The case, Aguinda v. ChevronTexaco, began on November 3, 1993, when 30,000 people from Ecuador’s Amazon filed a class action suit against Texaco in New York federal court. The trial was then forced to move from New York to a local court in Ecuador in 2002, alleging that any decision required national jurisdiction. Monday Superior Court Judge Nicolás Zambrano ordered Chevron to pay $8.6 billion in damages and twice that amout if they refuse to “publicly apologize to the victims of the Ecuadorian Amazon for the crimes committed.”
The military procession travelled from the end of the pipeline to the highlands of Ecuador, to celebrate the country’s first barrel of crude oil extracted from Lago Agrio, Sucumbios province, on July 26, 1972. Ecuador’s military running the government, dictatorship-style, was honoring the signed contract with Texaco Petroleum Company to fulfill the promise of economic prosperity and development for the small Andean country. Many present during the official ceremony dipped their hands in the thick substance to signal the beginning of a new era. That first barrel of crude oil is still sitting in a corner of the Military School “Eloy Alfaro” museum.
Forty years later, a court in the same small town of Lago Agrio, ruled against the oil company requiring Texaco, now Chevron Corporation, to pay $8.6 billion in damages for polluting the Amazon and permanently affecting the lives of thousands of villagers in the area. According to the plaintiffs, the environmental contamination left by the company in a span of 26 years is ten times worse than the Gulf of Mexico spill.
“We can tell our neighbors and those affected that justice exists. They can dream again of drinking clean water, not with oil residue like we’ve had to drink until now. We can dream that the cleanup of the land can begin and dream of a better way of life,” said Guillermo Grefa, an indigenous Amazon leader.
The residents of Sucumbios spent the last 18 years seeking justice for the environmental damages suffered in their territories by Texaco’s oil exploration. These are mostly indigenous people who before the oil company moved in, were hunters, gatherers, subsistence farmers who depended on the rivers as their main water source. Now the region has the highest incidence of cancer in the country, with an excess of deaths among men from all types of cancer 3.6 times higher in the villages closest to the oil fields, according to a study published in the Occupational Environmental Medicine journal. Child leukemia is three times the national average as well.
Worse stories can be found on the book Las palabras de la selva (The jungle speaks), a psychosociological report on the impact of Texaco’s oil exploration on the Amazon communities of Ecuador published by the Institute of Development and International Cooperation Studies. Based on ground analysis and oral testimonies, the researchers found that 72.4 percent of the population were affected by the land and water pollution generated by the oil fields, although most lacked information about what could be harmful to their health, such as eating dead, contaminated fish. From those interviewed, 87.8 percent reported to have lost their crops and 22.1 percent were forcibly displaced. Indigenous tribes went into a process of “forced acculturation” that meant to many, the loss of spiritual and cultural relations they once had with the rainforest. The introduction of money, alcohol and new diseases forever changed their way of life.
The researchers also found out that sexual violence was also a recurring problem, and despite cultural restraints of shame and silence around these issues, one in seven people said to have known personally, including the names of the victims and incidents details, cases of sexual violence against indigenous women and girls allegedly perpetrated by Texaco workers and settlers.
Between 1964 and 1990, Texaco drilled 399 oil fields in an area as big as 1 million acres (430.000 hectares) and extracted as many as 1,500 barrels of crude oil with a profit of around $30 billion. In the process, Chevron has admitted that Texaco dumped over 18.5 billion gallons of toxic water into streams and soil in the rainforest – about 4 million gallons daily at the height of its operation. According to the Amazon Defense Front, Texaco administered over 900 unlined, open-air waste pits out of the jungle floor and filled them with deadly toxins that were run off via a piping system into nearby streams and rivers. The company also burned or vented millions of cubic meters of natural gas into the atmosphere without adequate controls.
In a confidential memo dated July 17, 1972, Texaco gave specific instructions to its operational base in Ecuador by stating that “only major events as per Oil Spill Response Plan instructions are to be reported”, further clarifying that a major event is that “which attracts the attention of the press and/or regulatory authorities.” That was just the beginning of a series of attempts by Texaco and its parent company since 2001, Chevron, to shadow the truth about the environmental damage inflicted during a time when little regulations existed.
During the length of the trial, the company was accused of constantly manipulating the facts and other acts of corruption, among which the worst was likely the creation of a fake lab in Ecuador to make an “independent assessment” of the environmental damages that surprisingly contradicted the plaintiffs findings. Chevron also held an extensive lobbying campaign in the United States to pressure the Bush administration to force Ecuador to drop the case. There are accusations of case materials that have mysteriously disappeared, and confirmed death threats against the lawyers who represented the affected communities.
The case, Aguinda v. ChevronTexaco, began on November 3, 1993, when 30,000 people from Ecuador’s Amazon filed a class action suit against Texaco in New York federal court. The trial was then forced to move from New York to a local court in Ecuador in 2002, alleging that any decision required national jurisdiction.
In Ecuador, two local judges were removed from the case under direct pressure from Chevron which accused the courts of being corrupt, unfair, and inadequate. This forced each incoming judge to review tens of thousands of documents, as Ecuador’s legal proceedings rely on written instead of oral statements. The third, Nicolás Zambrano, was considered to be a more conservative judge, but he finally ruled against Chevron ordering the company to pay $8.6 billion in damages and twice that amout if they refuse to “publicly apologize to the victims of the Ecuadorian Amazon for the crimes committed.”
“No amount of money will give their lives back and the damage caused by the pollution. However, this amount is not enough to remediate what has been affected,” said Luiz Yanza, co-founder of the Amazon Defense Front. “We have to remember that water, life, the earth were damaged. That many people died. That is why we believe that amount must be reviewed.”
The plaintiffs have announced they will appeal the decision to demand the $27 billion they think is needed to repair the damages done to the environment and improve people’s health in the region. Chevron Corporation has also vowed to appeal, calling the court’s ruling the product of fraud, and is leaning on a recent jurisdiction by a New York judge that blocked any award from this case for 28 days citing the “company [is] of considerable importance to our economy.”
In a statement released by Pablo Fajardo, one of the best-known attorneys representing the indigenous tribes said that rather than accepting responsibility, Chevron continues its campaign of warfare against the Ecuadorian courts.
“We call on the company to end its polemical attacks and search jointly with the plaintiffs for common solutions. We believe the evidence before the court deserves international respect and the plaintiffs will take whatever actions are appropriate consistent with the law to press the claims to a final conclusion,” he said.