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Chevron, Ecuador and a clash of cultures

Intertwined with the lawsuit are the indignities suffered by Ecuador's native peoples.

August 29, 2009

The facts of Aguinda vs. Texaco Inc. haven't changed since the lawsuit was first filed in 1993, but the world has. Climate change and environmental stewardship have become international concerns. The dignity of native populations around the world has been recognized in a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the United Nations. And after 16 years of litigation in the United States and, now, Ecuador, the lawsuit against Chevron Corp. has become a cause celebre among human rights activists and environmentalists. Last year, the plaintiffs' lead attorney and a community organizer on the case won the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world's leading environmental award.

As the world has changed, so has Ecuador. When Texaco began drilling in Ecuador's Amazon rain forest, the country was run by a military dictatorship, and American oilmen were at the top of the power structure and social order. As recently as 2006, attorneys for Chevron -- which inherited the case in a merger with Texaco -- would arrive for court business in Lago Agrio escorted by uniformed army soldiers. Plaintiffs' attorneys were unaccompanied.

At the very bottom of society were Indians. In the caste system that had endured in Ecuador since the Spanish conquest, those of European extraction and their foreign allies dominated the nation's affairs, and it was the ruling class in the capital of Quito that grew wealthy from the oil discovered in the Indians' homelands. About $25 billion worth was extracted by the consortium that included Texaco, and Chevron officials claim that 95% of the revenue, or $24.5 billion after taxes and royalties, went to the government. Yet the region that was the source of the nation's wealth remained its most impoverished. If the rain forest was ravaged and the people harmed, it was with the consent of their own government.

The country began to change in the 1990s, however, and its socialist evolution was made manifest with the 2006 election of Rafael Correa, a U.S.-educated economist who speaks French, English and Quechua, an indigenous tongue. He has called the devastation of the Amazon a "crime against humanity" and clearly supports the plaintiffs in the case against Chevron.

Among many changes made under Correa's administration, Ecuador has extended greater respect and protections for indigenous cultures and has given Pachamama -- Mother Earth -- legal standing. Last year, voters approved a new constitution that grants nature the right to "exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution."

There is no legal equivalent in the world. And though the new constitution does not apply retroactively to the lawsuit, the assumptions behind it reveal the depth of the culture clash between San Ramon-based Chevron and the people suing it. Five indigenous tribes and 80 communities -- about 30,000 inhabitants of the Amazon -- allege that Texaco polluted their land and their only sources of water, resulting in chronic and even fatal illnesses.

Reeling from a court-appointed expert's findings of soil and water contamination and his determination that damages could soar to $27 billion, Chevron has launched a vigorous public relations campaign, averring that it is pitted against an interfering socialist government and not impoverished locals. The company has tried to its limit public discussion of the trial to the specific sites that Texaco remediated under an agreement with the government, while the plaintiffs insist on discussing the entire concession area and the personal suffering of its inhabitants.

Yet if Chevron maintains that the playing field has tilted to the left, the plaintiffs see it as finally level. They have waged an equally vigorous campaign, perfecting a "toxic tour" and guiding international observers, environmental activists and journalists -- including a member of The Times' editorial board -- to contaminated sites.


The shadow case

The main issues in the suit are matters of dueling science. But the trial's location in the Amazon provides a context and backdrop that would have figured less prominently had the case been tried elsewhere. Still seething in the jungle is an enduring resentment of what many residents say was Texaco's paternalism and arrogance, a sense of imperialist exploitation no less offensive because it was the work of a corporation rather than a government.

Indians still living in the rain forest recount the casual crimes of the American oilmen, with their abundance of swagger and contempt for local culture. From house to house, town to town and tribe to tribe, it is the same: The oilmen mocked and shamed them and raped more than just their lands.

"Before Texaco came, the women did not have children who were half-white," said a Secoya woman. "But what could they do? The women were given no choice."

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