Chevron and Cultural Genocide in Ecuador

Posted on 10 December 2009 by editor

Credit: Claudius

Credit: Claudius

By Kerry Kennedy, from Lago Agrio, Ecuador *

LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador (IPS/TerraViva) Traces of paradise are still visible. From the air, the rainforest region in northern Ecuador – known as the Oriente – appears as silvery mist and swaths of verdant green.

But beneath the cloud cover and canopy, the jungle is a tangle of oil slicks, festering sludge, and rusted pipeline. Smokestacks sprout from the ground, spewing throat-burning fumes into the air. Wastewater from unlined pits seeps into the groundwater and flows into the rivers and streams.

This nightmarish landscape is the legacy of Texaco. Between 1964 and 1990, Texaco (which was acquired by Chevron in 2001) drilled roughly 350 wells across 2,700 square miles of Amazon rainforest. It extracted some $30 billion in profits while deliberately dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic soup, known as production water ­ a mixture of oil, sulphuric acid, and other carcinogens ­ into the streams and rivers where people collect drinking water, fish, bathe and swim.

In the process, Texaco constructed over 900 oil sludge pits, many the size of Olympic swimming pools. Unlike swimming pools, these pits were unlined punctures in the earth. With no concrete to protect the surrounding soil, poison seeped into the ground water.

I had head about what has been called “Chevron’s Chernobyl in the Amazon” for years.  But nothing could prepare me for the horror I witnessed during my three-day visit to Ecuador.

I held a dragonfly covered in oil in my hands, desperately and hopelessly trying to flutter its wings. I saw pig footprints in the mud next to the oily gunk, where it had eaten contaminated grass, and will soon be contaminating the children, women, and men, who in turn feed on Chevron’s waste.

I met a man who told me his two children died after swimming in contaminated water.  One died within 24 hours.  The other writhed in agony for six months before his poor body gave way.

I met another man whose home is just a few hundred yards from one of the pits. He has 10 children. All of them have become sick, some covered with sores. His chickens and pigs have died.  Nothing grows near his home.

I saw a poisonous pit abandoned by Texaco in 1974 and never used by any other company. The pipes leading from that pit have clear liquid running from them. When I put the liquid to my nose, it smelled like gasoline. It runs directly into an adjoining stream, which is the main source of drinking water for people who live along its banks.

We heard terrifying stories of mistreatment by Texaco workers: women raped; shamans taken by helicopter to far mountain ranges to see if they could find their way back; Indians told that rubbing oil on their bald scalps would make their hair grow long and thick; and Texaco trucks that dumped oil waste on roads where people walked and suffered the burns of sticky tar in the hot sun.

This is not a matter of misty-eyed nostalgia.  This is an issue of human rights ­ clear violations of the indigenous Ecuadoreans’ rights to life, security, and self-determination.

When Texaco oilmen descended from helicopters into the jungle in the early 1960s, they gifted the locals with bread, cheese, plates, and spoons.  To this day, this is the only compensation any of the indigenous groups have ever received.

Never were they asked for their permission before Texaco executives negotiated a contract with Ecuadorean government officials.

Texaco knew people would die because of what they were doing, and they ignored it.  At last count, 1,400 children, women, and men have died of illnesses directly attributed to Texaco’s contamination.  Cancer rates in communities affected by oil activity are 30 times higher than anywhere else in the country. Other medical teams have documented elevated rates of birth defects, miscarriages, skin disease, and nerve damage.

Two nomadic groups that once inhabited the region, the Tetetes and the Sansahuari, have been wiped out. What Texaco did arguably amounts to criminally negligent homicide.

Now, the remaining indigenous peoples of the Oriente ­ the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa and Huaorani people ­ have taken the fight to Chevron.  Organized by a grassroots organization called the Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia ­ the Amazon Defense Coalition – they are simply demanding through an unprecedented class action lawsuit that Chevron clean up its mess.

The case is now in its 16th year. Chevron (whose human rights statement reads, “We value and respect the cultures and traditions of the many communities in which we work”) has tossed up one delay after another.

Yet, the evidence of Texaco’s wrongdoing is plain for all to see.  Last year, an unnamed Chevron lobbyist was quoted as saying the lesson of Ecuador is that “We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies like this ­ companies that have made big investments around the world.”

But as an American, I am appalled that a corporation from our country would treat innocent people with such disdain. We ­ consumers, investors, elected officials, journalists, activists, and citizens ­ must hold Chevron accountable for its actions, and see that justice is done.

Here in the Oriente, 45 years after Texaco first bore into the ground ­ 16 years after the Ecuadoreans began their fight for justice ­ traces of paradise are still visible.  We must not allow them to vanish. (END/2009)

* Kerry Kennedy is the author of “Speak Truth to Power” and the founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights.

8 Comments For This Post

  1. Kaspar Hakkesteegt Says:

    If anyone is interested in this issue try looking at the documentary ‘Crude’, which is documenting the situation described above. It is appalling what is happening there, and that Chevron can keep on extending the judicial procedures for this long.
    The documentary is one of the best i have seen of late.

  2. Geoff Goldberg Says:

    Outrageous,citizens in different countries need to protest Chevron at their gas
    stations,passing information and asking people to get their gas somewhere else.
    If each of us can make a flier with information from the above sites, that is a begining.
    We have to act now don’t wait for someone else. Make 5,10,20,50, a 100 copies.
    Footnote the appropriate site at bottom of the page. Ask politicians, maybe to
    introduce resolutions at the city,county,state and national level. Let’s begin .

  3. Guy Edwards Says:

    Fortunately, amidst the destruction and desperation that face many Ecuadorians in this part of the Amazon, there are sustainable solutions that seek to change the future for the better. The Huaorani Ecolodge owned and run by 5 communities on the river Shiripuno is one such example. This ecotourism venture is putting the Huaorani back on the map. That’s not to say they haven’t received a lot of attention in the past, but this group in particular stands in defiance of the oil companies by offering a sustainable and clean way forward. This in turn is washing away the conventional image of the Huaorani as the powerless victims of toxic oil development.

    By winning awards such as the Latin American Travel Association’s Best Sustainable Project for the second year running, the Huaorani Ecolodge is demonstrating that the Huaorani can protect their land and cultural integrity while earning a source of income for them and their families.

  4. Rebeca Vega Says:

    Oil companies as Chevron, can keep in courts for 50 years or more when many of the Whao people passed away…or they have the power to arm wood choppers from Colombia or FAR guerrillas to kill Taromenane from Yasuni…But Ecuador Amazon has been no man’s land…It has not changed much since the 50,s when was cataloged as “Ecuador land of head hunters”. These issues are best known in the US after the Texaco trial…The South Aliance countries and the ALBA are discussing leadership and politic than real environmental subjects. The Yasuni ITT must be over here, defending our people, and for the life and peace of humankind and keeping with natural balance of the earth (Pacha Mama)

  5. Chevron_justinh Says:

    This is Justin with Chevron Corporation, and while we appreciate Kerry Kennedy’s work in the area of human rights, she continues to make several outrageous claims and factual errors in her various posts on the lawsuit involving Chevron in Ecuador that we feel compelled to correct.

    1) The consortium (Texaco Petroleum and Petroecuador) drilled 321 wells (not 350). In fact, Petroecuador has drilled an additional 400 wells in the region since the consortium ended.

    2) While the consortium generated $25 billion in revenue, Texaco’s portion was less than $500 million- the rest went to the Government of Ecuador.

    3)Ms. Kennedy also cites plaintiffs’ claims that there were 900 pits in the concession area. Under a government outlined and supervised agreement, Texaco was assigned and remediated 161 of 430 identified pits- a portion that corresponded with the company’s 37.5% stake in the consortium; Petroecuador agreed to accept 100% responsibility for the remaining sites (many of which are still in use today).

    4) The major health concerns in the Oriente region are related to a lack of water treatment infrastructure, a lack of sufficient sanitation infrastructure and inadequate access to medical care.

    5) The plaintiffs say 1,400 people have died due to cancer from the oil operations – but in fact not one medical record or name has ever been associated with the plaintiff’s case against the company. Further, cancer claims (brought by the original architect of the lawsuit in Ecuador) against Chevron in the U.S. were thrown out in 2007 when it was discovered the plaintiffs had lied about their illnesses.

    6) It is incorrect to state that cancer rates in the Oriente communities are 30 times higher. The government’s own health records show that is not true and cancer rates are lower in this region than in the metropolitan Quito region.

    7) Ms. Kennedy also repeats unfounded claims against Texaco employees without citing any sources or court documents to support her terrible allegations.

    Ms. Kennedy is right to be concerned about the poverty and health issues in the Oriente region. But blame here rests with the Government of Ecuador for its lack of investment in sanitation and medical infrastructure and Petroecudaor for the company’s ongoing environmental mismanagement (1,400 spills since 2000) and remediation neglect.

    Prior to leaving Ecuador, Texaco Petroleum, now a 5th tier subsidiary of Chevron, implemented a government prescribed remediation and public works program in proportion to the company’s 1/3 share of the oil-producing consortium with Petroecuador. In 1998, the Republic of Ecuador (represented by the Ministry of Energy and Mines) and Petroecuador certified that the remediation met Ecuadorian standards, and granted Texaco Petroleum a full and complete release of all further claims, liabilities and obligations associated with the company’s involvement.

    There is no question that the people of the Oriente region face a series of challenges regarding the health in their communities. However, the facts are clear – Texaco Petroleum acted responsibly and cleaned up its share of the consortium years ago, while the Government of Ecuador and Petroecuador have chosen profits over environmental stewardship. Chevron firmly rejects the notion that it should be responsible for addressing the overall problems of the region, caused by the government and the state oil company, who are unwilling or unable to shoulder their responsibility. Chevron is steadfast in its belief that the current litigation is void of any factual legal merit and remains resolute in defending against it.

    We have reached out to Ms. Kennedy only to be rebuffed. Nonetheless, we would still welcome a chance to sit down with Ms. Kennedy to give her a complete review of Texaco’s involvement in the consortium, the science involved in this case and to discuss Petroecuador’s culpability.

    For those that are interested in learning more about this matter, please visit: http://www.theamazonpost.com

  6. A.Woods Says:

    In his response to Ms. Kennedy’s article, Chevron’s spokesman, “Justin H,” has consistently misrepresented several points in another example of Chevron’s failure to recognize the problem caused by the company in Ecuador for what it is: a massive environmental and human rights crisis that needs to be dealt with immediately. Justin’s statement fail to acknowledge the company’s moral and legal responsibility to the people in the region and the underlying basis for the problem – Texaco’s (which merged with Chevron in 2001) substandard operational practices for nearly four decades in order to maximize profits.

    There are too many false and misleading statements in Justin’s post to address each one, but let’s take a minute to address three of the most egregious:

    I. Justin’s line (paraphrased): “There is no health impact in the region from Chevron’s operations”

    Despite Justin’s, and Chevron’s, cries that the contamination they left behind in the Ecuadorian rainforest poses no threat to human health, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) the US government and several independent scientific studies conducted in Texaco’s former operations area all agree that the levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water sources throughout the region are causally linked to the significantly higher rates of cancer and disease among residents there.
    While nobody can be sure exactly how many people have died from cancer and other oil-related diseases where Texaco operated due to a lack of complete records and an absence of comprehensive health care in the region, the only independent expert report submitted at trial, and various independent and peer-reviewed studies all agree that the health impact has been extreme.

    It isn’t the plaintiffs claiming (as Justin would have you believe) that at least 1,401 excess cancer deaths have occurred due to the contamination – it was the finding of the independent, court-appointed expert that that tragedy has occurred.

    The only peer-reviewed, independent studies conducted in the region (and published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health) found rates of cancer in the area in which Texaco operated to be 130% above the Ecuadorian norm, while other studies have found that the risk of spontaneous abortion was 250% times higher among women living in the proximity of oil fields and that these women are also exposed to elevated incidences of genetic defects.

    Despite the extensive evidence of health problems, neither Texaco nor Chevron ever funded a health evaluation of the area, never conducted an environmental impact study, never had a budget line in Ecuador for environmental matters, and never had a pipeline maintenance program. In fact, the company doesn’t even know where the problem might be – it publicly admitted to CBS News’ 60 Minutes that it never even kept a list of the existence and location of the toxic waste pits that the company built across a region the size of Rhode Island.

