Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Justice for Ecuadorian Indians

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Ecuadorean Indian groups said Texaco – which merged with Chevron in 2001 – dumped more than 18 billion gallons (68 billion liters) of toxic materials into the unlined pits and rivers between 1972 and 1992. A lawsuit was brought on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadoreans, in a case which dragged on for nearly two decades. The plaintiffs said the company's activities had destroyed large areas of the Amazon rainforest as well as their livelihood. Crops were damaged, farm animals killed and cancer increased among the local population, they said.

UK’s The Guardian (February 14, 2011) drew attention to a report by Sweden's Umeå International School of Public Health more than 30 billion gallons of toxic wastes and crude oil had been discharged into the land and waterways of Ecuador's Amazon basin – or "Oriente". This compares to the 10.8 million gallons spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 in Alaska or 205 million gallons spilt in BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. The report claims there are at least two big oil spills per week in the area.

The lawsuit on behalf of Ecuadorian Amazon communities was originally filed in New York in 1993. It sought $27bn in damages from illness, deaths and economic loss. But the trial began only in 2003 after almost a decade of legal battles in the US. At that time, a US appeals court ruled that the case should be heard in Ecuador.

And on Monday, in the Ecuadorian town of Lago Agrio, Judge Nicolás Zambrano (a town founded as an oil camp in the 1960s) fined US oil giant Chevron a reported $8.6 billion (according to BBC News, dated February 15, 2011) in damages, one of the largest environmental awards ever.

The New York Times (February 14, 2011) highlighted that the award against Chevron “is one of the largest judgments ever imposed for environmental contamination in any court,” said David M Uhlmann, an expert in environmental law at the University of Michigan. “It falls well short of the $20 billion that BP has agreed to pay to compensate victims of the gulf oil spill but is a landmark decision nonetheless. Whether any portion of the claims will be paid by Chevron is less clear”.

Pablo Fajardo, lawyer for the plaintiffs, described the court ruling as "a great step that we have made toward the crystallization of justice". Personally, I think the damages award is way too low. The plaintiffs should file an appeal.

In any case, environmentalists hope the case (Maria Aquinda v Chevron, 002-2003, Superior Court of Nueva Loja, Lago Agrio, Ecuador) will set a precedent, forcing companies operating in developing countries to comply with the same anti-pollution standards as in the industrialized world.

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