Chevron in Ecuador

The archive of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign website

Legendary Ecuadorian Nurse Who Hosted Celebrities and Battled Chevron Over Pollution Tragically Dies of Cancer

Amazon Defense Coalition (ADC)
Contact: Karen Hinton at +1.703.798.3109

San Carlos, Ecuador – Rosa Moreno, the legendary Ecuadorian nurse who hosted major celebrities such as Brad Pitt in her small jungle health clinic while serving as a medical lifeline to people battling Chevron over oil pollution, has herself succumbed to cancer apparently caused by exposure to toxins in her community, the Amazon Defense Coalition (FDA) announced Tuesday.

Alphonso Moreno, Rosa Moreno's husband and a community leader in the town of San Carlos, confirmed the death by phone on Tuesday. "My beloved Rosa who took care of her own family and hundreds of people in this community has left us forever," he said.

Moreno, who had an infectious smile and quite grace that captured the attention of people around the world who visited the devastated area, had three adult children and had been married to Alphonso Moreno for more than three decades. Among those who visited her clinic in recent years were Pitt; actor and producer Trudie Styler, wife of Sting; human rights activist Bianca Jagger; actor Darryl Hannah; and U.S. Congressman James P. McGovern.

Steven Donziger, the longtime U.S. legal advisor to the affected communities, praised Rosa Moreno and noted that Chevron still has refused to clean up the billions of gallons of toxic waste that it left in the Amazon upon closing down its oil operations in 1992. Several independent studies have documented high cancer rates in San Carlos and the wider region where Moreno lived, including an explosion of childhood leukemia.

"I met Rosa in 1993 on my first trip to Ecuador and have spent many days with her through the years," said Donziger, who has traveled to Ecuador more than 200 times. "I always have been in awe of her tenderness when caring for children under the most difficult of circumstances in a clinic often lacking the most basic medicines. Rosa's skill as a health care worker was a godsend for her community and an inspiration to people all over the world. I will never forget Rosa's smile and composure under pressure, whether she was working in the clinic or confronting Chevron's CEO at the company's annual meeting in California.

"I firmly believe Rosa and many others like her in San Carlos would not have died had Chevron met its legal and moral responsibilities to the people of Ecuador," he added. "Rosa's death, like those of many others in Ecuador, was entirely preventable. Chevron should provide compensation to her family and medicine and diagnostic equipment for the San Carlos clinic, in addition to remediating the abysmal environmental conditions that continue to put innocent lives at risk."

For more than three decades, Moreno was on the front lines of the health catastrophe in Ecuador's Amazon region caused by oil pollution in the area where Chevron discharged benzene-laced waste into rivers and streams relied on by local inhabitants for their drinking water. Moreno lived in a small house near the site of a large oil separation station surrounded by dozens of open-air waste pits gouged out of the jungle floor by Chevron and later abandoned. Many of the Chevron pits, constructed mostly in the 1970s, still contaminate soils and groundwater and have pipes that run oil sludge into nearby waterways.

San Carlos became known as "Ground Zero" in the legal battle against Chevron given that several rivers and streams pass through the town and carry the oil contaminants into other areas where indigenous groups live. Litigation against Chevron, first brought by Moreno and others in 1993 in the United States but later transferred to Ecuador at Chevron's request, resulted in a historic $9.5 billion judgment against the oil giant and captivated the world's attention as one of the most successful corporate accountability campaigns ever.

That said, as the evidence against it mounted in Ecuador, Chevron sold its assets there and has refused to pay the judgment. The villagers are now trying to seize Chevron's assets in Canada, where the country's Supreme Court in Ottawa recently backed them in a unanimous opinion. Chevron's various defenses have collapsed – the company's main witness admitted lying – and the company recently was caught on video trying to commit fraud on the court by covering up its contamination in the rainforest.

Far away from Ottawa in the steamy jungle, from her tiny clinic on a dirt road, Moreno hosted a long line of international celebrities and politicians to sensitize them to the health impacts of oil contamination. The clinic itself was often bereft of medicine and lacked any diagnostic equipment; most residents tilled small plots of land and had no funds to take the long eight-hour bus ride to Quito over the Andes mountain to receive treatment in a hospital, which often cost a year's wages.

