WASHINGTON - Leaders of indigenous tribes from the Amazon rainforest have arrived in the United States to fight for a lawsuit that could set a precedent for faraway communities suing multinational companies in courts on the firms' home ground.
The tribal leaders appeared Monday before a federal appeals court in New York, for a hearing that will determine whether their class- action lawsuit can proceed in the United States against the oil company ChevronTexaco. A three-judge appellate panel is expected to rule as early as within the week.
The hearing is a test of the Alien Tort Claims Act, a US law that allows foreign citizens to sue companies with representation in the United States, in US courts, over violations of international law.
The tribal leaders' case, filed on behalf of some 30,000 Ecuadorians including indigenous people, accuses ChevronTexaco of deliberately polluting the rainforest and increasing the risk of cancer for tens of thousands of people. The San Francisco-based company has denied any wrongdoing.
The plaintiffs, convinced that there was no way to obtain justice in Ecuador, brought the case in 1993 to Manhattan, near Texaco's original New York headquarters.
''Our aim is very simple,'' said Humberto Piyaguage, an Ecuadorian citizen who flew from the Amazon to attend Monday's hearing. ''We simply want ChevronTexaco to pay to clean up the damage it caused.''
According to the suit, plaintiffs are seeking compensation for the thousands of people allegedly injured by the pollution, and a court order requiring the company to pay for a cleanup. Attorneys for the Ecuadorians said this could cost more than one billion dollars.
Plaintiffs' lawyers also said the case could not be heard in Ecuador because the legal system there was not sufficiently independent and impartial, and because the judiciary did not recognize class-action suits or tort claims, in which compensation is sought for damages caused by a breach of duty.
When the case was filed, Ecuador's ambassador to the United States opposed the litigation. Following public pressure in Ecuador that favored the lawsuit, the government reversed its stance and now supports the case.
Texaco - which has not operated in Ecuador since 1992 - has maintained that the current lawsuit has no basis and should be heard in Ecuador. The company, which extracted about 1.4 billion gallons of oil from Ecuador over a 20-year period and has since merged with former rival Chevron, argued its operations were consistent with Ecuadorian law and industry standards at the time.
''Texaco was firmly committed to the protection of people and the environment in those areas where we operated,'' the company said in a written response to the lawsuit.
In 1995, Texaco subsidiary TexPet agreed to clean up contamination from oil spills that had affected indigenous communities. The company said it paid about 40 million dollars for this.
According to the plaintiffs, however, the agreement did not compensate the affected communities.
The lawsuit states that Texaco engaged in ''negligent, reckless, deliberate, and outrageous acts'' in the Amazon by installing defective drilling technology that led to the spillage of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater over a 20-year period.
Rather than pump the harmful water back into the ground - which was the industry standard according to the lawsuit - the company dumped it into hundreds of unlined pits dug out of the ground, it claims.
''As a result of the dumping, pits of oil now pock the floor of the rainforest, trees and vegetation are withered and dying, the wetlands are contaminated, the growth of livestock is stunted, and children playing outside are regularly smeared and smattered with oil,'' said a statement released Monday by Frente para la Defense de la Amazonia (Committee for the Defense of the Amazon), a non-profit group based in Ecuador.
Lawyers for the tribal leaders estimated that Texaco saved three to four dollars per barrel by dumping the wastewater into the ground rather than safely pumping it beneath the earth's surface, as it does in the United States.
For each day Texaco operated its wells, it discharged approximately 250,000 barrels (about 10 million gallons) of toxic waste into the rainforest, according to Cristobal Bonifaz, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs. Water and soil samples taken from the floor of the rainforest indicated harmful levels of Benzene, Toluene, Xylenes, and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, he said.
The technology installed by Texaco, now owned by Ecuador's state- owned oil company, was still creating '' an ongoing environmental catastrophe that gets worse by the hour,'' said Cristobal.
Trying to get the case heard in the United States has been an uphill battle. Since 1993, Texaco has repeatedly tried to get the case dismissed and the lawsuit has bounced to and from federal court and the federal court of appeals ever since.
Federal Judge Jed S. Rakoff has dismissed the case twice, arguing that it should be heard in Ecuador. The appeals court reinstated the case in 1998, only to be dismissed two years later by Rakoff. It remained to be seen whether the three-judge appeals court would reinstate the case again.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Press Service