Ecuador: Oil, Indigenous Peoples and the Environment

Indigenous Communities Demand Respect for their Collective Rights

Ecuador- The Superior Justice Court of the northern city of Nueva Loja, on the Colombian border, accepted May 14 a lawsuit against the US transnational oil company Texaco. Representatives of 30,000 indigenous people and campesinos affected by oil exploration and extraction in the northeastern provinces of Sucumbos and Orellana have been working on the case for almost a decade.

The lawsuit is the offshoot of a case originally brought against Texaco in a US federal court in 1993. That case wound for years through the legal system until last year, when the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that it was a matter to be decided in Ecuador. Prosecuting lawyer, Alberto Wray, said "now we can take on the company in this country [Ecuador]. It wasnt possible before because [Chevron]Texaco does not have a local branch."

According to the prosecutors, between 1964 and 1992, Texaco which merged with Chevron in 2000 to become the fourth largest oil company in the world spilled 16 million gallons of crude and 20 billion gallons of contaminated water in the area. The local communities, who report increased incidences of people affected by cancer, miscarriages and respiratory problems, are demanding compensation of US$1.5 billion for damages to their health and the environment (LP, Jan. 17, 2000).

Luis Yanza, director of the Amazon Defense Front, which represents the Siona, Secoya, Cofn and Huaorani communities, said that the lawsuit against the US company is a good opportunity for the Ecuadoran judges to demonstrate that a small country can administer justice "even when confronted by an economic monster like [Chevron]Texaco."

The Ecuadoran court has stated that it requires by law the courtroom presence of the executive president of ChevronTexaco, David OReilly, who resides in the United States. "The oil company is obliged to be present in the jurisdiction of the Ecuadoran judges, because that was the judgment of the appeals court in the United States," said Paola Delgado, a member of the plaintiffs legal team.

"The lawsuit against ChevronTexaco is of national importance and thats why were forcing them to reverse the [environmental] damage caused by using obsolete technology," said Esperanza Martnez, of Ecological Action, one of the social organizations involved in the prosecution. Wray also insisted that more important than economic compensation "is the clean up of all the sources of pollution that are killing the people."

ChevronTexaco does not deny the pollution, but says in its defense that it is not directly responsible since Texaco Oil Company had yet to merge with Chevron when the events took place. Furthermore, from its headquarters in California, ChevronTexaco insisted that it had complied with Ecuadoran Law and paid for a clean up operation, which ended in 1998.

Indigenous and campesino organizations from the Amazon filed the first lawsuit in a New York court Nov. 3, 1993. On May 4, 1995, Texaco and the Ecuadoran government agreed that the oil company would spend $15 million on "an environmental clean up and completion of obligations, responsibilities and demands."

However, environmental organizations, including Ecological Action, and the affected communities complained that the clean up was insufficient and that the same problems persisted. Toribo Aguinda, a Cofn representative, said dozens of pools of crude were left behind in the fincas and communities of the region (LP, March 15, 1999). He also said that the company constructed waste spillways just meters from houses, provoking the infection and death of hundreds of people and animals in the last three decades.

Company spokesman Chris Gidez said, "We have not seen the [new] lawsuit, and therefore cannot comment. However, we consider the declarations of the prosecuting lawyers to be outrageous, irresponsible and baseless. Ever since they began their legal actions 10 years ago, the plaintiffs have not presented any credible and independently substantiated evidence that backs up their allegations."

The company has also received strong criticism from the Quichua people of Sarayaku, in the eastern province of Pastaza, in the central Amazon, for the activities of its local affiliate, CGC-ChevronTexaco (LP, March 26, 2003). The Governing Council of the Quichua People of Sarayaku and other communities in the area presented a declaration to Ecuadoran authorities last November in which they refused to accept well drilling and petroleum production in their territory.

The president of the Ecuadoran Congresss Commission for the Affairs of Indigenous and other Ethnicities, Ricardo Ulcuango, backs the campaign and advised the government to respect indigenous rights on the grounds that the oil company, by ignoring the communities decision, is in violation of the Constitution.

"Both the International Labor Organizations Convention 169 and the Ecuadoran Constitution establish that the collective rights of indigenous communities must be respected and that the communities must be consulted when they could be affected by oil exploration or mining," said Ulcuango.

Without permission from the community of Sarayaku, however, CGC workers set up camp in indigenous territory in January and at the end of April the company has reportedly used armed groups to pressure community leaders to reverse their decision. "We ask that our wishes be respected, as it is written in the countrys Constitution," said Franco Viteri, a Sarayaku leader.

On May 5, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Ecuadoran government to take whatever measures necessary to protect the life and integrity of the Sarayaku community.

AMP Section Name:Energy

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