    II. “Any problem that does exist in the region is Petroecuador’s fault”

    Ever since the evidence in the trial began to prove Chevron’s culpability for the environmental disaster in the region, the company has tried to shift the responsibility for the problem to Petroecuador, the Ecuadorian oil company that inherited Texaco’s flawed infrastructure when Texaco left Ecuador in 1992. But the people in the region are attempting to hold Chevron responsible for the billions of gallons of contamination dumped in their lands while Texaco was the exclusive operator of the concession from 1964-1990, and for the damage caused by the company’s substandard system for years afterwards – damage that today still causes harm to the environment and the tens of thousands of people living in the region. The people are not asking Chevron to clean up any sites that were not designed, built, operated, and abandoned by the company over the 26 years it operated in Ecuador.

    While Petroecuador isn’t perfect and the plaintiffs are not defending it, the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars cleaning up Chevron’s mess and upgrading the flawed system the company abandoned in the country. Chevron has simply spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations specialists to try to evade responsibility for their actions.

    III. “Chevron remediated 37.5% of the pits it built and was released from any further responsibility”

    Chevron’s so-called “remediation,” conducted from 1995-1998, was, at best, ineffective, and, at worst, a fraud. The supposed remediation excluded any clean-up of streams, rivers, or groundwater into which billions of gallons of toxic waste water had been dumped. Of the pits it actually agreed to cleanup, the company unilaterally excluded dozens of toxic waste sites by claiming that the waste pits, full of thick, tar-like drilling byproducts, were somehow being “used” by the local community based on a visual inspection without sampling soils or water to determine whether hydrocarbons were present. At the end of the day, the company actually excluded 84% of the hundreds of waste pits in the region from their remediation program – Justin would have been aware of this, I’m sure, had Chevron actually kept a list of the toxic waste sites it built. Instead, as pointed out in the 60 Minutes piece above, the company has no idea how many sites it built (the actual number of at least 916 was determined by inspecting the whole region) – so it is difficult to see how Chevron can claim that it cleaned up 37.5% of the sites in the region.

    The pits that were actually included in the “remediation” have been shown, through scientific evidence provided at trial, to be as contaminated as the pits that were not touched – it turns out that Chevron’s remediation effort simply bulldozed dirt over the top of at least some of the pits, leaving the poisonous contamination present in the soil. That “remediation” was later the basis for which two senior Chevron lawyers were criminally indicted, along with 7 former Ecuadorian government officials, for conspiring to fake the results of the remediation.

    Notwithstanding the ineffectiveness of the remediation which was at the heart of the release, Chevron’s legal release is absolutely irrelevant to the claims being brought against the company today. The release was between Ecuador’s government and Chevron – NOT the private individuals suing the company today. These private citizens didn’t release anyone, and the actual release which was signed between the government of Ecuador and Chevron explicitly carves out the private claims of the type being pressed in the Lago lawsuit, which was pending at the time the release was negotiated in 1994. No court in either Ecuador or the U.S. has ever accepted Chevron’s claim that the release covers such claims.

  7. John Richmond Says:

    Wait a second, the original article said Texaco drilled 350 wells, but Chevron says it was really 321. That changes the whole picture! I guess Texaco was a great, socially conscious company afterall. And while I thought Texaco did business with a series of right-wing, nasty, US-backed military and pro-military regimes, I guess I was wrong. The government of Ecuador must have been trying to be the “right” thing all along…

    But seriously…is not the problem here the system it itself? Consumer and military-industrial complex capitalism in the North (not to mention years of Communist military-industrial “progress” in Eastern Europe) and the partners in the South – resource based, crony-capitalism? Is this still not the problem in many respects? To solve this will require some new revolutionary way of thinking and a world without Chevron and crooked military regimes…

  8. Celine Says:

    If Justin at Chevron is so good at arguing the point that they are not responsible, one can only assume that Chevron Corporation is also very sure of themselves and their arguments against having caused any damage in this area of the rainforest…so Justin, why the delay with the courts and why not get on with it? And Justin, please explain to us why a video was taped by your company with an alleged ecuadorian official taking a bribe and implicating Judge Nunez who was to decide this case, forcing him to recuse himself in the end without having any involvement with taking any bribes but resigned due to the implication that he was involved. It was later discovered and admitted that Chevron made up the videos and staged the whole thing.

    I would like to hear your comments on that…

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