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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.
 
 
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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?

EC: Well, actually, right now as a leader, we're changing -- before, the leader was a shaman; he was more powerful. We had to respect the word of the shaman, because he led the community and he cured the sick. So we always obeyed him. That's not the case anymore, because we don't even have a shaman anymore. Now we're more in the customs of mestizos, and we've selected president of the community, vice-president, secretary... Our customs are mixing with the Hispanic culture.

CS:You are making a distinction between 'before' and now. Did the shift to becoming more Hispanic happen before the oil was found in your community or after? Is it related to the oil?

EC: Yes, that very much came with the oil workers. I had a personal experience with that. When I was a little boy [in 1964], Texaco arrived in the Amazon. Until then, we hadn't really changed that much as a culture. When the company arrived, my dad and I went in to one of the work sites. I was wearing traditional clothing -- a tunic -- and the Texaco workers lifted up my tunic to see if I was a boy or a girl because they said they couldn't tell. So what I understood was that the company saw me as a girl. So, then, with the other kids, I would explain that if you don't wear pants, the company won't know if you're a boy or a girl. After that, the young people would buy Hispanic clothes and we started wearing them. Everything changed when the company arrived.

CS:When did you first learn that your water was polluted?

EC: In 1964, it started. That was the year they made the first well at Lago Agrio. But we didn't know that petroleum was a contaminant. It was with the help of the Summer Institute of Linguistics [a missionary group] that we found out that it was a carcinogen and that it would cause different kinds of illnesses. Two of my children died from drinking contaminated water. Since then, we don't drink any water from the Aguarico River, because it's completely contaminated with oil, so we don't even bathe in it. We have to look for a spring or catch rainwater. We've gotten exactly three things from the company: pollution, sickness and death; that's it.

CS:No money or jobs?

EC: Absolutely not. At that time, we didn't get any jobs because we didn't speak any Spanish at all.

CS:You said you had two children die from pollution. What other effects has the pollution had on your life?

EC: Well, yes, my two children died. My oldest son, when his mother was pregnant, she drank the water from the Aguarico. After he was born, he just never developed. He was six months old, but he was like a tiny baby. I took him to the Voz Andes Hospital in Quito, but they couldn't find any solution either, and he died there, in the hospital, in 1974.

My other son was already three years old. And one day, I took him to the river. At three, our kids can already bathe in the river. So I took him to the river, and the river was contaminated with oil. The boy, while he bathed, swallowed some water. When we got back to the house, he started to vomit. He threw up and threw up, frequently, and eventually he threw up blood. And the next day he died. At that time, there was no hospital or clinic or anything nearby, because Lago Agrio was just developing, and there was no place to take him. Missionaries lived in Limoncocha, but unless there was an airplane, there was no way to get to Limoncocha -- and he died in less than 24 hours.

That affected me a lot, because, as a father, I think that if the company hadn't come to the Amazon, my two children wouldn't have died. That's the reason why I have to do absolutely everything I can to fix this thing, because, otherwise my grandchildren -- I have 13 grandchildren -- the same thing will happen to them. I have to fight for the company to solve this problem in the Amazon.

CS:How much time went by after you found out the water was polluted and before there was any other source?

EC: Ha! There still isn't. Last year, we got two tanks from Trudie [Styler]'s project [the Rainforest Foundation] that we're using to collect rainwater. But if it doesn't rain, we still have problems because there's no water; if it rains, we have water, but it's not enough because the community is big. Whenever we have water, everybody comes to the tank and then there's no more water. And as far as drinking water, we have it, but it's not really clean water. We know that the whole area is polluted, so even if we have drinking water [from springs], it's not completely without pollution.

CS:No one denies that your land has been terribly polluted. The only question in people's minds is who exactly is to blame. Is it just Chevron Texaco, or is it shared between Petroecuador and Chevron? How do you personally approach that issue?

EC: For me, that Chevron talking point is absurd. Chevron always says, We're not to blame; we left everything clean when we left. They say the guilty party is Petroecuador, which still continues, up to this day, exploiting petroleum. But that's not true. In 1974, Petroecuador didn't even exist. It wasn't for 25 years that Ecuadorian companies started drilling for oil in the Amazon. But in 1964, Texaco started working near us. That's why Texaco has to be responsible.

