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ECUADOR: Amazon Indians say Texaco left damage

by Gonzalo SolanoAssociated Press
October 20th, 2005

About 50 Cofan Indians, some holding handkerchiefs over their faces to fend off an acrid chemical stench, gathered around two contaminated open pits they say were left behind and never adequately cleaned up by the former Texaco Corp.

A 35-year-old Cofan woman stood near one of the black pools. Nearby was a marsh, covered by a dense layer of crude and toxic waste that the Cofan Indians say seeped into streams and rivers used for drinking water by almost half of their 900 people, driving them from the area.

"We are poor people. We want to show the environmental damage from Texaco," Edita Requalme, dressed in a brightly colored traditional blouse and skirt, said in broken Spanish on Wednesday. "Contaminated water makes us ill. It causes skin problems and even miscarriages."

An older Cofan woman, who identified herself only as Laura, added: "We have no animals. We have no land. Everything dies."

A long-running oil-contamination lawsuit, brought by 88 people representing 30,000 poor jungle settlers and Amazon Indians, opened in Ecuador in October 2003 after a decade of winding through U.S. courts.

The plaintiffs claim $6 billion in damages to their jungle homeland. The case is the first time that a multinational petroleum company has been subjected to Ecuadorean jurisdiction for allegedly damaging the environment in this small Andean nation, which depends on oil for its development.

The plaintiffs had sought for years to have the case tried in the United States, fearing they would not receive a fair hearing in Ecuador's notoriously corrupt judicial system. But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled in 2002 that the case should be heard in the country where the damage allegedly occurred.

The plaintiffs allege that Texaco, which merged with Chevron Corp. in 2001 to become ChevronTexaco Corp., chose to cut costs between 1972 and 1990 by dumping 18.5 billion gallons of oily wastewater brought up by drilling into more than 600 open pits and streams in the Amazon jungle.

In May, ChevronTexaco shortened its name to Chevron Corp.

Chevron has denied the allegations, saying Texaco followed Ecuadorean environmental laws and spent $40 million under a clean-up agreement it made with the Ecuadorean government in 1995. The government certified the clean-up three years later.

The system of holding pits was turned over to state-run Petroecuador, which the plaintiffs lawyers say continued to contaminate the land.

"What Petroecuador did since 1990 until now can be the subject of another trial," said attorney Pablo Fajardo, adding it would be "difficult to fight two companies at once" in court.

"From the beginning, Texaco built the operating oil system," he said.

Court officials and lawyers and hired experts for both sides were supposed to inspect the pits and marsh on Wednesday, but the inspection was abruptly called off the night before.

Judge Efrain Novillo told The Associated Press on Wednesday morning that he had received an army intelligence report warning that "natives and settlers" had planned to take hostages.

The frustrated field inspection is one of 122 ordered by the court. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said that the 18 inspected sites reported to the court so far, including 15 supposedly cleaned up, show levels of toxic contamination in violation of Ecuadorean law, according to independent lab reports.

"We want the inspection done and for people to see," said Roberto Aguinda, vice president of the Cofan Federation, wearing a dark tunic and traditional feather head dress. "We have many zones that have been affected by the contamination."

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