Texaco's roads slice through the jungle. Settlers used those roads to slash and burn their way into the rain forest to plant crops and raise cattle, encouraged by a government program designed to protect the territory from incursion by Peru. All told, about 2.4 million acres of jungle disappeared. Pipelines snake through towns and schoolyards, in front of churches and health clinics, gathering the oil from hundreds of wells.
Oil drilling turned out to be disastrous for the region's indigenous tribes. Within a few years of its arrival, Texaco had drilled hundreds of wells in territory claimed by the Cofan, Huaorani and other tribes.
There was no need to pay them for the use of the land, or even consult with them, as is required today. In Ecuador, all oil belongs to the state.
At least one small tribe, the Tetetes, who lived near Lago Agrio, simply vanished. Researchers believe that they intermarried with settlers and abandoned all traces of their language and culture.
The Huaorani fled deeper into the jungle. The Cofan saw their territory cut into pieces by roads and wells. Hunters complained of the increasing difficulty of finding game. Tribal shamans were confounded by unknown diseases that resisted traditional cures.
"The oil was of no benefit to any of us," said Emergildo Criollo, a Cofan leader.
The settlers who followed the oil often fared no better. Oil coated the roads. It filled waste pools. And it sat in the front yard of residents such as Estuardo Lopez, 58, and his wife, Mariana Barrera, 53, who have lived in a wood shack at the edge of a jungle clearing for 35 years. Green trees soar in the background. Gold-tailed oropendula birds warble in the distance.
Like most of the settlers, they came from Ecuador's highlands in search of land. They claimed 60 acres outside the small town of San Carlos, clearing most of it to plant crops and raise cattle. Within a few years, the Lopez family was surrounded by waste pits and oil wells, thumping day and night like a heartbeat. Eventually, Texaco constructed more than 30 wells in the area and dozens of waste pits.
The stream that runs behind the Lopez house would occasionally turn black from oil spills. Sometimes, the water tasted like petroleum, even though it ran clear.
The Lopezes thought nothing of it. Settlers who arrived after the start of the oil boom associated oil with riches. Many smeared crude on their bodies, believing it to be a cure for disease and baldness. Children coated their faces to play a local version of cowboys and Indians.
It was only after Mariana got sick six years ago that the couple began to suspect that something was wrong. She lost a baby -- it would have been her 10th -- and went to see the doctor, who told her that she had uterine cancer. She had a hysterectomy.
Later, when she began to have pain in her back, a doctor told her that there was something wrong with her kidneys. He told her that she would need treatment, but the family could not afford the trip to the nearest clinic.
Mariana -- and others -- blame the oil for health problems.
"There are health problems everywhere. But here, they are worse," she said.
Spanish epidemiologist Miguel San Sebastian examined 985 cases of cancer in the Amazon that had been reported to a central health registry between 1985 and 1998.
The study, published last year, found that people living in counties with oil drilling faced significantly higher risks of cancer, especially stomach, rectum and kidney cancer for men, and cervix and lymph node cancer for women. There is no proven link between crude oil exposure like that experienced by those in Ecuador to greater risk of specific cancers. However, studies have linked exposure to various chemicals found in petroleum to stomach and rectal cancer, among others.
In another study, San Sebastian surveyed 648 women in river communities in the Oriente and found that women living within three miles of an oil well faced 2 1/2 times the risk of miscarriage.
"What the studies show is that something is happening there," said San Sebastian, who is a witness for the plaintiffs' lawyers in the oil trial. "But it's tough to make the direct link that the oil is causing these cancers."
ChevronTexaco, which has long denied that San Sebastian's work proves a link, got a boost recently from Jack Siemiatycki, a University of Montreal professor of epidemiology who is an authority on environmental causes of cancer.
Siemiatycki, an independent scientist who reviewed San Sebastian's study when it was published in a leading scientific journal, issued a written response criticizing its suggestion of a connection -- though he didn't rule out the possibility. "There's no more than a hint of link" between cancer and oil exposure, Siemiatycki said in an interview. "I wouldn't bet my mortgage on it, that's for sure."
Disputing the Damage
As for the claims of environmental damage, ChevronTexaco says the Oriente today speaks for itself.