May 09, 2009
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
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
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
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.
Paz y Mino is the Managing Director of Amazon Watch which works to
defend the rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples in
the Amazon Basin.
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