“Justicia Now” Documents “Rainforest Chernobyl”

Oil fire in Ecuadorian Amazon“Small but mighty” is a phrase that comes to mind when watching the short film, “Justicia Now,” and the people it profiles.

The 30-minute documentary, produced by the social justice-minded media organization Mofilms, follows the powerful movement of indigenous peoples in eastern Ecuador who have taken on ChevronTexaco in what could be one of the biggest legal environmental battles ever.

The confrontation centers on a class-action lawsuit first filed in U.S. federal court in New York in 1993. Launched on behalf of 30,000 indigenous peoples in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, the suit charges that Texaco (since acquired by Chevron) poisoned the region and spilled 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater while drilling for oil between the 1960s and 1990s. Since shifted to trial in Ecuador (at Chevron’s request), the lawsuit (Aguinda vs. ChevronTexaco) is seeking an environmental cleanup whose estimated cost is $10 billion.

The suit is expected to come to a conclusion sometime next year.

Directed by Martin O’Brien and Robbie Proctor, “Justicia Now” documents the street protests and activism of the local people. They claim the legacy of Texaco’s oil drilling is a landscape fouled by oil-slicked streams and rivers, poisoned wildlife and lethal doses of carcinogens. The filmmakers, occasionally accompanied by actress Daryl Hannah, travel with indigenous activists to view the environmental damage first-hand, and to meet and speak with locals who describe miscarriages, cancer and other impacts.

Investigators tracking the case say communities close to old Texaco wells suffer from childhood leukemia rates four times the national average. The amount of oil spilled in the region, they add, is 30 times that released in the Exxon Valdez accident. Ecuadorian locals have dubbed the situation the “Rainforest Chernobyl.”

Mofilms has made “Justicia Now” available for free download, and it’s not only worth viewing but passing along to others on your mailing list. The film packs powerful visuals, haunting music and an inspirational punch from seeing poor and disadvantaged people engaged in a true David vs. Goliath battle.

5 thoughts on ““Justicia Now” Documents “Rainforest Chernobyl””

  1. One other point:

    Petroecuador has its own legacy of pollution in the last 17 years. However, it is important to remember that Petroecuador inherited its oil producing infrastructure from Texaco – the system that Texaco deliberately designed to pollute. Petroecuador has since made improvements to this system – it is now reinjecting produced water, for example.

    In the 1970s, Texaco, as a major U.S. oil company with more than 50 years of experience, was trusted by Ecuador’s government to implement the same state of the art technologies and best practices it would have employed in the United States. Texaco betrayed that trust. In doing so, the company implicitly valued an Ecuadorian life much less than an American life – crunching the numbers suggests as much as 50 times less.

    The company cannot claim ignorance or “We didn’t know any better at the time!” – they did! Texaco held patents in the ’70s on wastewater reinjection technology – technology which they refused to use in Ecuador.

  2. This Wall Street Journal writer appears to have bought Chevron’s story hook, line and sinker – he uncritically accepts Chevron’s claim that it is not the responsible party for the mess in the Oriente. Even a cursory examination of the historical record, not Chevron’s revisionist history, reveals a different story.

    A few key observations:

    -It is abundantly clear that there’s an environmental catastrophe in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Anyone who visits the region can see it firsthand. Chevron admits as much.

    -The question, then, is who is rightly to blame. Chevron tries to blame Ecuadorian state oil company Petroecuador, which took over the concession from Texaco (now Chevron) in 1992. Petroecuador does have a poor environmental record, however, the area was widely known as an environmental disaster zone by 1990, before Petroecuador took over.

    -Texaco was the sole operator from 1964 to 1990, and made all operating decisions during this time. The company deliberately dumped all of its produced water, toxic and highly saline wastewater from the drilling process, into rivers and streams, despite that reinjection was the norm in the U.S. at the time, and multiple U.S. states had laws prohibiting exactly the kind of dumping Texaco did in Ecuador.

