The people of Ecuador are rising up to refound their country as a pluri-national homeland for all. This inspiring movement, with Ecuador's indigenous peoples at its heart, is part of the revolution spreading across the Americas, laying the groundwork for a new, fairer, world. Ecuador Rising aims to bring news and analysis of events unfolding in Ecuador to english speakers.

Monday, May 25, 2009

In Ecuador, Resentment of an Oil Company Oozes

Moises Saman for The New York Times

An open oil pit near La Joya de los Sachas, Ecuador.

Published: May 14, 2009

SHUSHUFINDI, Ecuador — Mention to Anita Ruíz the name of the giant oil company Chevron, and she trembles with rage. At her wooden hut here in the Amazon forest, where oil-project flares illuminate the night sky, she points to a portrait of her youngest son, who died seven years ago of leukemia at age 16.

“We believe the American oilmen created the pollution that killed my son,” said Ms. Ruíz, 58, who lives in a clearing where Texaco, the American oil company that Chevron acquired in 2001, once poured oil waste into pits used decades ago for drilling wells.

Texaco’s roughnecks are long gone, but black gunk from the pits seeps to the topsoil here and in dozens of other spots in Ecuador’s northeastern jungle. These days the only Chevron employees who visit the former oil fields, in a region where resentment against the company runs high, do so escorted by bodyguards toting guns.

They represent one side in a bitter fight that is developing into the world’s largest environmental lawsuit, with $27 billion in potential damages.

Chevron is preparing for a ruling by a lone judge in a tiny courtroom on the top floor of a shopping center in Lago Agrio, a town rife with slums that Texaco founded in the 1960s as its base camp in the Amazon.

Chevron faces claims for an era when oil companies were less purposeful about protecting the environment than they are today. It also faces potentially huge damages in a country where American corporations once wielded strong influence but are now treated with discourtesy, if not contempt.

The sympathies of the judge, a former military officer named Juan Nuñez, are not hard to discern, and he appears likely to rule against Chevron this year. “This is a fight between a Goliath and people who cannot even pay their bills,” Mr. Nuñez, 57, said in an interview in his office, where more than 100,000 pages of evidence were stacked to the ceiling.

But his ruling is not likely to end the case. Already, the dispute is the subject of intense lobbying in Washington, which could apply pressure to Ecuador on Chevron’s behalf. If the company loses, it is ready to pursue appeals in Ecuador and, if necessary, to seek international arbitration.

Texaco laid down stakes here in the 1960s, and began producing oil in the early 1970s when Ecuador was still under military rule. Before the oil began to flow, the region was inhabited by forest tribes, including the Cofán and the Siona-Secoya.

Political tension permeated Texaco’s presence in Ecuador much of the time it operated here in a partnership with the government, and by the time it was prepared to leave, in the early 1990s, a cleanup of its operations was needed.

So Texaco reached a $40 million agreement with Ecuador to clean a portion of the well sites and waste pits in its concession area, absolving it of future liability. But that cleanup, carried out in the 1990s, was far from the bookend Texaco hoped to achieve.

Instead, villagers in Ecuador became convinced they were getting sick from the pollution left behind. They filed suit in 1993 in the United States, and later claimed that their grievances were not covered by Texaco’s settlement agreement.

As the case snaked its way through American courts, Ecuador seemed to fall to pieces, going through 10 presidents in a decade by 2006. The American lawsuit was eventually thrown out, on grounds the case should not be tried in the United States, and the plaintiffs reformulated it and filed it here.

Today, Chevron has absorbed Texaco, and Ecuador has gone through a metamorphosis under the leftist President Rafael Correa. He has repeatedly sided with the plaintiffs, calling Chevron’s Ecuadorean past “a crime against humanity.”

Such sentiment holds strong appeal to those who claim that people here, like Ms. Ruíz’s 16-year-old son, are dying from the pollution that Texaco spawned. Citing scientific studies, the plaintiffs claim that toxic chemicals from Texaco’s waste pits, including benzene, which is known to induce leukemia, have leached for decades into soil, groundwater and streams. A report last year by Richard Cabrera, a geologist and court-appointed expert, estimated that 1,400 people in this jungle region — perhaps more — had died of cancer because of oil contamination.

Chevron rejected the claims, contending that Mr. Cabrera had no medical evidence to back up his conclusion that the company should pay $2.9 billion just to compensate for excess cancer deaths.

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