LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador - Traces of paradise are still visible. From the air, the rainforest region in northern Ecuador – known as the Oriente – appears as silvery mist and swaths of verdant green.
But beneath the cloud cover and canopy, the jungle is a tangle of oil slicks, festering sludge, and rusted pipeline. Smokestacks sprout from the ground, spewing throat-burning fumes into the air. Wastewater from unlined pits seeps into the groundwater and flows into the rivers and streams.
This nightmarish landscape is the legacy of Texaco. Between 1964 and 1990, Texaco (which was acquired by Chevron in 2001) drilled roughly 350 wells across 2,700 square miles of Amazon rainforest. It extracted some $30 billion in profits while deliberately dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic soup, known as production water a mixture of oil, sulphuric acid, and other carcinogens into the streams and rivers where people collect drinking water, fish, bathe and swim.
In the process, Texaco constructed over 900 oil sludge pits, many the size of Olympic swimming pools. Unlike swimming pools, these pits were unlined punctures in the earth. With no concrete to protect the surrounding soil, poison seeped into the ground water.
I had head about what has been called “Chevron’s Chernobyl in the Amazon” for years. But nothing could prepare me for the horror I witnessed during my three-day visit to Ecuador.
I held a dragonfly covered in oil in my hands, desperately and hopelessly trying to flutter its wings. I saw pig footprints in the mud next to the oily gunk, where it had eaten contaminated grass, and will soon be contaminating the children, women, and men, who in turn feed on Chevron’s waste.
I met a man who told me his two children died after swimming in contaminated water. One died within 24 hours. The other writhed in agony for six months before his poor body gave way.
I met another man whose home is just a few hundred yards from one of the pits. He has 10 children. All of them have become sick, some covered with sores. His chickens and pigs have died. Nothing grows near his home.
I saw a poisonous pit abandoned by Texaco in 1974 and never used by any other company. The pipes leading from that pit have clear liquid running from them. When I put the liquid to my nose, it smelled like gasoline. It runs directly into an adjoining stream, which is the main source of drinking water for people who live along its banks.
We heard terrifying stories of mistreatment by Texaco workers: women raped; shamans taken by helicopter to far mountain ranges to see if they could find their way back; Indians told that rubbing oil on their bald scalps would make their hair grow long and thick; and Texaco trucks that dumped oil waste on roads where people walked and suffered the burns of sticky tar in the hot sun.
This is not a matter of misty-eyed nostalgia. This is an issue of human rights clear violations of the indigenous Ecuadoreans’ rights to life, security, and self-determination.
When Texaco oilmen descended from helicopters into the jungle in the early 1960s, they gifted the locals with bread, cheese, plates, and spoons. To this day, this is the only compensation any of the indigenous groups have ever received.
Never were they asked for their permission before Texaco executives negotiated a contract with Ecuadorean government officials.
Texaco knew people would die because of what they were doing, and they ignored it. At last count, 1,400 children, women, and men have died of illnesses directly attributed to Texaco’s contamination. Cancer rates in communities affected by oil activity are 30 times higher than anywhere else in the country. Other medical teams have documented elevated rates of birth defects, miscarriages, skin disease, and nerve damage.
Two nomadic groups that once inhabited the region, the Tetetes and the Sansahuari, have been wiped out. What Texaco did arguably amounts to criminally negligent homicide.
Now, the remaining indigenous peoples of the Oriente the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa and Huaorani people have taken the fight to Chevron. Organized by a grassroots organization called the Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia the Amazon Defense Coalition – they are simply demanding through an unprecedented class action lawsuit that Chevron clean up its mess.
The case is now in its 16th year. Chevron (whose human rights statement reads, “We value and respect the cultures and traditions of the many communities in which we work”) has tossed up one delay after another.
Yet, the evidence of Texaco’s wrongdoing is plain for all to see. Last year, an unnamed Chevron lobbyist was quoted as saying the lesson of Ecuador is that “We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies like this companies that have made big investments around the world.”
But as an American, I am appalled that a corporation from our country would treat innocent people with such disdain. We consumers, investors, elected officials, journalists, activists, and citizens must hold Chevron accountable for its actions, and see that justice is done.
Here in the Oriente, 45 years after Texaco first bore into the ground 16 years after the Ecuadoreans began their fight for justice traces of paradise are still visible. We must not allow them to vanish.