In the northern region of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, indigenous communities thrived, enjoying their lush forestry and their pristine waters for hundreds of years. This was all true until Chevron Corporation, American multinational energy corporation, needed more oil.
Chevron Created the “Amazon’s Chernobyl”
Over the course of three decades, the oil company Texaco (now Chevron) drilled the land in a search for oil in a sensitive part of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest known as the Oriente. The extent of Chevron’s human rights abuses that were a direct consequence of these drillings is staggering. From 1964 to 1990, they contaminated the land and water until the native communities were left with a severe public health crisis and almost total degradation of their traditional ways of life.
A court-appointed independent expert confirmed Chevron’s responsibility in over 1,400 cases of cancer. Studies have shown elevated rates of childhood leukemia and an abnormal number of miscarriages and children born with birth defects.
The Tragedy Was No Accident
This was not a one-time accident like the infamous Exxon oil spill that occurred in 1989 and that killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, otters, seals and whales. Texaco’s pollution was systematic. They used cost-cutting technology that operated below legal standards, deliberately leaving one thousand unlined, open-air toxic waste pits behind.
The Amazonian natives subsisted on their local rivers and streams for drinking water, fish and cultural traditions. So when Texaco intentionally dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into these rivers, the Amazonian ecosystem and way of life were forever damaged.
The strongest pain lies beyond numbers. Amazon Watch, a nonprofit organization that protects the Amazon rainforest, shared a testimony from a woman living 20 yards from an oil well in which she stated that she lost her son Pedro when he was 19. He had three cancerous tumors: in his lungs, liver and his leg. This was all result of oil wastage and environmental destruction.
An indigenous man from the Shuar community living near the oil fields explained his struggle to ChevronToxico: “Our children loved to fish and swim in the river. They came home covered in crude. We fried the fish they caught and the fish tasted like diesel.”
The nonprofit organization, ClearWater, was founded in 2011 with the goal of bringing clean drinking water to the indigenous communities affected by Chevron’s human rights abuses.
ClearWater is a collaborative project between an Amazonian indigenous organization known as Ceibo Alliance and several American organizations, including the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
So far, they’ve installed 1,052 rainwater catchment systems and helped 6,182 people drink clean water. This organization is one of many that helps address the issues of the people in the rainforest.
Amazonian Defense Coalition
Following Chevron’s human rights abuses, 80 indigenous Ecuadorians joined together to take legal action. With the help of experienced attorneys, they formed a grassroots organization called the Amazonian Defense Coalition (ADC). The lawyers represent indigenous people through a contingency fee model, meaning that there is no upfront charge for their services and that the lawyers would only be paid a small percentage of the recovery if they won.
The ADC took Chevron to court in Ecuador and won a $9.5 billion compensation for the indigenous people and villagers affected. Chevron refused to pay.
Instead, they retaliated by bringing a racketeering lawsuit against the ADC in a New York court. Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled in favor of Chevron and blocked enforcement of the Ecuadorian court’s order. Steven Donziger, a lawyer with the Amazonian Defense Coalition, has said that they do not have any hope that they will achieve environmental justice on U.S. courts.
But the Coalition isn’t backing down. They’re now working on bringing lawsuits against Chevron in other countries, namely Canada and Brazil.
The Amazonian Defense Coalition’s fight against Chevron’s human rights abuses sends a clear message: corporations cannot continue exploiting native communities and then expect them to stay silent. Indigenous self-determination is changing the landscape of the fossil fuel industry.
With the help of dedicated nonprofit organizations among others, indigenous communities are leading the fight for our planet and the fight for people over profit.
– Ivana Bozic