In Ecuador, taking an
oil giant to task
International Herald Tribune
by César Chelala and Alejandro M.
NEW YORK- Drilling for oil without adequate safeguards is
one of the most destructive processes to man and the
environment. This fact has been particularly apparent in
the Ecuadorean area of the Amazon basin, where Texaco -
which later merged with Chevron - drilled for oil from
1964 through 1992. ChevronTexaco is now facing a
billion-dollar legal battle for polluting significant
portions of the Ecuadorean Amazon. The outcome of this
legal battle will set the standards under which powerful
multinational companies will be held accountable for
harming the health of the population in their working
areas, and for polluting the environment in many
Oil exploration involves a complex set of activities,
starting with the construction of roads into remote areas,
destroying the natural habitat. Waste substances from oil
drilling are stored in pits. Unless these pits are
properly lined, toxic substances leak into the water
supply, polluting rivers and lakes, killing fish, and
threatening the survival of people and livestock.
Such toxic dumping has affected a local indigenous
community of 30,000 people in Ecuador, and has led to a
loss of one million hectares, or 2.5 million acres, of
rain forest. The "Yana Curi" report (from the
local indigenous expression for oil) was one of the first
studies on the effects of oil pollution on people's health
in the northeast region of the Ecuadorean Amazon. The
study was conducted in the village of San Carlos, where
more than 30 wells were built by Texaco; it was prepared
by two medical doctors in collaboration with the
Department of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene at the
University of London.
According to the study, exposure to toxic substances
resulted from absorption through the skin, ingestion of
food and water and inhalation of oil and its gases. The
study estimates that the water used by local residents for
drinking, bathing and washing clothes contains nearly 150
times the amount of substances such as hydrocarbons that
is considered safe.
Some cancer rates in San Carlos exceeded the standard
rates by up to 30 times. Risk of melanoma and cancer of
the stomach, liver and bile duct is 2.3 times higher for
those living in San Carlos than elsewhere in the Amazon
region. The rates of spontaneous abortion in the affected
population were 2.5 times higher than in communities in
the area not exposed to contamination. Texaco said these
results were only preliminary and not worth analyzing.
According to Cristóbal Bonifaz, one of the plaintiffs'
representatives, ChevronTexaco used inadequate extraction
techniques. As a consequence, waste products were spilled
into creeks and rivers rather than pumped back into the
ground, as it is common practice now and it was then.
Because of pipe breaks, Bonifaz said, more raw crude was
pumped into the ground of the Ecuadorean Amazon than the
Exxon Valdez spilled into Prince William Sound, Alaska, in
In November 1993, a lawsuit on behalf of residents of the
rain forest area known as Oriente was initiated in a
federal court in New York, close to Texaco's international
headquarters in Westchester County. The suit charges that
Texaco dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste into
hundreds of unlined open pits and from there into
estuaries and rivers, thus exposing residents to
disease-causing pollutants. The plaintiffs seek a thorough
cleanup of the area, an assessment of the long-term health
effects of the contamination and damage compensation that
may exceed $1 billion.
Despite being sued on its own home turf, ChevronTexaco
fought fiercely to have the case dismissed. After more
than 10 years of litigation on this jurisdictional issue
alone, a federal appeals court finally ruled that
"reasons of convenience" pointed to the
jurisdiction of a ruralEcuadorean court.
It remains to be seen whether a case of this magnitude may
be tried fairly and expeditiously by a poorly equipped
judicial machinery in Ecuador. If the Ecuadorean court
were to uphold rigorous standards for the protection of
health and the environment, U.S.-$ based multinationals
would conduct business abroad under more strict rules and
regulations. A fair and relatively prompt outcome to this
suit would be not only a victory for the environment, but
also for the thousands of indigenous peoples in developing
countries whose survival and quality of life continues to
be affected by oil drilling without adequate safeguards.
César Chelala is an international public health
consultant. Alejandro M. Garro is a professor of law at
Columbia University, New York.