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Chevron, Ecuador and a clash of cultures

AGUINDA VS. TEXACO INC.

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

August 29, 2009

Tribal elders recall how Texaco's pilots would swoop down on them in their helicopters. Sometimes, the elders say, they would carry off Indian women or, apparently for the fun of it, fly men and boys deep into the jungle and strand them miles from home without food or water.

Those allegations are, in one sense, tangential to the lawsuit. But some accounts of wrongdoing have spilled from the margins of the case into the litigation itself. The assessment of damages by the court-appointed expert, for instance, cites tales of rapes and miscarriages, which could influence the size of any judgment against the company.

"This notion that accusations can be made without any sort of substance behind them and that they stick is extremely worrisome," Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said in an interview with The Times.

This shadow case has been particularly difficult to counter. When Chevron is accused of assaults and rapes and even cultural genocide, how, exactly, is it supposed to respond? In accordance with U.S. mores and procedures, it wants documentation -- police reports, doctors' examinations -- not oral histories corroborated solely by friends and family.

"Do I think murders were committed back in that region in the 1970s? Perhaps -- it's plausible," said James Craig, another Chevron spokesman. "But where are the evidence and the witnesses? Where were the police? If you're going to make these types of accusations, you should back them up with something. I wasn't in Ecuador in the 1970s to say yes it happened or didn't happen. But if a criminal act occurs in an area, is that an indication that this is the company's practice? Or is it just a criminal act that would occur?"

To Chevron's frustration, many in Ecuador draw no such distinction. They consider the crimes of that era to be the responsibility of the oil company that occupied their land, and they haven't forgotten.

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Awaiting the verdict

However the case is resolved, an environmental victory is impossible. No amount of money will restore the rain forest to its natural state, and the foundation of an ancient culture has all but vanished.

Indians still living on the banks of the Aguarico, the Richwater, recall the old way of hunting: A shaman would enter a dream state, then he would ask the animals to sacrifice themselves for the tribe. The animals never refused. In the Ecuadorean Amazon, that way of life endured for 500 years, withstanding conquests by the Incas, Spanish colonizers and American missionaries. Then Texaco arrived, and oil extraction did what centuries of outside intrusion could not.

Secoya Indians living in the village of San Pablo remember the day the river ran black. Old men tell of oil rushing down the waters, engulfing everything in its path and staining the banks. Then came the dead fish, floating on the surface. The people, however, continued to eat the fish, bathe in the water and use it for their cooking. They didn't know any better.

Now they do. A generation of Indians has experienced a constant struggle with sickness and hunger their forefathers never could have imagined. With their forests and rivers depleted, a handful of indigenous communities struggle simply to survive. Instead of fish and game, meals now are more likely to consist of potatoes, rice and canned sardines bought at stores hours away from their villages. That devastation, more than soil samples and toxicity reports, animates the historic lawsuit now nearing its conclusion.

When the verdict is issued in Lago Agrio, it will prompt a round of appeals and other legal procedures, possibly in Ecuador and certainly in the United States, where Chevron has assets. The plaintiffs promise they will never give up. The company has assured investors that it will never pay. And the Amazon and its people will remain unhealed.

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This is the second of two editorials on the case of Aguinda vs. Texaco Inc. Both are available at latimes.com/chevron.

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