The huge multinational US oil corporation Texaco operated in Ecuador from 1964 until 1992 (Texaco merged with Chevron in 2001).
The corporation poured 72 billion litres of oil waste and 45 million litres of crude oil over 2 million hectares of land in Santa Elena province — land which included the Amazon rainforest, rivers and agricultural land.
Texaco just poured the oil into ground-connected pipes which just poured oil directly into the rivers and forests.
It is one of the worst ecological disasters in history — 30 times greater than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and 85 times greater than the Gulf of Mexico spill by British Petroleum (BP) in 2010. During the supposed clean up in the provinces of Sucumbios and Orellana, before it left Ecuador, Texaco hid over a thousand different swamps of toxic waste throughout the rainforests, dumping a layer of topsoil over them.
Recently, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa put his hand into one of these hidden pools and brought it out covered in oil muck. Toxic waste is still polluting the groundwater, the rainforest and the atmosphere.
Ecuadoran lawyer Pablo Fajardo explained the legal battle the Ecuador has been fighting for 21 years to the Latin American Social Forum in Sydney on February 7 by Skype.
Another Ecuadorian lawyer, Maria del Mar Gallegos, spoke to Gren Left Weekly about the details of the case against Chevron-Texaco.
What is particularly galling to Ecuadorans is that the corporation could not have legally carried out this degree of contamination in the US. During this same time, Texaco had patented a technology that significantly diminished pollution from oil and gas operations but in Ecuador, Texaco never used it, in order to obtain as much profit as possible.
The company even told the villagers that the oil-contaminated water would make them stronger, that the water was rich in vitamins and minerals. There are over 2000 deaths from cancer, many of them children, related to the oil waste in the rivers. The ratio of cancers in the rural area compared with the urban areas is 3 to 1.
The tribal groups living in the forests used the contaminated water for drinking, to grow food and for washing. They had no other source of water.
Chevron burnt toxic gas, producing huge flames, day and night, during these four decades. Two of the Amazon tribes, the Tetetes and the Sansahuari, have disappeared. Two other tribes, the Cofarestiona and the Siekope, had to migrate away from their land. The rainforest in Ecuador is now called the Amazon Chernobyl.
In 1964, the military dictatorship of Ecuador awarded Texaco-Gulf Consortium a 40-year contract on 1.5 billion hectares of Amazon rainforest, inhabited by indigenous communities. The ownership of the land and the oil wells is complicated but very often the oil companies disrespected the contract and did not pay full royalties and taxes to the Ecuadorian government.
In 1993, the local people organised in the Amazon Defence Coalition to demand restoration of the environment and compensation to the people and communities. The government of US puppet Jamil Mahuad signed an agreement in 1998 releasing Texaco from any claims from the Ecuadorian government.
Texaco thought it was off the hook, but this agreement did not release the oil company from its obligations to the people of Ecuador. The Amazon Defence Coalition, not the Ecuadoran government, sued Chevron-Texaco.
In a ten year court battle in New York Chevron-Texaco insisted that the case be transferred to a court in Ecuador. In 2002, the US courts approved the transfer and the company undertook to respect the decisions of the Ecuadoran courts.
Chevron-Texaco thought it was onto a winner. Ecuadoran judges could be easily bribed and it would get a favourable judgment.
In 2003, the Amazon Defence Coalition, representing 30,000 indigenous people, again sued Chevron-Texaco through the Ecuadoran courts. Chevron-Texaco certainly did not foresee the radical change taking place in 2006 in Ecuador with the election of Rafael Correa.
The Amazon Defence Coalition won in 2011, the multinational was found guilty and Judge Nicolas Zambrano ordered Chevron-Texaco to pay US$9.6 billion for the environmental disaster and apologise — within two weeks, otherwise the amount would double.
Chevron refused to apologise and in 2012 the Ecuadoran courts ratified the payment of $19 billion to be used in part for the education and health of the indigenous communities. The decision was upheld in an appeal in 2012 although the amount was reduced to $9.5 billion.
In retaliation, Chevron launched a full-scale attack on the Ecuadorian legal system, saying it had “no value, no validity and that it was eaten up by corruption”. Chevron employed 2000 lawyers and spent an estimated US$2 billion in the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague to force the Ecuadorian State to take over liability for the debt.
Another legal case was launched by Chevron-Texaco, in New York against the Ecuadorian state and all the plaintiffs, including students, activists and even a cartoonist, saying they were all guilty of a conspiracy to defraud and defame Chevron. The Ecuadorian government was included, even though it had never sued Chevron or been a plaintiff in these legal cases.
Chevron used the laws known as RICO, Racketeer-Influenced Corrupt Organisation, to accuse the Ecuadorian plaintiffs of the conspiracy.
These laws were originally introduced in the US to combat the Mafia.
Chevron won the case in New York in March last year and, as a result, no enforcement of the compensation to be paid to Ecuador can be carried out on US soil. The corporation is totally protected inside the US.
The annual profits of Chevron-Texaco in 2012 were US$26.2 billion, equivalent to US$3 million an hour. At the same time, BP lost its appeal for liability of compensation payouts that will surpass $15 billion for the Gulf of Mexico disaster.
Chevron has also employed 20 different media firms to spread lies and misinformation against Ecuador using websites such as TheAmazonPost.com as well as many Google ads to spread biased information slandering the judicial process in Ecuador.
Chevron convinced the US Congress not to renew tariff preferences previously granted to Ecuadorian exporters. Chevron is determined to win complete impunity for the massive damage it caused to the environment through its political campaign to discredit the Ecuadorian government, people and legal system.
Since Chevron now has no investments in Ecuador, the Amazon Defence Coalition has to go to the national courts in other countries to obtain compensation.
Chevron has huge investments in Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Australia. Ecuador is now pursuing the case against Chevron in other countries to embargo its assets. The case was lost in Argentina and the case is waiting to be heard in Brazil but Canadian courts said it would hear the case against Chevron.
This would set a precedent and if successful in Canada, there is a possibility the Ecuadorian people would pursue Chevron’s economic interests in Australia.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was adopted at a conference in Rome in July 1998 and came into force in 2002. The Rome Statute established four core international crimes, which are not subject to any statue of limitations: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.
An environmental lawyer and author, Polly Higgins, is campaigning to have a fifth crime included — ecocide.
She advocates a new approach to preventing the environmental destruction of our planet. She says existing laws have bestowed upon corporations silent rights which take precedence over environmental concerns and argues that nothing less than new international laws will ensure that the enjoyment of those rights is subject to reciprocal responsibilities, duties and obligations towards future generations and our habitat.
Solving the problem at a national level will never work — corporations will simply move elsewhere to continue business as usual.
A win in Canada and acceptance of ecocide as a crime under the Rome Statue would set a precedent for all people living in developing and developed countries who have had their land and water destroyed by mining companies.