Chevron in Ecuador

The archive of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign website

Contested Tales of Life in Ecuador's Indigenous Oil-Rich Oriente Region

By Adam Klasfeld, Courthouse News Service
18 March 2014

Shushufindi, Ecuador – An elderly man who inspired Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa's initiative to relocate people outside of oil exploitation zones wept during an interview about his current lack of food, medical care, or even a wheelchair.

The story of 78-year-old Manuel Salinas has been one of the most visible, heartbreaking and contested tales of the life in the oil-producing region of Ecuador's Oriente region.

It was seven years ago when then newly elected President Rafael Correa embraced the elderly Salinas as his first public expression of support for the indigenous and campesino Amazon residents suing Chevron over decades of drilling by its predecessor, Texaco.

Documentary filmmaker Joseph Berlinger captured that meeting in his controversial documentary Crude, and CBS interviewed Salinas for an in-depth episode of 60 Minutes.

Salinas said that Texaco's crude oil seeped into his well and gave him undiagnosed stomach pains.

"The world needs to know about this," Correa said in the documentary, to the flutter of cameras snapping photos.

Correa's administration later relocated Salinas and hundreds of other families living in nearby oil-exploitation areas to towns like Shushufindi Central, where an official plaque commemorating that encounter still shines on the facade of Salinas' government-gifted home.

"But now, [Salinas] is very bad," said Donald Moncayo, who has led a "Toxic Tour" of the Amazon since litigation against Chevron started here in 2003. Salinas' house was the last stop Moncayo made Friday, in the first leg of one such tour.

Though Salinas' scaly skin that Moncayo said looked "like a fish" cleared up when he moved to his new home, Salinas said his other ailments have not relented. Stomach pains and mobility problems that have plagued Salinas for eight years, but he cannot afford to replace his walker with a wheelchair.

As it started to rain, his eyes welled up as he turned to speak privately with Moncayo, who later said that Salinas was complaining about his feeling of helplessness and dependence on others.

Chevron has long denied any responsibility for Salinas' suffering, saying that tests proved the well water's safety and that Salinas was used as part a high-profile media campaign to extort a settlement.

The San Ramon-based oil giant gained access to outtakes from "Crude" during discovery proceedings, and it got a scientist who criticized the company on "60 Minutes" to renounce those remarks in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan cited these developments in his finding this month that the $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron was "procured by corrupt means." Though cleaning up the Oriente would be "desireable and overdue," Kaplan said, he called the penalty against Chevron the product of bribery and extortion.

Appealing the decision, lawyers for the Ecuadoreans have said that Kaplan was wrong on the facts and the law, and they moved Tuesday for an emergency stay.

News of these courtroom battles has apparently not made it, however, to remote Shushufindi Central.

Salinas said he did not understand what Kaplan's decision was. Another Shushufindi Central resident, 65-year-old Juana Villafuente, had visible bumps on her feet and lower legs.

Leaning against the windowsill to steady herself, Villafuente said that her doctors still do not know what caused her condition. She said her daughter died at the age of 22 of a mysterious skin inflammation.

Chevron blames such mysterious illnesses on the rampant poverty, malnutrition and infectious disease in the area, but Villafuente emphasized that both problems began at her old house. She wore a green T-shirt with the logo of Correa's party Alianza País.

"Because they helped me," she explained.

Moncayo, who has introduced several journalists to the area's sickest people and most polluted sites, has oil-exploitation anecdotes of his own. He blamed the waste from oil exploitation for two of his mother's miscarriages, and he said Texaco employees convinced locals that rubbing petroleum on their legs could be medicinal.

He laughed as he remembered his mother being angry with him one time for swimming in an oil-slicked river as a child because he dirtied up his clothes, not that he exposed himself to pollution.

Community celebrations also happened near that river, said Moncayo, who belongs to the region's Cofán people.

A driver from a local Cofán taxi cooperative drove the tour Friday, hauling Moncayo's rubber boots, white surgical gloves, a machete and an auger.

Moncayo used that machete to chop the overgrown grass surrounding Sushufindi 61, which Chevron has dubbed the "Presidential Pit" after Correa visited it.

Entering into the waters, Moncayo dipped his glove hand in the oil-filled pool to pick up two chunks, which emitted odd squishes in his palms.

Another stop on the tour was Aguarico 4, where Correa dipped his glove hand for the cameras in September 2013. This became the image of the Ecuadorean government's public relations campaign "The Dirty Hand of Chevron."

When the Cofán taxi pulled up to Shushufindi 35, Moncayo said Texaco operated exclusively in this area until Petroecuador began its work in 1990. This was true of every site on the tour, except for those where Petroecuador never operated at all, Moncayo said.

Though Chevron mostly does not dispute that Texaco workers were alone on the ground here before 1990, it notes that Correa's predecessors released them of responsibility for this and other sites in a 1995 agreement that included a $40 million cleanup of certain sites.

Aguarico 4 and Shushufindi 61, for example, were not listed among Texaco's responsibilities, Chevron says.

Petroecuador also would have cleaned Aguarico 4 up if not for interference by lawyers for the Ecuadoreans, it claims.

The local residents suing Chevron, who call themselves the afectados ("affected ones"), have consistantly called the remediation a "sham." Moncayo illustrated this allegation on the second day of the tour as he drove his auger into the soils near a fruit tree at Lago Agrio 5, past the redder soils now covering the blacker earth underneath.

