A dark chapter in the annals of oil extraction began in 1967, when Texaco, now Chevron Texaco, discovered commercially valuable oil in traditional indigenous territories in what is known as the Oriente region of Ecuador. This area is also known as the Ecuadorian Amazon, located in the Upper Amazon basin which covers portions of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The Ecuadorian Amazon is a biodiversity hot-spot containing one of the planet’s largest array of species, including 17% of the world’s bird species, large cats like the puma and jaguar, and at least 222 different orchids.
And it is inside the Ecuadorian Amazon where Texaco began oil drilling operations that would continue over the next two decades. The main pipeline, built across known fault-lines, spilled 16.8 million gallons of crude oil—one and a half times the amount of the Exxon Valdez oil spill—into the pristine tropical rainforests. In order to save money, Texaco cut corners instead of following industry-approved standards of safety. Normally, the toxins used for the drilling and separation process of oil production are re-injected into the earth at the same subterranean level from which the oil was extracted. Texaco merely scratched the surface by creating over 300 un-lined pits that became a “toxic soup” of brine, crude, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a well-known carcinogen) and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). While these unlined pits of toxins would be hazardous to any environment, they are especially so in the Amazon region where the extraordinary delicacy of the lush forest is held together through thousands of web-like streams and rivulets.
Indigenous communities faced nothing short of an invasion as Texaco employees and contractors opened previously inaccessible areas of rainforest with roads and pipelines. While the Ecuadorian government colluded with Texaco by considering traditional lands inhabited by indigenous people as “vacant” and by providing the brutal muscle of their military, Texaco’s takeover was very much choreographed by the multi-national corporation itself. The last indigenous Tetetes—now extinct as a people—fled their homelands near Lago Agrio, the boom town that sprang up around Texaco’s first commercial field. Indigenous Cofan, Quichua and Secoya also lost lands to infrastructure and the flood of colonists who followed oil roads into the rainforest. The Huaroni, a nomadic warrior people, tried to drive off the oil invaders with hardwood spears. In response, Texaco collaborated with Ecuador’s government and U.S.-based missionaries to pacify them. Using Texaco-supplied aircraft, missionaries contacted and physically removed some 200 Huaroni from the path of Texaco’s work crews to a distant Christian settlement. Other Huaroni fled deeper into the forest.
In addition to violently disrupting forest peoples’ way of life, Texaco’s operations created poverty among them by damaging natural resources that they use for nutritional, medicinal domestic, religious and recreational purposes. Arceliano Illenez of Federacion de Comunias Union de Nativas de las Amazonia Ecuadoriana (FCUNAE), states: “Before Texaco arrived…our rivers, lakes and streams had many fish; their waters were clean…and there were ample game in the forest…everything has changed. Texaco…destroyed forests, contaminated rivers and the environment, made fish and animals disappear, destroyed soils…the colonists came and our lands were occupied by strangers.”
In the headwaters of an ecosystem known round the world for holding 20-25% of the planet’s flowing fresh water, many families no longer have enough food and must use contaminated rivers and streams for drinking, fishing, bathing and laundry. It’s even worse: in growing numbers, residents of the Oriente suffer from chronic and acute illnesses, including cancer, a disease that was non-existent before Texaco arrived, and an increasing number of children have been born with genetic deformities.
Facing pressure from environmental and human rights activists in Ecuador and around the world decades after operations began, Texaco announced that it would clean up its mess. The so-called “clean-up” was negotiated in secret with the government of Ecuador and undertaken in 1995-1998. At many sites, no action was taken at all. At others, contaminated liquids, soils and vegetation were irresponsibly dumped, buried and burned. For the most part, the clean-up was cosmetic—covering toxic pits with dirt and foliage and tucking debris out of sight from roadways--and the pollutants continue to circulate throughout the environment.
Despite the lack of any meaningful decontamination of the Oriente, in 1998, the Ecuadorian government “absolved and forever freed” Texaco from any “claim or litigation” by the government of Ecuador.
In 1993, a year after Texaco left Ecuador, a class action lawsuit was filed against the US-based company in federal court in White Plains, New York, on behalf of the 30,000 indigenous and settler residents who have been harmed by the company’s pollution. In 2002, after nine years of arguments, the case was dismissed not because of the merits of the plaintiffs but because the court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction. There appears to be no current legal remedy in the U.S. for the affected communities as the federal court has essentially sent this case back to Ecuador.
Although efforts are being made to mount a legal battle in Ecuador, there are no precedents there, and there is cause for concern about the ability of the courts to solve these problems and administer justice because the courts are corrupt, politicized and inefficient.
The ecological and attendant social ills begun by Texaco set an industry standard that continues unabated to this day with production facilities operated by Petroecuador, Ecuador’s national oil company. Workers at Petroecuador were so poorly informed of industry hazards associated that they put oil on their heads because they thought it would prevent balding. Texaco’s legacy continues to this day:
• Hundreds of wells continue to dump some 5 million gallons of toxic waste into the rainforests every day;
• Hundreds of miles of old pipelines still regularly spill oil into soils and waters;
• Dozens of flares burn gas associated with oil waste, contaminating the air with greenhouse gases, precursors of acid rain and other pollutants that probably include dioxin.
When ABC Nightline visited the sites of Texaco’s purported clean-up, they stated the following: “It certainly sounds like something Hollywood might cook up, but this story is very real…It’s a sad story, the history of oil in Ecuador. It’s a story of a weak Ecuadorian government selling out the needs of the citizens and the ecology of the Oriente in favor of economic development and the interests of a major multinational corporation.”
For more information about our campaign to compel ChevronToxico to clean up its mess in the Amazon, go to amazoncrude.org, the special section of our website donated to Makarik Nihua, an alliance of effected indigenous communities.
For information about alternatives to rainforest oil, go to the Alternatives section.