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Ecuador: New Developments and Cyber-Activism in Chevron Case

This post is part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon.

After a historic court ruling against the oil company Chevron, news of the case has returned to social networks. On February 14, an Ecuadorian judge ruled that the oil company had to pay US$9.5 million in environmental damages. Almost a month later, on March 13, BBC World [es] reported that Chevron appealed the sentence. In addition to this news, there was a barring of the payment of the compensation for the environmental damage by a U.S. judge, and accusations [es] regarding the financing of the lawyers from the Ecuadorian communities and of a fraudulent Ecuadorian ruling.

These news have turned the attention of the world back to this case. Through the internet, citizens and activists share information and take part in online campaigns. An example is the Toxic Texaco page on the Amazon Defence Coalition website, which includes research, videos and plenty of material on what they call “the world’s worst oil disaster”:

Ecuador es actualmente el sitio de lo que expertos reconocen como el peor desastre petrolero del mundo, ahora llamado “el Chernobyl de la Amazonía,” por una contaminación desastrosa dejada por la transnacional Texaco (ahora Chevron).

Ecuador is currently the place experts acknowledge as being the world’s worst oil disaster, now called “the Chernobyl of the Amazon,” due to the disastrous contamination left behind by the transnational Texaco (now Chevron).

YouTube user reimond87 shares related videos, like a video by Amazon Watch which explains the case from the start and shows how the pollution has affected the local population.

Crude oil in a toxic pool near Lago Agrio in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Image by Rainforest Action Network on Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

An analysis that can be found on several web pages is that of Joan Martinez, a Spanish academic who has followed the case. Martinez examines [es] the strengths and weaknesses of the ruling against the oil company in great detail and indicates that:

Texaco no pagó en su momento los costos que hubiera debido pagar para que sus operaciones no causaran daños (echando el agua de formación en piscinas que se desbordan, quemando el gas…), usando prácticas que nunca hubieran sido aceptadas en su país de origen y que sabía que eran dañinas. Esos costos no pagados supusieron unos beneficios mayores para Texaco, un enriquecimiento adicional que le permitió repartir dividendos a accionistas y hacer otras inversiones, lo que a su vez contribuyó al crecimiento económico de la empresa.

At the time, Texaco did not pay the costs that they should have to ensure that their operations would not cause damage (disposing of formation water in overflowing pools, burning gas…) using methods that had never been accepted in their country of origin and which they knew were harmful. These unpaid costs meant greater profits for Texaco, a supplementary gain which allowed them to distribute dividends to shareholders and make other investments, which in turn contributed to the economic growth of the company.

There are three main arguments that the environmentalist activists examine: the environmental damage to the Amazon and the devastation of one of the most biodiversity-rich zones on the planet, the accusations of embezzlement made against the oil company which has increased profits by millions at a high environmental cost, and the irreparable damage to the communities and inhabitants of the area.

There are five indigenous nationalities living in this region: Siona, Secoya, Cofán, Huaorani and Amazonian Kichwas all of whom have seen the effects on their way of life and the threat to their culture. In addition to the settlers (the mestizo inhabitants of the Amazon), those affected total more than 30,000. Amnesty International challenges the situation with the question “Oil Rights or Human Rights?” [es]:

Amnistía Internacional está realmente preocupada por el estado de los derechos humanos de las poblaciones indígenas y de los grupos ecologistas en el Ecuador. Por más de cuatro décadas, las comunidades indígenas han sido testigos de cómo las multinacionales petroleras se han abierto paso a través de sus territorios ancestrales y de la selva Amazónica en busca de los vastos recursos petroleros del país.

Amnesty International is truly concerned about the state of the human rights of the indigenous peoples and environmentalist groups in Ecuador. For over four decades the indigenous communities have borne witness to multinational oil companies making their way through their ancestral land and the Amazon jungle in search of the vast oil resources in the country.

In spite of the millions gained in oil profits, poverty levels [es] in the Amazon, especially in the oil provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana, are higher than in the rest of Ecuador. Ecuadorian economist [es] Alberto Acosta comments [es]:

Para los pueblos indígenas de la Amazonía ecuatoriana, el choque con la civilización occidental, en su peor versión la petrolera, ha significado un cambio radical en su vida e incluso la perdida de vida. No sólo dichos pueblos, también los colonos de la Amazonía norte del Ecuador han sufrido un sinnúmero de atropellos a sus derechos elementales.

