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Amazon activists win environmental prize

The two Ecuadoreans pursued legal action against a U.S. oil giant over what they said was massive pollution.

April 13, 2008|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Two Ecuadoreans who have waged a 14-year fight to bring a U.S. energy giant to account for what they allege is massive oil contamination in the Amazon are among the winners of an international environmental prize.

Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and Luis Yanza each will receive $150,000 today from the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Prize for organizing half a dozen indigenous communities to pursue legal action against Texaco and then Chevron Corp. after the two companies merged in 2001.

Fajardo, 36, and Yanza, 46, have tried "to bring justice and environmental recovery to an area devastated by oil pollution," according to a statement issued Saturday by the Goldman Prize organizers.

Their legal campaign was prompted by what the men allege were massive oil spills and mismanagement of wastes in the Ecuadorean jungle from the mid-1960s until 1990, when Texaco produced oil in the region in partnership with the state-owned oil company, Petroecuador.

Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson did not dispute that pollution occurred during Texaco's operation.

But he said Friday that Texaco completed "government-supervised" environmental remediation efforts that were "proportionate to its share of the consortium." In 1998, the Ecuadorean government "released Texaco of all further liability," he said.

In interviews Friday, Fajardo and Yanza alleged that the spills have polluted the water supply and caused a 150% increase in cancer cases among the indigenous and mestizo communities in the region. They said the claims were backed up by an environmental impact report that was completed this month and submitted to an Ecuadorean court.

"These were not spills produced by accident," Fajardo said. "It was an operation using inadequate technology designed to cost the least possible investment so as to produce the maximize amount of profit, despite the consequences."

The pair brought together 30,000 members of indigenous and mestizo communities to launch a series of legal actions, which have failed to gain traction in U.S. courts.

Robertson said the claims haven't advanced in the U.S. because they lack scientific proof.

"The Goldman committee has been sadly misled," Robertson said in an e-mailed statement. "These environmental actors do not deserve to be included in the same company as past winners. . . . The only thing green this gang is interested in is money."

The prize was founded in 1991 by San Francisco insurance executive Richard Goldman and his late wife, Rhoda Haas Goldman, an heiress to the Levi Strauss denim fortune.

Among the five other Goldman Prize winners this year is Jesus Leon Santos of Oaxaca, Mexico, who helped establish land-use programs "employing ancient indigenous practices to transform depleted soil into arable land," and Puerto Rico's Rosa Hilda Ramos, who organized her community to protect a wetlands from industrial pollution.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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