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Ecuador: Lawsuit Against Oil Company for Environmental Damage

The court case Aguinda vs. Chevron, which started 16 years ago had received a lot of attention among the international media. including a recent story in the United States news show 60 Minutes. The multinational petroleum company Texaco, and its parent company Chevron have been sued by lawyers representing the local communities located in Nueva Loja or also known as Lago Agrio in the Ecuadorian Orient.

At the center of the lawsuit seeking 27 billion dollars for the pollution and environmental damages is whether the company, which turned over exploration of the area to the state company Petroecuador in 1992, is still responsible for the damage. Some critics of the lawsuit claim that the government is trying to dip their hands in the “deep pockets” of the petroleum company and denying their own role in the environmental pollution.

Debris left by Texaco over one of the Nueva Loja rivers. Picture used under Creative Commons by http://www.flickr.com/photos/00rinihartman/

Debris left by Texaco over one of the Nueva Loja rivers. Picture used under Creative Commons by http://www.flickr.com/photos/00rinihartman/

The case has attracted the interest of journalists who have visited the region of Lago Agrio, a province of Sucumbíos, to see the area firsthand. One of these journalists was Greg Palast of the BBC visited the Cofan indigenous community after a canoe ride to reach the remote location and wrote, “I know this is an incredibly simple story. Indians in white hats with their dead kids and oil millionaires in black hats laughing at kiddy cancer and playing musical chairs with oil assets.” Another, Hannah Dahlstrom of Upside Down World interviewed Emergildo Criollo, who represented the Cofan community, as well as other groups like the Kichwa and Secoya. The recent airing of the piece on 60 Minutes also caused Geoffrey Styles, a former Texaco employee and blogger at Energy Outlook to add his thoughts about the piece:

My purpose here is not to make their case or to suggest that Texaco operated the Ecuadoran fields in the 1960s, '70s and '80s to the standards that prevail today, decades later. But I do feel the need to point out that there is another side to this story that you didn't see last Sunday, and it is not remotely the black and white tale of a big corporation behaving badly that “60 Minutes” portrayed. I am disappointed that CBS allowed itself to be used to paint such a one-sided picture, sullying the reputation of a company I knew inside and out, and of the tens of thousands of fine, responsible people who worked there–not a gang of environmental criminals. I know “60 Minutes” can do better.

The suit gets complicated due to Texaco's payment of $40 million for the damages and after the Ecuadorian Petroleum Ministry signed a “final release” indicated that the company had fulfilled its duties in regards to their role in the environmental pollution. However, a new law was passed in 1999 allowing any individual to sue for environmental damages and led to the lawsuit led by the Ecuadorian lawyer Pablo Fajardo.

Several Ecuadorian bloggers have written about the lawsuit and the two sides to the argument. Luis Alberto Mendieta of Política y Sociedad [es] cites Diego Delgado, a recent presidential candidate about the history of multinational companies operating in Ecuador, which usually meant profiting from the natural resources leaving very little benefit for the host country.

Ecuadorians in the Orient are not happy with what Texaco left behind. The company is among the top 7 seven most irresponsible companies and is reported to have left contamination of soil, groundwater, and surface streams that is said to have caused local indigenous and peasant settlers to suffer a wave of mouth, stomach and uterine cancer, birth defects, and spontaneous miscarriages. Emma Dish a traveler to Nueva Loja, writes a long post in her blog Where in the world is Emma Dish? where she publishes photos of the area and speaks with local residents:

Hands down, the scenes I saw and the stories I heard yesterday made for the most horrific day of my life. I cried all the way back to Quito. I´m close to tears now.

She also spoke with Emergildo Criollo, who is an activist and talked about the health problems of the community:

He talked of the illnesses that came with petroleum, the wrenching stomach and head pains, blistering skins, widespread cancer that, for the first time in the histories of their people, could not be cured by their Shamans.

What an utter blow to the lifestyle for these people, to their culture, their traditions and their identities. Puff the Magic Dragon skulked back to his cave to morn the pile of scales at his feet.

