By Alonso Soto, Reuters
18 December 2007
SAN CARLOS, Ecuador (Reuters) - After a 14-year court battle, Ecuadorean jungle dwellers expect a verdict next year in their lawsuit charging Chevron with polluting the Amazon and vow to fight more delays by the U.S. oil giant.
Peasants and Indians are suing Chevron Corp for $6 billion in a local court over accusations its Texaco unit polluted the jungle and damaged their health by dumping 18 billion gallons of contaminated water from 1972 to 1992.
"We believe there will be a ruling in the second half of 2008," said Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer for the 30,000 plaintiffs.
He said he will fight delaying tactics he expects the company to employ as a local judge gets close to a verdict.
Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001, denies its operations affected the health of Amazon communities.
The California-based company argues it was released from any liability when it paid $40 million for an environmental cleanup in the 1990s and blames state oil company Petroecuador for much of the pollution.
Standing next to her wooden shack in the jungle hamlet of San Carlos, 54-year-old Gloria Castillo hopes for compensation over the oil-contaminated water she says made her family sick.
"We are tired of it," said Castillo, her house surrounded by cocoa and coffee trees.
"My daughter-in-law had a miscarriage and I have these welts on my legs," she said of the red spots above her ankles.
The plaintiffs' lawyers said there are thousands of Amazonians sick from water and soil contamination, ranging from cancer to skin diseases. But they say it is very difficult to prove the illnesses were caused by the company's operations because of the plaintiffs' poor living conditions.
A U.S. federal court last month dismissed two separate claims filed by an American lawyer accusing Chevron of harming the health of Ecuadoreans.
NO DUE PROCESS
Chevron asked the Ecuadorean court in October to drop the lawsuit, saying it is the victim of a trial that has ignored due process and that it will go to international courts to challenge any negative ruling in Ecuador.
Chevron, which no longer has operations in Ecuador, says the left-leaning government of President Rafael Correa has interfered in the trial on behalf of the plaintiffs and that the judge unfairly dismissed evidence the company wanted to introduce.
"When they talk about the trial they are not talking about judicial process, but a process that has been completely politicized and corrupted by false propaganda that has no basis in law and facts," Chevron's lawyer Silvia Garrigo said.
Correa, known for his tough stance against foreign companies he accuses of extracting the country's wealth without properly sharing the revenues with the state, says Chevron committed a "barbarity" in the Amazon.
The plaintiffs first filed a class-action lawsuit against Texaco in 1993 at a federal court in New York seeking damages for contamination. After the U.S. court denied them jurisdiction, the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit with the court in the Amazon town of Lago Agrio.
Their lawyers say Chevron has deliberately delayed the case in Lago Agrio with requests for more water samples and claims of lawyers' misconduct.
Steven Donziger, a U.S-based lawyer advising the plaintiffs, said Chevron has had 14 years to prove its case.
"Chevron knows it likely will lose based on the evidence, so it has decided to try to trash a perfectly robust, transparent and fair judicial process," Donziger said.
"They can appeal all they want and try to delay it, but we will collect damages."
Chevron's Texaco was one of the first foreign companies to extract oil from Ecuador's Amazon, sparking a boom that attracted thousands of workers to an area that remains one of the poorest in South America's No. 5 oil producer.