Almost all who met Moreno and toured the devastated area were moved to action. U.S. Congressman James P. McGovern (D-MA) wrote a moving letter to then President-elect Obama; Styler, wife of Sting, has written extensively about Chevron's human rights violations in Ecuador, helped to fund cancer treatment for victims, and later founded a project to deliver clean water to area residents; and acclaimed documentary film director Joe Berlinger featured gripping video about cancer in San Carlos in his film Crude, which also includes a scene with Moreno in her clinic. Hannah took a famous picture published in several magazines after dipping her hand into an open-air oil pit that Chevron claimed had been remediated. Jagger spoke at Chevron's shareholder meeting, urging executives to take action.

Others who met Moreno in San Carlos include Ben Barnes, the former Lt. Governor of Texas and advisor to President Lyndon Baines Johnson who went on to become a lobbyist for the affected communities on Capitol Hill when Chevron tried to convince the Bush and Obama administrations to cancel trade preferences for Ecuador, as retaliation for the lawsuit; Karen Hinton, former press secretary to New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and a longtime supporter of the communities who has blogged repeatedly about Chevron on the The Huffington Post and elsewhere; Atossa Soltani, founder and executive director of the environmental group Amazon Watch, which has led a 10-year campaign against Chevron; and Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club who also has spoken at Chevron's annual meetings about the disaster.

Moreno was mostly known as a person who tried against all odds to stave off the impending health disaster with her compassionate care of young children. The clinic was a short walk from her house and she was often found there seven days per week. Moreno meticulously kept a handwritten log of people in the clinic who had died, often without receiving proper treatment given the paucity of doctors in the area. The list in recent years had grown to dozens of names – many were young children – even though only 2,000 people lived in the town. Each name on the list had a name, date of birth, and date of death scrawled in Moreno's distinctive script.

Over time, Moreno became an activist as well. On three occasions, she traveled to the United States to speak to the media and to confront Chevron executives at the company's annual shareholder meetings, which she entered via a shareholder proxy. Her comments, along with those of indigenous leaders from the area, were generally dismissed by Chevron's CEOs David O'Reilly and John Watson who used various technical arguments to claim the company had no legal responsibility for the pollution.

Moreno and most of those who lived in the affected area have been forced to consume water from contaminated streams and rivers given the almost complete absence of potable water systems. Cancer rates in the area have been confirmed not only by several independent health studies but by independent reports from journalists. One analyst formerly with the Rand Corporation, Dr. Daniel Rourke, estimated based on current evidence that 10,000 people in the affected area of Ecuador would die of cancer if no remediation were to take place. (For a video of what Chevron did wrong in Ecuador, see here.)

Several people and organizations commented on Moreno's passing.

The FDA (the Spanish acronym for the Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia), the grass roots organization that represents dozens of affected communities in the lawsuit against Chevron, issued the following statement:

"We believe Rosa Moreno's life was cut short due to Chevron's atrocious, irresponsible and criminal behavior in Ecuador. Rosa had no fear to tell the truth about Chevron's role in poisoning her community in San Carlos. She helped care for sick people and she saw many of her neighbors, friends, and family members die of cancer. Now that she too has died of cancer, Rosa has tragically become yet another victim of Chevron's greed. Her proud legacy will live on forever and will help motivate the communities to ensure that Chevron is held fully accountable for the harm it has caused."

"With patience and intelligence, Rosa provided a priceless service for the Ecuadorian indigenous peoples of the rainforest," said Hinton, who visited Moreno's health clinic in 2008. "As a health care worker, I think Rosa never realized she was just as susceptible to disease and death as everyone else living with Chevron's contamination."

Luis Yanza, a Goldman Prize winner and Ecuadorian community leader and a founder of the FDA, called Moreno "the gold standard for health care workers" and said she did not deserve her fate.

"This is a tragedy for the people of San Carlos who relied on Rosa to provide medical relief and a warm smile in a time of extreme hardship," Yanza said. "What Rosa's death underscores is that Chevron's pollution in Ecuador remains a loaded gun aimed at the heads of thousands of people. Until that gun is removed, it is inevitable that more deaths will follow."