For the indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the conflict with western civilisation, particularly with oil companies, has signalled a radical change in their lives and even the loss of life. Not just the aforementioned peoples, but the settlers of the northern Amazon of Ecuador have also suffered a huge amount of abuse to their basic rights.

Acosta also mentions an issue hidden in the environmental devastation: the violence and sexual exploitation [es] of women and girls associated with the extraction of oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the impact on the health of indigenous and settler women.

A historic ruling

The sentence handed down by the Lago Agrio court on February 14 against the oil company is considered historic by the environmentalist movement. However, The Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration temporarily banned the application of any ruling  that the Ecuadorian court may issue against Chevron. The process continues [es] and it will take several years for the decisions on appeals and other submissions to be enforced by the parties involved in the judicial ruling.

Social networks in Ecuador have reacted cautiously [es]. But netizens in the United States and other places around the world show strong activism on the topic, as seen on the Facebook page “We can change Chevron”, the blog The Chevron Pit, or in the 26,194 signatures on the Care2 site petitioning for Chevron to restore the health and environment of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

This post is part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon.

8 comments

  • Oso Politico

    I have been following this case with interest as it acts as a kind of Rorshach test for those writing and commentiing upon it. Each person sees what he or she wants to see.

    What bothers me particularly is that few, if any, have bothered to learn about the other side. There is merely acceptance of the story as told by those with a certain point of view, and with hidden agendas.

    Texaco ceased operations in the Lago Agrio area about 1990. It was operated in conjunction with the Ecuatorian State Petroleum Company, who were the majority shareholders.

    Nowhere is mentioned their responsibility in any environmental problems in that area. Also, other international oil companies have operated in Ecuatorian rainforest areas for decades and we hear nothing about them.

    Considering that it has been more than twenty years since Texaco ceased operations, I have to wonder about all of these photos we see with crude oil dripping from people’s hands. This is oil that has been spilled very recently. Don’t forget that it rains a lot in rain forests, and what is displayed is not whatever spillage Texaco might have caused.

    In the mid-nineties, Texaco came to an agreement for remediation of the drilling sites for which it was responsible. And it remediated them to the satisfaction of the Ecuatorian authorities at the time. The national petroleum company failed to remediate the sites under their jurisdiction.

    Another accusation regards the spillage of 18 billion gallons of what one assumes is crude oil into local rivers and lakes. But we are not talking about oil here but rather the water that was extracted as part of the production process. This water was treated and released into the local environment according to the world-wide standards at the time.

    There is much more to this complicated story and I urge you all to do some googling.

    One last comment: There is an obvious effort to extort money from Chevron by a group of U.S.-based lawyers.

    Resist knee-jerk reactions simply based upon your ideology. If we want to see justice done, then we ourselves must be just.

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  • Antoine

    Thank you for this post. I would like to point readers to the website of the Amazon Watch group’s Chevron-Ecuador campaign also: http://www.chevrontoxico.com

    I would also like to correct some inaccuracies in @Oso Politico’s comments.

    First, Texaco — now Chevron — was the sole operator of the oil consortium with Ecuador’s national oil company. For more than 25 years, Texaco made all the decisions that resulted in enormous pollution. The lawsuit was filed against Texaco originally in 1993 just a year after the company left Ecuador. Environmental degradation in the area from the continuing operations by Ecuador’s oil company (now called Petroecuador) and others should indeed be noted, and is a concern that local people are focused on in addition to their struggle for Chevron to take responsibility. But Chevron’s claims that Petroecuador is responsible for a majority of the damage in the area is ludicrous. Petroecuador at least reports and cleans up its spills, and re-injects its ‘produced water’ which Texaco never did.

    Speaking of which, the ‘produced water’ is the 18 billion gallons that @Oso Politico refers to, and Texaco’s own internal environmental audits (available publicly) notes that they never “treated” it at all before dumping it directly into rivers and rainforest. This byproduct of oil drilling can contain significant toxins and is responsible for much of the widespread contamination in the region’s water.

    Lastly, Texaco initiated what it called a “remediation” after the lawsuit was filed, hoping they could squash the suit. But what they performed was a sham clean-up, never dealing with water pollution, and simply bulldozing dirt over a handful of its hundreds of toxic waste pits. Testing of the remediated sites show ongoing significant contamination.

    Chevron needs to stop its lies and spin and intimidation and pay to clean up the area NOW.

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