San Ramon at the end of the month, declined to comment beyond the company's previous statements. In the past, Texaco said it "operated in full compliance with all Ecuadorian laws and utilized prevailing internationally accepted standards and practices."
Texaco has said it spent $40 million to remediate environmental damage in Ecuador, and completed the work in 1998. But tribal leaders called that work woefully inadequate and said no one in their communities received any compensation.
The Ecuadorans were brought to the Bay Area this week by the Malibu-based environmental group Amazon Watch. The group has launched a Web site -- www.chevrontoxico.com -- that parodies the look and feel of ChevronTexaco's corporate site.
Amazon Watch said three Ecuadoran indigenous cultures are on the verge of collapsing, 2.5 million acres of virgin rainforest have disappeared and billions of gallons of wastewater have been dumped into the water. In some villages, cancer rates are 1,000 times higher than normal, Amazon Watch alleged.
Texaco operated in Ecuador from 1964 to 1990 in a minority partnership with the Ecuadoran state oil company, according to ChevronTexaco. But a lawyer for the indigenous groups described Texaco as the driving force behind Ecuadoran oil drilling and the company had used a subsidiary to shield itself from liability for wrongful conduct.
Lawyers for the indigenous people said Texaco's practices in Ecuador would not have been legal in the United States. They said the company dumped contaminated water into 350 ponds, instead of injecting that water back into the ground, as is practiced in the United States.
Cristobal Bonifaz, a lawyer for the indigenous people, alleged that Texaco did so to save money.
"This is all a monetary decision that Texaco made," he said. "What Texaco did in Ecuador is a global scandal."
The two sides have been battling in court since 1993, when Ecuadorans first sued Texaco in federal court in New York. Last August, a federal appeals court ruled that the case should be heard in Ecuador.
ChevronTexaco said in August that the ruling "vindicates" the company's longstanding position that the appropriate forum for the litigation is Ecuador because the plaintiffs and all operations are in that country.
Lawyers for the indigenous groups said the case will be the first time a U.S. multinational company will be subjected to legal action in a foreign court, with any potential judgment against the company enforceable in the United States. Bonifaz said the government in Ecuador is now supportive of the plaintiffs' claims.
Luis Ahua, a leader of the Huaorani people, compared the comfortable lifestyle of ChevronTexaco employees to the conditions felt by his people.
"We see where they work, and it's comfortable and everything is fine," Ahua said. "But in the Amazon, people are suffering."
© 2002 Oakland Tribune