Indigenous peoples battle oil devastation
in U.S. and Ecuadorian courts

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Photo courtesy of CorpWatch

Indigenous peoples take on Texaco

In response to Texaco’s operations in the Oriente, 88 representatives for more than 30,000 indigenous peoples of the Oriente filed a $1 billion lawsuit against the oil corporation in 1993. Fearing they could not get a fair trial in Ecuador, a nation rampant with corruption, the plaintiffs instead brought the case to federal court in Manhattan, the company’s former headquarters. The lawsuit called for the cleanup and restoration of contaminated lands and water supplies, replacement of antiquated production equipment with modern technology, and compensation for victims of pollution.

The plaintiffs alleged that Texaco conducted ''negligent, reckless, deliberate, and outrageous acts'' in the Amazon by operating with sub-standard technology, systematically contaminating their lands for more than 20 years. The plaintiffs argued that Texaco ignored the industry standard of reinserting production waste water back into the ground. Instead the company pumped it into more than 600 unlined pits, from where toxic heavy metal and hydrocarbon contaminants leached into the ground and water. Attorney Cristobal Bonifaz characterized Texaco’s operations as an "apocalyptic environmental nightmare unlike any the rainforest has ever seen."

The case against Texaco was based upon the Alien Tort Claims Act, a U.S. law that allows crimes committed on foreign soil to be tried in the U.S. if either the victim or defendant resides in the U.S. Texaco consistently denied any wrongdoing in its Ecuadorian operations, contending that it adhered to all laws and operational standards of the time.

The case bounced back and forth between federal court and federal appeals court for eight years. In 2002, the Second Circuit Court ruled that the case must be tried in Ecuador, striking a blow to the hopes of indigenous communities. Attorneys for the plaintiffs objected, arguing that Ecuador’s courts did not have experience in tort claims and that corruption in a government dependent on oil revenue could inhibit a fair hearing.

Although the court ruled the case must be tried in Ecuador, it also stipulated in an unprecedented procedure that it would enforce any judgment rendered by the Ecuadorian court. Additionally, the Second Circuit Court promised to send the case back to a trial court in the U.S. if it believes the plaintiffs do not get a fair hearing in Ecuador.

Lago Agrio

On October 22, 2003 the case of Aguinda et al vs. Texaco moved to the Oriente of Ecuador, where a court in the frontier town of Lago Agrio began hearings for the first time in the case. Carla Bass, writing for Platt’s Oilgram News, stated that “the case is not as much about whether the oil wastes exist - they are clearly visible - but about who exactly is responsible.”

Officials and attorneys for Texaco, and its parent company ChevronTexaco, deny responsibility for the devastation of the Oriente, including calls for cleanup efforts and compensation for victims. The rival corporations merged in 2001 to form the second largest energy corporation in the U.S. and fifth largest in the world. They claim that Texaco did not break Ecuadorian law and adhered to environmental standards for oil exploitation. The company’s production practices at the time, they say, were in line with those accepted in other developing nations such as Brazil, Colombia and Nigeria. Furthermore, the defendants state that Petroecuador, the state-run operation that took over its operations, held majority share in Texaco’s Oriente operations during much of the time. Therefore, they argue that any suit should be leveled against Petroecuador.

In late October of 2003, a toxic waste expert hired by the plaintiffs in the case raised the cleanup estimate in the Oriente from $1 billion to over $6 billion. David Russell of Environmental Operations Inc., compared the scale of damage to that of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. ChevronTexaco responded that the the lawsuit is baseless and that the company is not responsible for any cleanup, regardless of the cost. In response to the allegations of negligent and reckless operations in the Oriente, Texaco has published this official statement on its Web site.



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© 2003 Matt Levitch