The Case Against Texaco: Interview with Emergildo Criollo, Cofan Representative

At the last minute, ChevronTexaco asked to suspend the plaintiffs’ inspections of contaminated sites in the historic case against the North American oil company for contamination in the Ecuadorian rainforest.

Though the request was denied by judge Germán Yánez, it was the third time in the last year that ChevronTexaco tried to delay the case, as one of their multiple intents to deny responsibility, although the company has admitted to having illegally dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water. Doesn’t make sense? Well, this is the reality that 30, 000 indigenous and mestizo plaintiffs of the Ecuadorian Amazon are up against for having sued one of the most profitable oil companies on the planet – profits which the inhabitants in the region where Texaco operated from 1964-1992 are still suffering for.

Every day that the case is delayed, the victims of Texaco’s contamination multiply. In the cemetery of the Andina, the community affected by the company’s Cononaco well, and also the site of the last inspection, half of the dead died of cancer, informed Pablo Fajardo, main lawyer of the plaintiffs. Now the plaintiffs are asking ChevronTexaco to announce the dates of its last inspections to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Afterwards, the only thing that is left to do is the estimation of the remediation costs which ChevronTexaco will have to pay if the plaintiffs win the case.  

Next to international observers and the affected people of the region, Emergildo Criollo, Cofan representative of the affected, assisted the plaintiffs’ last inspections which took place from Nov. 14-16, to be able to inform the Cofan people of the advances in the case. His presence is an example of the diversity of the plaintiffs’ coalition, which includes five indigenous nationalities of the region and the mestizos. Moreover, the last inspections took place in Waorani ancestral territory by the wells Auca, Yuca y Cononaco, and included the participation of affected mestizos. On the last day of the plaintiffs’ inspections, the Cofan representative commented on the case.

Today were the last of the plaintiffs’ inspections, do you feel closer to the end of this case?

EC: No, because we should wait to see when we will see the results of all of this. We have to wait. We can’t say, "it’s already here, we’re done now." We already finished. Texaco still has to do ten more inspections. We have to wait how they do too. Today we did our last work and everyone participated, and the students came too, and for that I was content, because that is how we have to be, united, so that Texaco sees that we are pressuring them and to keep pressuring them more. They have always said that there are only two lawyers who are part of this case but that is not true. We all five [indigenous] nationalities are also present. They [ChevronTexaco] say that the affected do not participate, no, that’s not true, we are participating, all of us. The students also came today to protest because children need a clean life or clean air to develop, because if not, due to all the contamination here, the children will become ill.

But one part that I didn’t like of what Texaco’s lawyers said, because they repeated the same word. The public heard, the press heard that Texaco lied when they said there was no contamination. How can there possibly be no contamination? Because an oil spill is carcinogenic contamination but the man said it isn’t. For me it is a shame when they say so, because everyone knows it’s contamination.

Texaco’s lawyer said that the contamination was due to the latrine, what do you think?

EC: We all have latrines; it’s for personal use, right? But it’s not the same as an oil spill. Texaco’s lawyer also said that the dirt from cattle also is contamination but it isn’t. It’s not carcinogenic; it has to do with other illnesses. That is why I think that what the man says is not good because he is lying. It isn’t like that.

How many years have you fought against Texaco?

EC: I opened up this road against Texaco. I was in New York in 1993 to sue in the case against Texaco. I, during this time, was leader of the community. From then on, until today, I keep struggling with this problem we have to make right. Now I am working as a coordinator of a project by FEINCE [The Federation of the Cofan Indigenous Nationality of Ecuador].

This case was criticized, saying that it does not represent the indigenous peoples, what do you think?

EC: That to me isn’t true that it doesn’t represent indigenous peoples because in all the inspections, if it’s in the Cofan sector, the Cofanes participate in the judicial inspection. If it is in a quichua sector, the quichuas participate in the judicial inspection – because it is the people who live in the area who are affected. We all have to be there. But Texaco’s lawyer says that there is no active participation but that is a complete lie.

Do you have any personal memory of how Texaco’s operations affected your community?

EC: In 1976, the first well there in the Lago Agrio sector, well number one, I was six years old at that time, 76 and the first well they did we lived at the banks of the Aguarico river. They [Texaco] arrived in helicopters with the faulty machines. After three months, we had already heard the noise of the machines. We entered to see because at that time we did not yet speak Spanish but we entered to see. And we saw that the platform was already that they were perforating. And after three months, we had already seen an oil spill in a rivlet that passes by there, which passed by the river Aguarico. We were living north of there and it passes where we lived. And we didn’t know what it was nor that it was contaminating. And we always walked on the beach [of the river] and bathed, and afterwards when we began to see skin diseases and the people thought it was best to retreat from there. From Lago Agrio, we retreated south, where the community Dureno is today, that is where we went due to the contamination, because there were contaminants in the river and we couldn’t stay there, there was no way to use the water and that is why we moved south. That is how I personally saw how the oil contamination began during that time.

How has Cofan culture changed due to Texaco’s operations?

EC: Still to this day we have our culture but with Texaco’s arrival it changed completely. We always used to drink chicha, made of yuca, but with Texaco’s arrival, the people began to drink alcohol and with that everything changed. The shaman that we had during that time, in 76, Texaco’s workers killed him with alcohol. They gave him alcohol to drink and afterwards when he got drunk, he died by suffocation. His name was Guillermo Quenamá. He died in 76. Afterwards, the people, little by little, everyone buys alcohol easily. And instead of preparing yucca for three days, they buy directly and drink. [The culture] has changed completely. The language too, sometimes people are ashamed to speak, they don’t want to speak there own language because the Spanish speakers call them Indians. They want to speak Spanish. In regard to the food, before the children grew quickly, we ate animals from the rainforest without contamination. Today there are no more animals in the rainforest; there is only food from town. People work and buy pasta and sardines. That is why the children do not grow quickly and they stay small. That is how people are today in the community.

What do you expect from this case?

EC: We as the Cofan nationality are hoping, all the communities know why we are in this: We want Texaco to assume responsibility for the clean up and indemnization, and that the company cumpla que quieren los afectados.

What do you see in the future of the Cofan people, what are your hopes for your people?

EC: As a Cofan organization, we have discussed that if we win the case, we will then have a hospital in the community, so that the doctors can stay because at the moment we don’t even have health promoters in the community. In the case that we win, we want to have a high school in our own community in order to not lose our language by going to a Spanish-speaking high school. Now, all the children leave to go to school in town and because of that things are changing more and more to Spanish. That’s why we want to have a high school to have good education in our own community.

Hanna Dahlstrom can be reached at hannagoanna(at)

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