By Andrew Gumbel, The Independent
6 June 2007
Daryl Hannah, the actress turned environmentalist, is adding her voice to a campaign demanding redress for the inhabitants of Ecuador's Amazon region, which has been blighted by 30 years of oil exploration by Texaco.
The 46-year-old star of Splash and Kill Bill was hoping to meet Ecuador's President, Rafael Correa, yesterday. On Monday, she toured the region, 100 miles east of Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, where toxic waste dumped by Texaco - now part of the Chevron corporation - has seeped into the groundwater and, according to a growing body of medical evidence, caused medical problems including respiratory illnesses, skin infections, infertility and various cancers.
Today she will attend the opening of a photographic exhibition in Quito, in which the ravages of the past and present are chronicled. She will be accompanied by Q'orianka Kilcher, who played Pocahontas in Terrence Malick's retelling of the settlement of the Americas, The New World.
At stake is the outcome of a long-running lawsuit against Texaco and Chevron, which is being heard in the Amazonian town of Lago Agrio. The court is expected to rule next year. In a country where the courts are part of a struggle for political supremacy, however, environmentalists and indigenous rights activists want the issues to receive the widest possible public airing.
For decades, Ecuador's policy was to let oil companies explore and drill at will - part of a strategy to raise the maximum foreign currency revenue to pay off debt, and also to ensure it did not antagonise the United States.
But that may be changing after last year's election of Mr Correa, a leftist allied with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who has vowed to prioritise social spending over debt repayment and warned the United States that it can no longer count on unconditional support for its military bases and commercial ambitions.
The warm welcome enjoyed by Ms Hannah contrasts strongly with a protest five years ago mounted by Julia Butterfly Hill, an American activist best known for spending two years living in an endangered redwood tree in northern California. Ms Hill was arrested, thrown out of the country and publicly ridiculed by the then conservative president, Gustavo Noboa. "The little gringos have been arrested, including the old cockatoo who climbs trees," Mr Noboa boasted.
Texaco exploited the area around Lago Agrio - a town it renamed after the site of its world headquarters in Sour Lake, Texas - from the 1960s until 1992. Its oilmen dumped heavy sludge in more than 600 unlined open pits and flushed as much as 20 billion gallons of waste water into the area's rivers and wetlands. Environmentalists estimate that some 2.5 million acres of rainforest, covering an area from just below the Colombian border to the Napo river, a tributary of the Amazon, and beyond - were either compromised or effectively destroyed.
Even after they pulled out, they bequeathed to the area an infrastructure of outmoded machinery and creaky, rusting pipes prone to further leaks.
Environmentalists say the blight is slow-motion genocide. Indigenous tribes have seen their numbers shrivel to almost nothing because they have either fled or succumbed to disease. "Obviously they're suffering severely," Ms Hannah told the Associated Press. "A host of horrors have come their way with the advent of supposed civilisation."
The plaintiffs are seeking $6bn (£3bn) in damages and clean-up costs. Chevron claims it has already met its obligation to the area, having agreed to pay $40m in clean-up costs in a settlement reached in 1995.