by Sven Eberlein
A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of meeting Lou Dematteis, a former Reuters staff photographer who covered the wars that raged throughout Central America in the 1980s and first traveled to Ecuador’s northern Amazon region in 1993.
What he found there was not a shooting war, but a war on the environment, a gut-wrenching clash between the “civilized” world’s thirst for cheap oil and indigenous people’s right to live in health and harmony with their native lands.
Lou’s photos not only tell the story of the human and ecological cost of our oil addiction, but they’ve been invaluable visual documents helping to keep Chevron/Texaco, the culprit of this epic environmental catastrophe, from engaging in “pollute and run” business as usual.
Most importantly, these images highlight the power of local communities not only in fighting the corporate juggernaut that is fleecing the planet’s resources for short term profits, but in calling attention to the systemic problems inherent in fossil fuel dependent economic models, and inspiring sustainable solutions for all.
Take a ride and see for yourself.
In 1964, Texaco (now Chevron), discovered oil in the remote northern region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, known as the “Oriente.” Three times the size of Manhattan, this pristine rainforest is home to the indigenous Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa and Huaorani people whose lives had been largely untouched by modern civilization.
It was the first time that anyone had ever successfully drilled for oil in the Amazon, and the Ecuadorian government assumed that Texaco/Chevron would abide by the same drilling regulations that had been in effect for decades in major US oil producing states like Louisiana, Texas, and California. But it didn’t: To increase its profit margin, the company made deliberate decisions to use substandard technology that less than 30 years later left the region in shambles: In 1992, after leaving behind some 1,000 open toxic waste pits and dumping more than 18 billion gallons of toxic “formation waters” into the streams and rivers that 30,000 people depend on for drinking, cooking, bathing and fishing, Texaco/Chevron did what seemed most expedient: sneak out the back door without cleaning up its mess.
When Lou first arrived on the scene, he couldn’t believe what he saw. In the introduction to his book, Crude Reflections – Oil, Ruin and Resistance in the Amazon Rainforest, he writes:
I visited old Texaco (now Chevron) oil well sites and saw toxic wastewater being dumped into open-air pits filled with crude oil that looked like infected sores on the floor of the rainforest. This was one of the results of Texaco’s decision to dump oil waste into the environment instead of re-injecting it back into the earth. Even though Texaco left Ecuador in 1992, the dumping continued at its old wells and facilities. To make matters worse, many pits were set on fire in order to burn away the waste crude, a practice started by Texaco. The scene looked like something out of Dante’s Inferno.
Oil waste pit fire in Shushufindi in 1993
A worker siphons crude oil from a waste pit left by Texaco near Dureno in 1993. This oil was later used to spread on roads in the area to keep the dust down.
Around the same time Lou was taking these pictures, the first legal action against Texaco took place: the class-action suit Aguinda v. Texaco was filed in New York, home to Texaco’s headquarters at the time, a case that has since been filed against Chevron and relocated to Ecuador where the damages have currently been assessed at a record $27.3 billion (more on that below), reflecting the toxic time bomb that Chevron/Texaco left in its wake.
As Lou recalls from his first visit…
During my trip, I spoke with a doctor at Ecuador’s Ministry of Health. He believed the region was sitting on a time bomb as a result of the toxic waste contamination. He said it would take 10 years or so for cancers and other health problems to fully manifest themselves, but when they did, the result would be an epidemic of serious and fatal health conditions. When I returned to the northern Amazon again in 2003 to cover the opening of the trial against Chevron (formerly Texaco), I found that the time bomb had exploded. Everywhere I turned, I encountered people with cancer, birth defects, respiratory ailments and other severe health problems.
Lou decided to travel around the affected areas to hear the stories and photograph the countless families whose lives had been destroyed by Chevron/Texaco’s willful contamination of their homeland and its devastating effects on people’s health.
He met Miguel Yumbo from the Kichwa indigenous nation, whose 9-year old son Jairo was born with a deformed hand:
Miguel Yumbo: I’m a farmer and I grow coffee and cocoa. We get our drinking water from a stream about 100 yards from the house, next to the highway, and we bathe there too. We’ve seen crude in the water. We push the crude aside, and gather up the clean water underneath to drink.
I couldn’t be at the hospital in Coca when Jairo was born because I was working. When he was 8 days old, I went back to the hospital and talked to the doctors. They told me that the petroleum caused his hand to be like that, because we always drank water from an oil-filled stream, and because Texaco used to pass by our house spraying crude on the dirt highway.
And he met Angel Toala, held by his wife Luz Maria Marin, the day before he died of stomach cancer in his home in Shushufindi.
Luz Maria Marin: There’s a [Texaco] pumping station near our house and a [Texaco] oil well 200 yards from our house, and downstream is a lake where the crude oil they dumped gathers. We never let the animals drink this water. A lot of times we found dead fish in it. Our coffee plants there turned yellow and died.
