Chevron in Ecuador

The archive of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign website

Fighting for Survival, Rainforest Indians To Testify Against Chevron

With $6 Billion Liability, Chevron To Be Confronted By Leaders of Communities It Displaced Years Ago
30 Times More Crude Dumped Than Exxon Valdez

Contact: Karen Hinton at +1.703.798.3109

Quito, Ecuador - Several survivors of Ecuador's Cofan indigenous group, forced off their ancestral lands by the oil operations of Texaco (now Chevron), are preparing to testify in the historic trial against the oil giant over an estimated $6 billion in environmental damages.

Cofan leaders will offer their testimony in a critically significant field inspection of the contamination left by Texaco, conducted by Efrain Novillo, the judge presiding over the trial in the rainforest town of Lago Agrio. The field inspection, one of 122 ordered by the court, will take place on October 19 at Guanta Station, 20 kilometers from Lago Agrio in Ecuador´s north-eastern rainforest region, just south of the Colombia border. Guanta is located on historic Cofan territory.

The class-action trial, which began in 2003 and is expected to conclude next year, marks the first time that rainforest dwellers have forced a US oil giant to submit to legal jurisdiction on their own territory. Chevron appears to be losing ground in the case. All 18 inspected sites reported to the court so far, including 15 sites supposedly "remediated" by the company, show levels of toxic contamination in violation of Ecuadorian law, according to independent lab reports.

Experts for the 30,000 plaintiffs believe the toxic dumping from 1964 to 1992 created the worst oil-related ecological catastrophe in the world, rivaling the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the degree and extent of devastation. The amount of pure crude dumped by Texaco is at least the equivalent of 30 Exxon Valdez spills, according to Fausto Penafiel, the former environmental director for the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, and a consultant to the affected peoples.

A US firm, Global Environmental Operations, has estimated a partial clean-up of the pollution would cost a minimum of $6.14 billion. Texaco is estimated to have extracted about $30 billion in profits from Ecuador, including a "savings" of $4.5 billion from its failure to install proper re-injection technology.

Numerous Cofan families lived peacefully in Guanta until 1986, when Texaco arrived and constructed the Guanta station. As it did in other locations throughout the area, Texaco dumped millions of gallons of toxic "formation waters" (a byproduct of oil extraction) directly into the rainforest instead of re-injecting it underground, as was industry practice in the United States since at least the early part of the 20th century. In all, the company is accused of dumping more than 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into Ecuador's wetlands, streams, rivers, and the rainforest.

The Cofan depend on clean water and a healthy rainforest environment for their survival. In the words of Toribio Aguinda, a Cofan leader who addressed ChevronTexaco's 2004 Annual Meeting: "Before the company arrived, we had clean air, clean water and enough foods. We had extensive lands. The forest was our market. When the company arrived things changed. We no longer had clean air and clean water. We no longer had clean earth. My people are on the brink of extinction. We are disappearing."

Most Cofan tribe members fled the Guanta area after Texaco started operating, and several families moved as much as 400 kilometers further east in the Amazon rainforest. Of the roughly 15,000 Cofan community members who lived in this region several decades ago, only about 400 remain in the area. Many have died, and others have dispersed throughout Ecuador in an effort to survive.

Some anthropologists predict the Cofan could easily disappear if steps are not taken to clean the contamination and restore their historic lands. While the Cofan were severely affected in the 1930s by diseases introduced by foreign settlers, in more recent decades, Chevron's operations have dramatically accelerated the population decline.

At Guanta, there are numerous open pits in the area of the inspection filled with toxic waste and crude oil, left in plain view by Texaco. PetroEcuador, Ecuador's state oil company now operates Guanta Station. PetroEcuador continues to utilize the obsolete and inadequate technology used by Chevron.

The contamination left by Texaco also has had a tremendously damaging impact on four other indigenous groups -- the Secoya, Siona, Huarani and Quichua; the population of each has also dropped dramatically since the company's arrival.

The Tetetes, another indigenous group that lived between the border with Colombia and Lago Agrio, have completely disappeared since Texaco the first arrived in the area. Although much of this decline occurred years before Texaco began operating in the region, many experts believe that oil contamination was the final factor in the destruction of the Tetetes.

The few remaining Cofan survivors are known for their resistance to oil companies. In 1997, the Cofan staged protests and shut down Dureno 1, the first well built on their territory. They forced a number of PetroEcuador workers to abandon their territory. Eventually, those oil workers returned and built new wells.

Dozens of Cofan are expected to attend the Guanta inspection, most in traditional dress. For symbolic reasons, many will be carrying hunting instruments and displaying traditional face paint.