Even the most stalwart of proponents of corporate benevolence are occasionally forced to concede that no major multinational corporation is above a certain level of malfeasance, especially when it comes to the petroleum industry. The global demand for oil is so high that companies will go to disturbing lengths to obtain it, committing all manner of abuses while the general public largely turns a blind eye, easily swayed by multimillion dollar PR campaigns and the promise of cheap fuel for all.
Nowhere in recent years has this been more apparent than in the nation of Ecuador, and few companies have committed more atrocities in the name of oil than industry titan Chevron has within Ecuador’s borders, according to Flora Lu, professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, Nestor Silva, a PhD Anthropology Student at Stanford University, and Pablo Fajardo, the now-famous Ecuadorian attorney who won a landmark class action lawsuit against Chevron in 2011.
Speaking on the “Working to Save the Amazon and Its Communities” panel at the San Jose Peace and Justice Center on April 4th, the three outlined the widespread and systematic abuse Chevron and Texaco–who the former acquired in 2001–have perpetuated against the Ecuadorian people and their land, the company’s insidious role in obstructing justice both internationally and domestically, and the uncertain future of one of the most biodiverse locations on the planet, Yasuni National Park.
In the first segment of this three-part series, we will explore the origins of today’s conflicts between Ecuador and Chevron, and the systematic abuses that paved the way for Pablo Fajardo’s legendary class-action lawsuit.
Blood And Carbon: The Rise Of Ecuador’s Petro-State
Texaco first discovered oil in Ecuador back in 1967, sparking a ten-year oil boom that would drastically transform the nation from a third-world backwater to a modern petro-state. But the dreams of modernity and prosperity that petroleum promised to bring to Ecuador soon turned into an utter nightmare. The rapid and brutal expansion of oil industry infrastructure resulted in widespread deforestation, driving away much of the wildlife that the country’s large indigenous population subsisted on, thereby endangering the survival of a number of tribes. Resistance by the natives was swift and fierce, resulting in the deaths of several Texaco employees.
In response, the company began colluding with local Christian missionaries–who had been proselytizing in the region since the fifties–to pacify the natives with Western convenience and vice, a more seductive coercion that would persuade many of them to abandon their lands and traditions and side with Big Oil. So effective was this technique that it led to the destruction of two indigenous tribes, most notably the Cofan tribe, who’s leader Guillermo Quenama was fooled into drinking himself to death by Texaco officials, according to Professor Lu.
With Quenama out of the way, Texaco wasted no time sweeping across Cofan lands, subjugating the locals, and kidnapping Quenama’s wife, forcing her into prostitution amongst Texaco’s oil workers for the next two decades. After outliving her usefulness as Texaco’s whore, she lives in what remains of Cofan territory to this very day, sick, dying, one of only a few hundred of her people that remain.
Once the natives were properly pacified, there was no stopping Texaco from steamrolling across the Amazonian Ecuador, rendering huge portions of the landscape barren and lifeless. The scope of the damage is mindboggling: Texaco/Chevron’s environmental impact in Ecuador is thirty times that of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and eighty times that of BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf Of Mexico, which took place in 2010. However, unlike these two great tragedies, the damage caused by Texaco/Chevron in Ecuador was by no means accidental. These are the deliberate actions of a corporation who considers itself to be above the law, and has the resources to keep it that way.
Examples of Texaco’s devastation abound: in their efforts to dispose of ‘formation water’, one of the primary waste products from oil drilling, the company has willfully disregarded both safety and handling regulations across Ecuador, instead pouring the toxic substance directly into rivers and waterways, or storing it in one of over a thousand open air pits, each one roughly equivalent in size to an Olympic swimming pool. More than sixty billion gallons of formation water have been disposed of or stored in such a fashion, causing untold damage to marine life and fertile soil. Over fifteen hundred kilometers of roads have been carved out of the once pristine wilderness, poured over with crude oil to prevent their erosion. The hundreds of miles of pipeline that snake across the landscape are shoddy and unsound, leaking often and causing even greater damage, mostly on what remains of the Cofan territory.
This speaks nothing of the human cost. Poverty holds millions of Ecuadorians in its grip, and diseases once unheard among indigenous people, like obesity and diabetes, run rampant. As the tribes have begun to falter, alcoholism, depression, and suicide have all become increasingly prevalent, as well. Among many tribes, groups of mostly young people known locally as ‘suicide clusters’ are killing themselves in large numbers, creating toxins from poisonous plants that were formerly employed for hunting purposes. Pablo Fajado’s claim that the “petroleum infrastructure that (Texaco) created was intended to maximize profit and minimize investment” seems dangerously euphemistic, given the conditions he described. A shadow looms large over Amazonian Ecuador, oily, black, thick with the stench of blood and carbon. Yet, through all this, hope still remains.
In Part Two, we will explore Pablo Fajardo’s legendary class-action lawsuit against Texaco/Chevron, and the methods and tactics used by the company to both escape justice and slander the plaintiffs and their government.