We got our drinking water from the rain, and, when it didn’t rain, from the stream. It had a funny taste and sometimes you could see oil floating on top. We bathed there and washed our clothes there. We knew the water was bad for our health, but what could we do? There wasn’t water anywhere else.
I don’t think the oil company worried if they contaminated the water. We farmers didn’t realize the water was contaminated, and certainly it was not in the oil company’s interest to tell us that.
About three years ago, my husband started having stomch pains, slight pains when he ate. (Crying) About a year ago he started losing weight. Then his back began hurting, and his muscles. He felt tired. At the end, he couldn’t take the sun. He was so tired; he didn’t have any energy. In Quito he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. We took him to the Eugenio Espejo Hospital but the doctors said it was too late, nothing could be done. The last three months before he died, he couldn’t do anything. He just lay in the hammock.
Jairo and Angel’s stories just kept repeating themselves wherever Lou went. There is truly enough heartbreak in Crude Reflections to last a lifetime. Images like this one of Juana Apolo walking out of a cemetery in La Andina where her father, brother and sister are buried, all of whom died of cancer, symbolize an entire region stricken by death and disease:
After 28 years of dumping an estimated 4 million gallons of formation waters per day into the fragile Amazon ecosystem to save an estimated $3 per barrel of oil produced, Chevron/Texaco left Ecuador in 1992, passing on its outdated oil operations and crumbling infrastructure to the country’s state oil company, Petroecuador.
While Petroecuador continued to pollute and only slowly modernized its operations over time, Chevron/Texaco’s departure coupled with the now visible devastating effects of its reckless drilling practices rang like a wake-up bell. After Texaco conducted a sham “clean-up” of less than 1% of its former sites beginning in 1995, in most cases merely covering open pits with dirt or burning off the crude by-products, it became clear that justice would not be served on its own.
This is where the hopeful and inspiring part of the story begins.
It’s not hard to imagine that Chevron isn’t happy about paying 27 billion dollars. In fact, there are good reasons from a corporate profit-driven perspective why Chevron doesn’t want to pay anything, even a much smaller fine that would be peanuts to a company that raked in a record $23.93 billion profit in 2008. A verdict against Chevron would have historic consequences far beyond Ecuador, acknowledging that people who live in the path of oil wells have a right to the same health and environmental protections as everyone else, and to hold accountable those extractive industries that take advantage of weak or non-existing human rights and environmental laws in developing countries to cut corners they would never be allowed to in their wealthy home countries.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Chevron (formerly Texaco) gather at the site of the oil giant’s first well in the Amazon rainforest outside the town of Lago Agrio to demand “Justice Now!”
In many ways, this lawsuit is not only about the indigenous people of the northern Amazon but about facing and acknowledging the true cost of oil to the planet and its inhabitants. It’s about exposing how the oil industry’s mind-boggling profits are reaped on the backs of people and ecosystems in poor countries, and how our own conveniently wasteful lifestyles don’t happen in a vacuum but stand in direct relationship to the pain and suffering thousands of miles away.
To be sure, the plaintiffs are not only marching for justice for themselves, but to wake us all up to the insidiously ingrained mechanisms that are destroying the entire planet, and slowly but surely, all of us.
When Secoya and Kichwa leaders travel to Chevron headquarters in San Ramon, CA, they’re not asking for retribution or to enrich themselves, they’re asking for justice and human decency.
Secoya indigenous leader Humberto Piaguaje (C) is joined by Kichwa leader Guillermo Grefa (L) as he speaks to the press and supporters after emerging from Chevron’s (formerly Texaco) annual shareholders meeting in San Ramon, California. When speaking to the meeting about Texaco’s contamination in the Amazon he said “Our struggle is not for money. We want you to repair the damage so our children do not have to continue suffering.”
And when American attorneys fight for the rights of Ecuadorians to have access to clean water and air on their own land, they don’t use their skills and knowledge to bicker over what they could possibly legally get away with but to be proponents of justice and basic human rights.
Steven Donziger, attorney for the affected communities, speaks with Huaorani women outside Lago Agrio’s Superior Court at the start of the Chevron trial on October 21, 2003.
At this point Chevron is still stuck in the old paradigm, fighting tooth and nail not only to protect its profits but our collective delusion that what happens to other people and places on this planet is not our problem and has no bearing on our own lives. While there’s no denying the death and destruction the company’s 28 year reign has caused, Chevron instead has resorted to obfuscating and minimizing contamination results, trying to run out the clock with legal minutiae and technicalities. It is attacking the credibility of a court-appointed technical expert, going after Joe Berlinger, the award-winning filmmaker of the documentary Crude, and waging a huge PR campaign to discredit the entire trial. Just a few weeks ago, writer Mary Cuddehe’s piece in The Atlantic, A Spy in the Jungle, revealed how Chevron tried to bribe her with $20,000 to shill for them as an undercover journalist-spy. Really, James Bond screenwriters couldn’t come up with a better plot.