At no point did ANYONE inform them of the dangers of continuing their relationship with their water ways as they always had. No one suggested the stop bathing in, washing in, or drinking their former life streams that were rapidly becoming contaminated with dangerous petro-chemicals. Somehow it never occurred to anyone to mention to this nation of fishermen not to consider the dead fish they found along the river banks a blessing. All the while their people were dying of cancer 8 hours and unimaginable sums of money away from the nearest hospitals (particularly difficult for a people whose livestock and lively hoods were fleeing with the fish) and their women were giving birth to children with yams where two fingers should be.

Even Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has come out in favor of the residents and their lawsuit. However, the company is alleging that the government is interfering with the court ruling to be taken by a judge in Nueva Loja by applying pressure to rule against the oil company. J Major [es] agrees with the U.S. company:

Este respaldo a la demanda puede hacer al presidente más popular (si cabe) pero no le hace bien a los demandantes. Si llegara a haber una sentencia en contra de Texaco, la petrolera internacional podría argumentar que el fallo se debió a la presión política que el juez habría de recibir.

This support for the lawsuit can help the president become more popular (if possible), but it is not good for the plaintiffs. Should there be a ruling against Texaco, the international oil company could argue that the decision was due to political pressure that the judge received.
Pañacocha lagoon at canton Shushufindi, Sucumbios-Ecuador. Photo used under Creative Commons by http://www.flickr.com/photos/30265396@N06/

Pañacocha lagoon at canton Shushufindi, Sucumbios-Ecuador. Photo used under Creative Commons by http://www.flickr.com/photos/30265396@N06/

With the decision yet to be made, Chevron is fearing a multi-billion dollar award to be given to Ecuador and they have started a public relations campaign. One member of that campaign is former CNN journalist, Gene Randall who has worked on a video that presents the side of the petroleoum company. The Chevron Pit writes:

Apparently frustrated by the news reporter's irritating habit of independently investigating what they report, Chevron has hired and paid a former CNN news anchor, Gene Randall, to produce a pro-Chevron video that has all the appearances of an actual, independent, news story that is blatantly designed to mislead observers into thinking that it is an actual independent look at the dispute in Ecuador.

Chevron is also questioning the role of Richard Cabrera, a court-appointed expert on the lawsuit. As a geological engineer, his technical report can be seen here. However, Cabrera has been accused of improperly collaborating with the plaintiff. Chevron says they have photo evidence on its Flickr account of his technical team receiving logistical support from Amazon Defense Coalition, a civic group that backs the plaintiffs and that would receive and disburse a portion of any payments.

With the lawsuit expected to be completed by the end of this year, the communities in the affected region are seeking some resolution to their claims that the health and environment have been drastically affected by this industry. Chevron knows that public opinion is stacked against them and have been using public relations campaign to show their side of the story.

4 comments

  • tiondi francis

    Iam sorry that the government gave the oil company the land at only $ 40 millions to cause truble to lives of people and damge the land forgood.
    So my comment is that the should pay the 27 billion dollars as demanded for recovery and the company should be forced to close down to enable the land recover from it’s damges.

  • ELLIOT COOK

    Hi my name Elliot cook I’m from UK i think the company have become to greedy and destroy the part of country of Africa name as Lagos. If i was the government know i shut down the company now its not just wild life plants that suffer we will also suffer in 2025. Because of sea level rising we are destroy the Eco around us and will suffer a big price in future . your kid will be living under water if we carry on drill on this world. if the company wants to drill try find oil on the mars. Because if we don’t start turning green now we can’t turn back the clock . We can use waste as new resource bio gas turn to new places for energy if we didn’t spend 28 billion on nuclear bomb we would have energy for everyone .no wars and no more hungry people we could spend 28 billion on solar panels or wind turbines or even sea power the sun going no place wind blows everyday seas move everyday so what we waiting for we don’t need nuclear bomb. we don’t need bad government leader we need people how can change the world. People like me people understand the worlds change . if you like to vote for me one I’m 21 in the UK then your more than welcome to vote for me I’m 17 in September the 10 now. But we also need to remember we have greedy people how think that world is going to change on it own we need to use human waste to run cars if you think about it human need go to the toilet everyday. so think how much gas that makes it will make us rich just take a dump but we need to give new idea to leader of the world to help use do this ?

  • […] a historic court ruling against the oil company Chevron, news of the case has returned to social networks. On […]

  • […] uma ação judicial histórica [en] contra a empresa petrolífera Chevron, notícias [en] sobre o caso retornaram às redes […]

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