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US actress Mia Farrow at a oil spill earlier this year that Ecuador's government blames Chevron for. (Photo: Government of Ecuador)
Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ecuador: Do the Right Thing

Ecuador’s government needs to think about environmental victims instead of the Chevron lawsuit.




To visit small towns in the arc of oil production between Coca, Lago Agrio, and Shushufindi implies risking a confrontation with the toxic legacy left over from the first 20 years of oil production in Ecuador (1972-1993). Particularly in a place like San Carlos near Sacha, a brief walk around town will put visitors into contact with families suffering from a number of ailments like cancers or skin diseases.

Who is to blame for the more than 16 billion gallons (64 billion liters) of oil and poisonous waste water that seeped into rivers and streams during that time lies at the heart of the legal dispute over who should pay for the cleanup, pitting US oil major Chevron against a group of 4 dozen Ecuadorian plaintiffs represented by US and Ecuadorian lawyers. Texaco, taken over by Chevron in 2001, ran the operations in a consortium with state oil company CEPE (now Petroecuador). The plaintiffs’ lawyers, the main protagonists on the plaintiffs’ side and supported by the Correa administration, insist that Chevron pay up the $9.2 billion of the current damage award set in Ecuadorian courts. The company says that the plaintiffs’ lawyers won the suit here fraudulently, and point to a March US court ruling by New York judge Lewis Kaplan that agrees with its criticism.

With the case making global news given the size of the damage award and the increasing interest of green topics, the publicity surrounding the trial has led something of a cottage travel industry to emerge in the affected area via the so-called “Toxic Tour.” Beyond those that have gone ahead for years, since last September, a government-funded, albeit New York-based public relations company, MCSquared, real and borderline celebrities have visited a number of sites in the area, most commonly over the past 12 years a pit with leftover oil residue called Aguarico-4 which the government insists is now Chevron’s fault, despite ample documentary evidence to the contrary.

Environment minister Lorena Tapia and Ecuador’s ambassador to the US, Nathalie Cely, went there as part of the government’s “Dirty Hand of Chevron” campaign on July 28. When Tapia announced plans for a cleanup in comments largely picked up only by government media and Spanish newswire Efe, she received angry rebuttals from Ecuadorian plaintiffs’ lawyers. They accused her of playing into Chevron’s hands because she had said that the government would collect data on oil pollution’s impact on health, as well as the damage attributable to Texaco. The lawyers took offense, arguing that this undermined the evidence presented in the trial in Ecuador. This culminated in a letter signed by lawyer Pablo Fajardo and Secoya community leader Humberto Piaguaje that ordered Tapia, after all a cabinet minister, to “carry out the respective clarifications and to abstain from emitting opinions that run contrary to the laws of the republic, the sentences issued by Ecuadorian courts and the policy of respect upheld by the national government itself.” Tapia, normally a combative individual, obeyed, sending a letter to government newspaper El Telégrafo, telling the paper that it had “misinterpreted” her comments. According to Tapia, the damage assessment will only refer to pollution attributable to Petroecuador.

The lawyers’ complaints come, as we noted above, as people continue to suffer from decades of environmentally substandard oil operations. These include numerous spills for which Petroecuador has been responsible since Texaco left Ecuador in the 1990s, being absolved from responsibility by a democratically elected government in 1998 following a cleanup operation (Chevron's accusers say that this cleanup was substandard too).

To quantify the responsibility of each company involved, including Texaco, Gulf, and Petroecuador, amid varying percentages of ownership and operational control, is a daunting task. As judge Kaplan noted, Chevron might even bear some responsibility, but that has no relationship with the fraud Kaplan said he identified in the lawyers’ victories in Ecuador. Irrespective of whether the lawyers will eventually, at a currently indiscernible time, manage to force Chevron to pay, help for the people in contaminated areas is decades overdue. Rather than ignoring the suit, of which Fajardo and Piaguaje blamed Tapia, to fail to clean up the hundreds of residual sites is irresponsible and makes her accusers look like ambulance chasers rather than individuals genuinely concerned for the welfare of the affected people.

The absence of a cleanup and the supply of clean water represents a clear failure by local and national authorities to act, including to a significant extent the present central government, which has benefitted from unprecedented political control and oil windfalls.

This commentary originally appeared in Ecuador Weekly Report published by Analytica. Republished with permission.

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