Last year, we came up here to Chevron's headquarters and they showed a Petroecuador video. But it was a joke because what it showed didn't belong to Petroecuador; it belonged to Chevron Texaco! To obfuscate their own guilt, they showed this Petroecuador video. I was born in 1959 and I know for sure that in 1974 Texaco was polluting the Ecuadorian Amazon.

I want to invite [Chevron's new CEO] John Watson to come down to the Amazon to see if there's pollution or not and who drilled the wells that still, to the present day, have open pits.

CS:So you saw pollution very early on?

EC: Exactly. We've seen pollution since the beginning -- not since the middle, since the beginning. When the company arrived and dumped for the first time, we've been living there and we know; and that's why, for us, the responsible party is Chevron Texaco.

CS:I wonder if, after this lawsuit, if you'd also want to sue Petroecuador like attorney Pablo Fajardo suggests in Crude? Or do you not see Petroecuador as having any blame in this?

EC: As the people who've been affected, we know that Texaco is the father of the contamination. That's why we have to go after the father first and then after the "children," like Petroecudaor, so that they can also take responsibility.

CS:How did you first learn about the lawsuit, and how did you decide to become a part of it?

EC: In 1993, some of us came to the United States, to Boston, as students to do an exchange program for different indigenous groups. During our 21 days in Boston, we met a lawyer, Cristobal Bonifaz. He had visited the Ecuadorian Amazon and he'd seen, as a lawyer, what a disaster it was. When we were in Boston, he said, Let's take advantage of you being here. Let's file a suit against Texaco just on the off chance that we can get them to clean up the mess they left in the Amazon. So I filed suit in New York, and that's the case that we're still fighting.

CS:How many plaintiffs were there in that suit?

EC: There were 15 of us as students in Boston, but there are 30,000 of us that are affected.

CS:How are you working together with some of the other indigenous groups that have been affected? Has that process transformed the Cofan's relationships with neighboring groups?

EC: The affected groups come from two provinces, Sucumbios and Orellano. In Sucumbios, it's the Cofan, Secoyas, and Siona. In Orellano, there are Huaorani, Quichua, and some Hispanic settlers. We have cooperation; we have a committee of the affected groups. We meet monthly to maintain that committee. The Secoya and the Cofan have offices in Lago Agrio. The Quicha and the Huarorani have offices in Coca. Anytime there's a problem, we get together to figure it out. We're organizing more and more because we're think we're getting close to getting a judgment, maybe this year.

CS:Did there used to be any kind of rivalry among the people that are working together now?

EC: Well, before we didn't have much cooperation with other nationalities. That's because every group had it's own language, and we couldn't talk to each other at all. But now that we speak Spanish, all the nationalities can talk to each other.

We did have some cooperation with the Siona and Secoya; sometimes the shaman wanted to learn things from each other, so our shaman would learn to speak Siona and Secoya. But we were all enemies with the Huarorani because they were assassins. They lived by the Coca River and they would come to the Aguarico to kill people to take their handicrafts.

CS:What would it mean to you to win the lawsuit?

EC: Well, for us, it would mean breathing clean air, drinking clean water and closing up all those open pits. That's our request. We have to reduce the pollution. We know we won't be able to get rid of all of it, we have to make it somewhat better so it doesn't continue to hurt our kids.

CS:Other than the cleanup, do you and the other plaintiffs have any plans for the money?

EC: The remediation is important too, because we've lost a lot of things -- medicines, and our culture. We also need to be able to get back some of our territory, because now, because of the company, we've had our area reduced. Before, it was the wide-open Amazon, but then when Texaco arrived and built a highway; settlement came, and we were invaded by workers. Now we're trying to work with the settlers that have big farms so we can have more territory, because our community is also growing and right now there's nowhere for us to go.

Now we don't even have traditional houses; most people don't wear our own clothing -- we dress like mestizos. So we want to have traditional houses and have education to learn our own language because now we mostly speak Spanish. So that's our idea: If we win the lawsuit, we'll use the money to buy back land so we can recover our culture.

CS:Do you worry that some people in the community will be tempted to take the money for their own purposes, instead of investing in your traditional culture?

EC: No, not at all, because now everybody knows that we need to recover our culture. We don't want to live in the cities.

Cameron Scott is a San Francisco-based freelancer who writes The Thin Green Line blog on SFGate.
 
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