Chevron’s Environmental Disaster in Ecuador
I grew up with family tales about the unique beauty of Ecuador. My father's family made their living on tourism in the Andes, the Galapagos, and the Amazon. Sadly, what was to us a mysterious and majestic example of the wonder of creation was merely a dumping ground to Texaco. They chose to discard 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the pristine rainforest, poisoning its people.
Texaco left Ecuador in 1992, not long after I finished college, and in their wake was left the worst oil related disaster on the planet. That damage is still there today. Mere weeks ago I stood in front of a toxic waste pit, decades old and yet only a few feet from the home of a family of campesinos. Told the area was cleaned and safe, they bought the land and built their home there. Families like that one have lost more than Chevron, or anyone else, can ever repay.
I found it impossible to witness such a horrific site in contrast to the beauty of the rainforest and not be changed. As much as the smell turns my stomach so does the knowledge that Texaco admitted to dumping it, yet refuses to accept responsibility.
Of course, the affected communities are demanding justice from the company that caused the damage. It's actually a very simple case. There's a massive murder weapon, 30,000 victims and a motive -- profit.
Some Texaco executive, who most likely never set foot in the Amazon, nor ever met any of the indigenous people whose territory Texaco invaded with helicopters and massive machinery, made the cold calculation that saving $3 per barrel was worth the destruction of this part of the rainforest. It still gives me chills to read the 1972 memo from Texaco describing their policy of hiding spills and destroying records.
In fact, every decision that has been made from the very first one to drill has been made to choose profit over people and the environment. Decisions that took only the shortest-term impacts into consideration, yet decisions that would wreak havoc on the world's oldest and largest forest. The toxic waste pits sit there, apparently stagnant, but all the while leaching toxins into the rivers and streams of the Amazon.
Meanwhile, Chevron's decisions to try to cover up its liability continue unchanged, knowing all the while that the resulting inaction means the continued poisoning of entire communities.
The 60 Minutes story that aired this past Sunday has ripped another layer off of Chevron's attempts to bury and ignore this story, like the truly festering wound that it is. The resulting publicity has wiped out much of Chevron's efforts to deceive the financial markets and the general public. I listened to a recent Chevron shareholder call and one of the very first analyst's questions was about the case, it was prefaced with "I know you are not going to be happy about this next question..." Have you seen the internet traffic since Sunday? Chevron is really unhappy this week.
Watching Chevron's strategy in the face of the overwhelming facts and growing awareness is as uncomfortable as watching Chevron spokesperson Sylvia Garrigo compare drinking contaminated water with wearing makeup (a tip for Ms. Garrigo: your cosmetics may very well be harming you, please visit www.safecosmetics.org to learn more). Yet Chevron's executives continue to deny and delay. Time is running out for them and the lies they hide behind (to read Chevron's top ten lies about this case look here). They are learning the hard way that hiding a potential $27 billion dollar liability is just as impossible as hiding 18 billion gallons of toxic waste.
The ease at which Chevron's CEO David O'Reilly (who also happens to be the Chair of the Board) has apparently kept his board in the dark is amazing. Yet, last year that plan came crashing down around him like Bernie Madoff's scheme when O'Reilly was force to disclose to shareholders that it faced a potential liability in the billions in Ecuador.
How does the board of directors miss the hypocrisy of Chevron's "Will You Join Us" ad campaign, asking others to join THEM in making sound environmental and energy efficient choices, while their CEO refuses to seek a real solution to this quagmire? I suppose that is to be expected from a company which bought Texaco without even demanding a master list of all its toxic dump sites in Ecuador (as we learned courtesy of 60 Minutes).
In this economic climate, Chevron's board must realize that they can on longer afford to operate with such poor governance. Their wound is bleeding even more deeply into the social consciousness and Chevron is becoming the poster child for lack of corporate accountability. Today, even the Attorney General of the State of New York is asking tough questions of Chevron.
As my own son grows up I will share with him the same stories of the sacred and timeless beauty of the Amazon. I am confident he will learn from a young age the lesson with which Chevron still grapples. One can only hide from their mistakes for so long, each day you delay facing up to them brings with it a heavier cost, so don't wait until you find that the whole world is at your doorstep demanding justice.
Paul Paz y Miño is the Managing Director of Amazon Watch which works to defend the rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin.