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Ecuadorians bring fight to oil firm's door

By Tom Knudson - Bee Staff Writer

Published Sunday, May 11, 2003

This story follows The Bee's 20-page special report, "State of Denial," published on April 27.

Walking across a motel parking lot, next to a crowded Bay Area freeway, the 11 residents of the Ecuadorean Amazon looked a little out of place. They felt out of place too.

"The roads are so big, so wide here; this is not what you see in Ecuador," said Toribio Aguinda, an indigenous leader from the tiny rain forest community of Dureno. "And there are so many cars."

It wasn't tourism that brought Aguinda and his colleagues to San Ramon last week. Nor were they visiting friends or relatives.

What prompted their journey was a lawsuit filed Wednesday in the grimy, oil-stained Ecuadorean jungle town of Lago Agrio near the Colombian border. The suit -- the latest chapter in a legal struggle that began 10 years ago in the United States -- accuses the multinational oil company ChevronTexaco of fouling the region with pollution from 1971 to 1992, contributing to a rash of human diseases and diminishing its rich web of biological life.

It will likely be weeks and perhaps months before the fate of the litigation is known. First, an Ecuadorean judge must decide whether or not to accept it and ChevronTexaco, which adamantly denies it acted illegally, is sure to put up stiff opposition.

In the meantime, Aguinda and his colleagues plan to try the case in a different venue -- the court of California public opinion in San Ramon, the affluent Bay Area suburb that is world headquarters of ChevronTexaco.

California happens to be North America's biggest consumer of Ecuador's oil, importing 20 to 40 million barrels a year while protecting its own majestic coast from oil drilling -- a contrast highlighted in a recent special report in The Bee, "State of Denial." Among foreign sources, only Saudi Arabia and Iraq, through the Food for Oil program, provide more to the Golden State.

"It's amazing how comfortable people are here," said Aguinda, staring out a window at Interstate 680. "It's amazing how people are driving so much and don't realize this oil comes from somewhere."

The Ecuadorians plan to keep themselves busy during their two-week stay with protests at San Ramon gas stations, presentations to church and school groups and a news conference this week where they will request a meeting with ChevronTexaco chairman David O'Reilly.

If such a meeting takes place, Rosa Moreno Chalaco knows exactly what she will say. The registered nurse comes from the small Amazon village of San Carlos, where Ecuadorean doctors have identified links between petroleum contamination and disease, including cancer.

"There are many illnesses," Moreno said. "I have lived this crisis in my own way. Three of my family members -- my father, mother-in-law and aunt -- have died from cancer. Recently, two close friends died of uterine cancer."

Although it can't be proved pollution caused the cancers, she believes it to be so. "I'm telling you the reality," said Moreno. "I am a faithful witness to the illnesses."

The Ecuador lawsuit is the offshoot of a case originally brought against Texaco in U.S. federal court in 1993, eight years before Texaco merged with Chevron. That case wound for years through the legal system until last year, when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that it was a matter to be decided in Ecuador.

Both suits allege a consortium formed by a Texaco subsidiary and Petroecuador -- Ecuador's national oil company -- dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste water from oil drilling into unlined pits during an oil boom that began in 1971. The suits maintain that the pollution leaked and seeped into rivers and creeks, poisoning wildlife and humans.

"This is the largest ecological disaster in the Americas today -- North America and South America," said Steven Donziger, a New York attorney who was part of the legal team that filed the suit in Ecuador last week.

ChevronTexaco spokesman Chris Gidez said he couldn't comment on the lawsuit because he hadn't seen it. But he strongly defended his company's track record in Ecuador.

"The practices used were consistent with standard industry practices in these types of environments during that period," Gidez said. "In the 10 years of this litigation, the plaintiff's have yet to present any credible, substantial scientific evidence to support their claims."

The case is being watched closely not only because of its potential high stakes -- the plaintiffs' lawyers say damages could exceed $1 billion -- but also because it could set a standard for judging the performance of multinational companies in developing countries. Much of the money would be spent on environmental remediation, they say.

Cristobal Bonifaz, lead lawyer for the Ecuador plaintiffs, said in a statement that the suit "has the potential to establish a new accountability for U.S. oil companies that think they can operate abroad without adhering to responsible environmental practices."

Texaco left Ecuador in the early 1990s and later agreed to pay the Ecuadorian government $40 million to clean up 250 sites identified in environmental audits.

Residents, though, say pollution remains widespread, much of it from Petroecuador wells and oil fields. If that is so, Gidez said, "We find it curious why the plaintiffs don't pursue the government (of Ecuador) or Petroecuador."

Donzier, though, said ChevronTexaco is the legal target because its Ecuador subsidiary opened the region to oil development and -- in his view -- left a legacy of pollution and poor waste management practices. "They have a special responsibility," he said.

It's not just pollution that angers the Ecuadorean contingent, either. The sale of Amazon oil brings Ecuador more than $2 billion a year although, because of the country's high foreign debt, little of that money reaches the people in the Amazon region. Meanwhile, living conditions in the rain forest region remain primitive.

"The Amazon is rich," said Moreno, the nurse. "But there is too much poverty." Like many, she lives in a house with no running water, indoor toilet or telephone. Electrical service is sporadic. But there is a bright spot: she recently got a raise and now earns $300 a month.

"The wealth is not well-shared," she said.

Accustomed to such conditions, the Ecuadorians were astonished by much of what they saw in San Ramon -- not just the heavy stream of traffic on Interstate 680, but also the the eerie quiet on the sidewalks.

"Everyone is in their cars," said Moreno. "There are no kids on the street."

But perhaps the biggest surprise came Thursday when Leila Salazar, the "ChevronToxico organizer" for Oakland-based Amazon Watch, told the visitors they could actually drink water from the faucet.

Many were astonished. "It is a blessing from God if you can drink water from the tap," said Moreno.

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