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Anger streams in

Ecuador's Indians trek to town as an oil giant is challenged over its alleged rain forest pollution

By Tom Knudson - Bee Staff Writer

Published Friday, October 24, 2003

LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador -- In the gray, wet hours before the trial was to start, the rain forest tribes prepared for court.

Twenty Huaorani Indians -- the most isolated of Ecuador's tribes -- waited in front of an appliance store along a mud-splattered street in this oil boomtown. One man held a spear. Several women huddled together, their faces painted an angry red, naked from the waist up and nursing babies.


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The stakes in the historic trial against oil giant ChevronTexaco were so important to them that they had traveled six hours by canoe and five hours by bus from their remote jungle villages to march to the courthouse.

Amid some of the Huaorani Indians who traveled by canoe and bus to be there, New York attorney Steven Donziger leaves court this week in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, where he is representing 30,000 people, residents of the country's rain forest, in their case against ChevronTexaco.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

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"There is a lot of pollution where we live," said Carmen Itekamua, carrying an infant. "Our children swim in the river and they get rashes. In the jungle, animals die."

The Amazon natives were among the hundreds drawn to Lago Agrio this week by the trial pitting ChevronTexaco against 30,000 rain forest residents. The case alleges that a subsidiary of the California-based multinational oil company fouled the region's forests, rivers and wetlands with billions of gallons of oily wastes from 1971 to 1992.

The trial began Tuesday with hours of dry legal proceedings and intense media coverage from around the world. Today, after two days of delay, with the media presence dwindling, the heart of the case -- the presentation of evidence and witnesses to an Ecuadorean judge -- is expected to start.

Plaintiffs' lawyers plan to call before the court a doctor from Sweden who has studied the health impacts of oil pollution in Ecuador. An oil remediation specialist from Atlanta will address a controversial $40 million ChevronTexaco cleanup of 200 to 250 oil pits in Ecuador. And always the promise of tantalizing new disclosures is dangled.

Among the volumes of evidence sitting in Judge Alberto Guerra Bastidas' chamber is a recent study financed by Ecuador's national oil company, Petroecuador, that plaintiffs' lawyers say reveals extensive pollution remains at former Texaco sites.

"Every single pit left had significant concentrations of oil and poisonous chemicals," said Steven Donziger, one of the attorneys representing the rain forest clients. "Not only that, it is causing ongoing contamination that is creating diseases in people who live near the pits."

But in the jungle court as in the U.S. courts, ChevronTexaco staunchly maintains it did nothing wrong.

"We did everything that we were supposed to do," Ricardo Reis Viega, the company's vice president and general counsel for Latin America, said at one of the flurry of news conferences here. "We have been released of any additional work that might be necessary."

The lawsuit, filed in the United States 10 years ago, then directed back to Ecuador in 2002 by a federal appeals court, began as many court cases do: with a detailed, lengthy denial of all allegations by the accused, ChevronTexaco.

In addition to citing Ecuador's approval of its cleanup program, the company sought to differentiate between ChevronTexaco and the subsidiary that brought oil exploration to Ecuador, Texaco Petroleum Company. They maintained that a 1999 Ecuadorean environmental law should not be retroactively applied to their oil operations.


But as a company lawyer spent more than three hours reading his statement in a sweltering courtroom, a livelier drama took place on the street outside. Bunched around a flatbed truck, which functioned as a stage, a crowd of people cheered as speakers -- from indigenous leaders to peasant farmers -- denounced the oil company.

Ecuadorean police face protesters in the street while guarding the courthouse where the pollution trial is being held.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

"We want to take these enemies of the Amazon, to pull them by the ears to the river and give them a glass of water and to see if they want to drink it," shouted Marcos Ajila, a small farmer from the village of Dureno.

Large banners hung from a balcony above the street "Texaco, Nunca Mas!" said one. Texaco -- Never again! "Abajo Texaco!" someone else shouted. Down with Texaco.

At one point, Carmen Itekamua and other Huaorani women climbed onto the truck bed, pulled together and began jumping up and down in unison, chanting rhythmically.

Afterward, Itekamua spoke to the crowd, first in Huaorani, then in broken Spanish. "Our territory is very infected because of this contamination," she said. "All the children get diarrhea. They get sick. Many years ago it wasn't like that."

Like the broad coffee-colored Aguarico River, which flows past Lago Agrio into the Napo River -- a major tributary of the Amazon -- the trial here feeds into a larger context.

It is taking place as anger toward U.S. demand for fossil fuel rises across Latin America. Last week, the president of Bolivia was forced out of office after citizens revolted against a plan to export natural gas -- through Chile -- to the United States.

It also is playing out in a corner of the Amazon that is a key source of oil for California, a state that passionately protects its own coastline from oil drilling.

Because of the disruption of oil shipments from Iraq, oil is flowing from the Ecuadorean Amazon -- known here as the Oriente -- to California at a record pace: 25 million barrels from January through August. That makes Ecuador second only to Saudi Arabia as a California oil source.

When the federal appeals court ruled that the case should be tried in Ecuador, it did so with the potentially precedent-setting stipulation that any judgment rendered here would be enforceable in the United States.

"We know of no other case in Latin America that involves one of the oil giants in the United States having to submit to a Third World country for environmental damages," said Donziger.

Dressed in a purple tunic with a crown of feathers around his head, and gripping a black briefcase, Secoya tribal leader Elias Piyahuaje explained why the trial matters so much to his 400-member tribe.

"We are going to show to the world that the laws of Ecuador are credible," Piyahuaje said.

Oil companies in Ecuador "think they can walk on the heads of the people. They think the people here are nothing," Piyahuaje said.

During Tuesday's court proceeding, Viega -- the ChevronTexaco vice president -- kept a low profile. He did not venture out for lunch. And he and other company representatives left the courthouse late in the day, after the crowd dispersed.

Asked about the anti-ChevronTexaco sentiment on the streets of Lago Agrio, Viega said: "We respect the people of the Oriente. We are sympathetic of things that they perhaps need. What I take exception (to) is the allegation we destroyed the rain forest. That has not been proven."

The case has drawn major media attention in Ecuador. "The Trial of the Century Begins," said a front-page headline in La Hora, a Quito newspaper, Wednesday. "Texaco submits to national laws," reported El Commercio, another Quito paper.

No one seems to know for sure where the case will turn from here. But the pace is likely to pick up over the next week, when the bulk of the evidence and witnesses is scheduled to be presented. A final decision, however, isn't expected for months in part to allow time for the judge to inspect oil pits, rivers and swamps firsthand.

"There are a lot of unusual things about this proceeding," said Donziger. "The idea of a judge actually going out and looking at damage would almost never happen in the U.S."

About the Writer

The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or


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