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,
sulpheric 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 heard about what has been called "Chevron's Chernobyl in the
Amazon" for years. But nothing could prepare me for the horror I
witnessed this week in 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 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
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 the 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