The Bigger Picture
No matter what the outcome of the trial (and after a 17 year marathon a verdict is expected in 2011), the mere fact that a major polluter like Chevron has had to stand trial at all has been a victory in the struggle not only to bring justice to the Amazon but to raise awareness about the disproportional share of the true cost of oil that poor people around the planet have had to shoulder.
For one thing, it has become much harder for corporations to seduce local communities with the promise of jobs and money in exchange for unregulated access to their land. As Lou describes from his visits with various indigenous groups in the Southern Ecuadoran Amazon — home to the country’s largest surviving areas of primary tropical rainforest — the Shuar, Achuar and Kichwa people are aware of the destruction in the northern Amazon and in no mood to have their land opened up to oil exploitation.
Felipe Tentets, elected leader of the Achuar village of Sharamentza. The Achuar people are opposed to oil exploitation in their territory in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon and say they will use violence if necessary to keep oil companies out.
Even more encouraging, indigenous groups and their partner organizations have used the momentum to address the bigger, more systemic problems inherent in 20th century economic models and advance The Green Plan, an alternative economic proposal designed to set aside a vast swath of the Ecuadorian Amazon (covering about 20% of the nation’s oil reserves, estimated to be hundreds of millions of barrels) for permanent protection. A classic win-win scenario, the proposal would “contribute to preserving biodiversity, reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and their way of life.”
And behold, three weeks ago Ecuador’s government announced that it had reached a deal with the United Nations Development Program under which donor countries will compensate Quito for leaving oil reserves untouched in a large primary rainforest filled national park:
Yasuni National Park – covering some 9,820 km2, or about the size of Massachusetts – is thought to be one of Earth’s most biodiversity rich sites and is also home to several nomadic Indian tribes. Yasuni’s preservation (total protection, not “sustainable management” or “conservation”) would spare Earth some 410 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that contribute to global warming; while keeping biodiversity, ecosystems and cultures fully intact.
With the effects of climate change manifesting across the globe, people everywhere are beginning to understand that our fates on this planet are intrinsically linked, no matter who and where we are. Even those primarily motivated by self-interest must come to the realization that destroying carbon-absorbing rainforests to extract and burn more carbon-emitting oil is no longer just THEIR problem, but OURS.
Chevron no doubt must understand that the only future we as humanity and thus it as a company have is one in which we burn less fossil fuels and shift toward renewable energy. If we want to create a livable planet for all we’d be well-advised to step out of the “Us vs. Them” paradigm and start working with each other instead of against each other. By accepting responsibility and paying for the damage it has caused, Chevron could set the tone for a fundamental shift in corporate philosophy and become a respected leader in the coming green global economy.
As Rainforest Action Network points out through its web site We Can Change Chevron:
Chevron can remain stuck in the sludge with the practices of the past … or it can seize the chance to transform itself into a modern, globally respected business. Chevron has a window of opportunity – with a new CEO – to start leading the world toward the limitless future of clean, renewable energy. But the window won’t stay open long. The world wants to see action. It is inconceivable that one of the world’s most profitable companies can’t afford to treat the people living where it operates with decency. It is inconceivable that Chevron can’t stop making people ill, despoiling their traditional territory, and destroying their livelihoods.
As we’ve found out in the wake of the disaster in the Gulf (where BP was made to pay $20 billion in damages within two months), the dynamics behind oil exploitation are complicated and its collateral damage far-reaching and long-lasting. Oil is so many things to so many people, species, and places.
There are no easy answers, no simple kiss to wake up the princess, no single villain to put away for a quick happy ending. But it’s the courageous struggle of people like the Kichwa or Huaorani against all odds and money and power that is giving all of us — including Chevron and all the purveyors of the cheap oil myth — a unique opportunity to view the world from a whole new perspective…
|All photos and captions copyright and courtesy of Lou Dematteis. Lou’s images have been instrumental in making the case for justice in Ecuador, as you can see on many of the websites listed below. However, I highly recommend looking at his powerful images in print, so if you’re one of those people who still likes books and you’ve got a few extra bucks please get a copy of Crude Reflections – Oil, Ruin and Resistance in the Amazon Rainforest, co-authored with Kayana Szymczak and with a foreword by Trudie Styler and Sting.|
The Chevron Pit – A blog maintained by the team suing Chevron for the oil giant’s human rights problems in Ecuador and across the world.
ChevronToxico – The Campaign for Justice in Ecuador.
Amazon Defense Coalition
Chevron in Ecuador
We Can Change Chevron
The Chevron Program – Global Exchange’s call to action.