Indians to get their day in court against Texaco

After 15 years of legal efforts against US oil giant Texaco, indigenous people in Ecuador, who claim that over 20 years of waste dumped by the oil company has caused thousands of deaths from cancer and other diseases, will get their day in court.


Lago Agrio, ECUADOR - For people living in Lago Agrio, in the heartland of the Amazon in northern Ecuador, the environment is a life and death issue. The population, mostly indigenous Cofan Indians, suffers from some of the highest cancer rates in Ecuador.  

Birth defects, miscarriages and lung disease are also very common, not only in Lago but across the region of the Oriente. Villagers blame their illnesses on Texaco, the US oil company whose subsidiary operated in Oriente from the late 1964 until 1992.

They say their land was soiled by waste the company dumped in open pits across large swathes of the Amazonian jungle in its 28  years of operations there.

In 1993, more than 30,000 families living on the contaminated land filed a class-action lawsuit in a US federal court, seeking damages against Texaco and a full-scale clean-up.

The case was later transferred to the Ecuadorian courts, and now – 15 years on – a decision is expected soon.

“We’ve filed all the evidence required, scientific reports, case studies – everything is in,” says Luis Yanza, president of the group bringing the lawsuit.

A final report by a court-appointed expert was filed on Nov. 27, and the Indians expect a final decision in the first months of 2009. The report backed many of their claims, but has been vigorously rejected by the oil company.

Oily ground and foamy water

Like other regions of the Amazon, the Oriente is dominated by jungle. But it is also home to oil towns like Lago Agrio and crisscrossed by pipelines and oil-industry roads. In the jungle, open pits can still be seen, filled with oil residue and water.

At “Pozo #20” (Well #20), just outside Lago Agrio, 60-year-old Mercedes Jimenez (photo above) sits on a bench outside her modest one-room house, washing her feet in a basin. “Oil residue is everywhere here in the ground,” she says.

A quick dig with a machete confirms it – the blade comes up black with oily dirt.

Jimenez says her two children, now adults, grew up in the house, bathing in the river down the hill - the Aguarico, whose waters are flecked with white foam - and drinking water from it.

She pulls out photos. “My daughter now has skin cancer and my son, look at his back, it’s covered with spots. He has a serious skin disease, but we don’t know what it is.”

oil residue
The ground near former oil sites in the Oriente is often visibly contaminated with oil residue. (credit: H. Papper)

Yanza, the association president, said Texaco used petrol residue to cover the roads it built. “I lived right near oil digs in 1977 when Texaco was working full steam ahead.

“They paid no attention to the environment. Instead of using asphalt to make roads, they used petrol residue, which they mixed with dirt and laid on the ground.

“When it rained the petrol would seep into our sources of water, to our rivers and lakes. Every six months they had to lay new roads. They never once used asphalt."

Ecuador’s leftist president Rafael Correa has shown support for the Indians, visiting the area and launching a plan to relocate hundreds of affected families.

Experts' report backs Indians’ claims

The experts' report, compiled by geological engineer Richard Cabrera at the request of the court, accepts many of the Indians’ claims.

Cabrera found illegal levels of toxins in the soil or water around all 94 of the company’s production sites in the Oriente – with some samples producing levels thousands of times higher than Ecuadorian and U.S. standards.

The report estimated a total of 1,401 pollution-related cancer deaths in the region. It called the case the worst oil-related contamination on earth, and proposed damages of US$27 billion against Texaco – including $8 billion for “unjust enrichment” – money the company saved by using substandard dumping practices.

The damages would be paid by Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001.

Chevron denies the case's legitimacy

Chevron has strongly rejected Cabrera’s report, saying in a December statement that its conclusions and damages “are not based on any known science and are completely fraudulent.”  

The company admits that Texaco may have dumped oil waste, but says there is no link between the dumping and high rates of disease.

According to James Craig, Chevron’s media advisor for Latin America, the main causes of disease in the area include poverty, poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water and naturally occurring bacteria and parasites.

“That’s really what the issue is,” he told FRANCE 24. “The issue at stake is not whether oil was spilled, but whether that’s what has harmed humans and the environment.”

Furthermore, the company argues that a 1995 agreement Texaco signed with the Ecuadorean government absolves the company of any further liability. Under the agreement, Texaco spent $40 million to clean up the spills.

“Oil spills were dealt with and cleaned up,” maintains Craig.

He alleges that Texaco’s partner in the Oriente region, the state oil company Petroecuador, kept polluting after Texaco left the country in 1992.


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