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Exposed: Chevron's Cover-up of Gross Environmental Abuses in Ecuador

Chevron claims it's not responsible for dumping 18 billion gallons of industrial wastewater into the Amazon. A local leader says otherwise.

What is a lost culture? Is it just some intangible time before? Is it an economy? Can you inventory a lost culture in the number of lives lost or rivers polluted?

Those questions haunt the lawsuit brought by Ecuadorian indigenous groups against the U.S. oil giant, Chevron, for environmental destruction it allegedly wrought as Texaco in the Amazon rainforest of eastern Ecuador. On paper, the suit asks Chevron (which acquired Texaco in 2001) to pay for the environmental cleanup of an area three times the size of Manhattan, pocked with open oil pits and steeped in 18 billion gallons of dumped industrial wastewater. The damages in the case -- calculated by a court-appointed expert at a record $27 billion -- would also establish a health fund to pay for the estimated 1,400 cases of cancer caused by the pollution -- a number that will likely continue to grow until the site is cleaned up. The rest of the damages fall into the catchall category, "compensation."

Emergildo Criollo is president of the Cofan people, who have been among the hardest hit and are one of the plaintiffs in the case. For Criollo, 52, the case isn't just about what Texaco workers did or didn't do starting in the 1960s. It's about the dissolution of his traditional culture into the modern world as a result of oil workers simply being there and building roads to get there. And no one company can be held accountable for that. But Chevron has used the same prevailing wind of cultural dominance to confuse the facts of the case enough potentially to avoid being stuck with the monstrous bill. The company points to an agreement under which Texaco shared its operations in Ecuador with the state-owned oil company, Petroecuador. It also claims that Texaco cleaned up its work sites before leaving Ecuador in 1992. But the company's legal hedges don't line up with residents' first-hand accounts, as Criollo makes clear.

In the 1970s, it may have been a good bet that indigenous accounts of what happened in the Amazon would never get out -- or, in any case, wouldn't be believed. But even overarching cultural narratives can be subject to unexpected ironies. In 1993 -- one year after Texaco left the Amazon -- Criollo went to Boston to participate in an indigenous people's cultural exchange program. While he was there, he learned Spanish. He also went to New York with 14 other participants and filed suit against Texaco.

This week, I spoke to Emergildo Criollo, who was in San Francisco to pay a surprise visit to the new Chevron CEO, John Watson, at his home.

Cameron Scott: Where in Ecuador are you from?

Emergildo Criollo: I'm from the Cofan-Duran community in Sucumbios Province.

CS: I imagine your daily life is quite different from the average American's. Can you tell me what it's like?

EC: My parents taught me to hunt and fish -- when I was little, I learned how to fish and hunt animals, and for our food everyday, that's what we try to have. Before, we didn't even need money to buy anything. We had enough food for the family, and we also had traditional medicine from the jungle. If somebody got sick, we would try to cure them with traditional medicine. Also, every year, we would have our traditional holidays. April 9 was the Fiesta of Chontaduro, when everybody prepared chontaduro drinks, and everybody would get together and we would celebrate and have fun.

CS: Your hosts on this trip refer to you as a 'community leader.' What does that mean exactly?

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