Lago Agrio, named after Texaco's former headquarters in Sour Lake, Texas, is the city where the Ecuadorean trial against Chevron took place.

In the audience for second leg of the tour Sunday were lawyers from the nonprofit EarthRights and former environmental students in Ecuador. Moncayo gave the group a sniff of the dirt, which all agreed smelled like gasoline.

"It's like when cats pile up dirt," Moncayo said, referring to Texaco's remediation. "I'm sorry that I compared Chevron to cats. The cats would be offended."

Lawyers for the afectados argue that the government's 1995 deal with the oil company did not bind the Ecuadorean citizens. This matter is currently under dispute at The Hague, which recently handed down a preliminary ruling that favors Chevron.

Dirtying up the record of Petroecuador is another part of the Chevron defense, saying the state-owned oil company had 1,983 spills in the Oriente over a 17-year period since 1990. Moncayo countered that Petroecuador's spills were accidental, whereas Texaco's were done to save money.

What seems indisputable, in any event, is that house of 56-year-old Alejandro Soto remains surrounded by piscinas. Literally "pools," this is the word the locals use to describe the oil pits, whose vapors can easily be smelled in the soils and the fruits.

Soto said his fruits "have a taste like gas" since oil exploitation began in his area, giving highly detailed accounts of a drop in coffee production from 80 to 100 quintals to 15 to 20 quintals. He dug his shovel into the soil surrounding grape trees near his house, and black liquid still oozed along the sides of the hole.

Bemoaning the "grave impacts on nature," Soto said that snakes, alligators and certain birds left the area during the days of oil production, and that he saw chickens and cows with tumors.

Soto's father, brother and niece all died of cancer, two of them before Petroecuador's entrance in 1990, he said.

Chevron adamantly denies any link to cancer in the area, and its courtroom opponents have acknowledged the difficulty in proving these claims with any death certificates or diagnoses. Lawyers for the Ecuadoreans have blamed this, for the most part, on poor area medical records.

In support of its claim that stories pervading the area are part of a conspiracy to collect a fraudulent judgment, Chevron points to a California federal judge's 2007 finding that certain claims were fabricated.

James Craig, who serves as Chevron's Latin American spokesman, called the topic of cancer "difficult" and "emotional" issue.

"A responsible person would say, 'Let's look at the evidence,'" Craig said.

Citing a lack of death certificates or medical evidence, Craig also argued that the oil-producing parts of the Amazon have lower cancer rates than Quito, comparing the once-virgin rainforest with Ecuador's highly-trafficked capital city.

Unsurprisingly, Moncayo noted that the city's large population made that comparison unfair. Quito-based medical organization Solca usually performs cancer studies only in Ecuador's largest cities like Guayaquil, Cuenca and Ambato, and the Oriente is the sparsest area it ever visited, he added.

Chevron claimed that the Ecuadoreans misrepresented the work of Miguel San Sebastián, who drew attention to the Amazon's "public health emergency" in The Pan American Journal of Public Health, a peer-reviewed publication by a regional office of the World Health Organization.

In Ecuador's oil-producing cantones (counties), "significantly elevated levels were observed for cancers of the stomach, rectum, skin melanoma, soft tissue, and kidney in men and for cancers of the cervix and lymph nodes in women," San Sebastián wrote in 2004.

Chevron says that the scientist stopped short of establishing a causal link between the two.

Though it criticizes San Sebastián as biased, Chevron has defended funding the work of epidemiologist Michael Kelsh, who also wrote a peer-reviewed article finding a lower risk in the drilling areas. A federal appeals court in California ordered Chevron to turn over its communications with Kelsh to the Ecuadorean government earlier this year.

Except for benzene, a leukemia-linked toxin, Chevron also disputes that any of the thousands of chemicals found in crude oil are linked to cancer.

Soto said this is the condition that killed his niece, and he invited "more technicians, more scientists" to visit his area to study it.

He extended his invitation to Judge Kaplan, who he said should put "his feet in the petroleum."

Craig, the Chevron spokesman, said he used to give tours of the region but stopped last year amid declining media attention and amped up rhetoric from the Correa administration against the company's oil-company enemies.

Moncayo countered that journalists who went on the Chevron tour found the oil hiding underground when they visited the same sites on the Toxic Tour.

Roughly an hour's drive away his house in Shushifindi, just outside of Lago Agrio, is a 2.5-kilometer patch of protected land known as the Perla Parque Ecológico that gives a glimpse of what the land might have been like before oil exploitation in the area.

The tour guides there said that Ecuadorean regulations prevented the region's oil companies from entering the land, and they row visitors by canoe down the Laguna de Lago Agrio for a $1.50. The water is still hospitable to a variety of aquatic life, including alligators and piranhas, and a variety of birds and five species of monkeys can be seen on the trees and branches of the shore. There are also walkable trails with a variety of species of poisonous and safe frogs, palatial ant hills, colorful orchids and gypsy flowers, and ancient trees with roots large enough to enter. Visitors can also zip-line across the laguna.

César Zaldumbide, an employee there about to release a book on Ecuador's route to El Dorado, said that very few tourists come here in this oil-producing region.