    -Internal Texaco memos released at trial show that the company deliberately destroyed records of oil spills, and often didn’t keep them at all. Internal documents also show that Texaco was aware of the danger of using unlined earthen waste pits – from which crude oil and other toxic waste have been spilling and leaching into groundwater for 40 years now – and yet deliberately chose not to line the pits, in order to save money.

    -Texaco’s operation was so internationally notorious by the 1980s that a Brazilian oil company sent a team of engineers to Ecuador to study it, as a model of what NOT to do.

    -In 1991, a book, “Amazon Crude”, by Judith Kimerling, documented the legacy of death and devastation from Texaco’s dirty oil operation. Recall that this is in 1991, when no company BUT Texaco could possibly have been responsible for the mess.

    -Local indigenous people have vivid recollections of Texaco’s arrival into what, in 1964, was remote and pristine rainforest. Texaco employees were hostile and abusive to indigenous people, and operated with complete disregard for their cultures or their ancestral territories. One account from indigenous people of the cataclysmic change Texaco brought can be read at http://www.cofan.org/quienes/quienes.html

    -As for Chevron’s claim that Texaco remediated all of the pollution for which it was responsible in the mid-1990s, the scientific evidence from the trial clearly shows that massive, illegal levels of soil and water contamination persist even at the sites Texaco claimed to have cleaned up.

    -By firsthand accounts as well as this scientific evidence, it has become clear that Texaco’s “remediation” often consisted of merely shoveling dirt over open waste pits, without removing the crude oil underneath. Crude still bubbles to the surface at some, and people have even unknowingly built houses on top of some of these pits.

    -Due to evidence like this, in September 2008 the government of Ecuador indicted two Chevron attorneys for fraud. The indictment alleges that they knew Texaco’s remediation was inadequate and deceived the Ecuadorian government into signing off on it in 1998.

    With billions of dollars at stake in a trial that Chevron aggressively lobbied to have heard in Ecuador instead of the U.S. (perhaps expecting the Ecuadorian courts to be more amenable to intimidation from a multinational oil company), Chevron is willing to throw money at PR efforts to distort the facts and smear the plaintiffs in this case. But no big oil PR budget is big enough to make the facts on the ground go away.

    To learn more and help support 30,000 Ecuadorians’ quest for justice, watch the short film “Justicia Now” if you haven’t already – a picture really is worth 1,000 words to understand the extent of the devastation – and visit http://www.chevrontoxico.com/ .

  3. For mor einformation on this matter, you may want to read the following op-ed piece. Thanks.

    REVIEW & OUTLOOK (Editorial)

    Banana Republic and Friends
    632 words
    19 April 2008
    The Wall Street Journal
    (Copyright (c) 2008, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

    Maybe Willie Sutton, the natty thief who robbed banks because “that’s where the money is,” picked the wrong target. If only he’d gone after oil companies, he could have made more money, avoided jail time, and even picked up an award or two along the way.

    Consider Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza, two Ecuadorians who on Monday were the toast of San Francisco after winning the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Mr. Fajardo, a lawyer, and Mr. Yanza, co-founder of the Amazon Defense Front, have been waging a long legal campaign against Chevron for allegedly despoiling the Amazon hinterland. Late last month, an Ecuadorian court trying the case was handed a report assessing the damages at between $8.3 billion and $16 billion dollars. Chevron is now girding for an adverse ruling from a clearly politicized court.

    The story dates back to the 1960s, when Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001) became a minority partner with state-run Petroecuador, a partnership that lasted until the early 1990s when the Ecuadorians assumed full control of their oil operations. At the time, an independent environmental auditing firm recommended that Texaco spend $13.2 million cleaning up its well sites. Texaco ended up spending $40 million. Ecuador later “absolved, liberated and forever freed” the company from “any claim or litigation by the Government of Ecuador concerning the obligations acquired” by Texaco.

    By its own admission, Petroecuador has since made an environmental mess in the Amazon, with some 1,000 oil spills in the past five years alone. But that hasn’t stopped assorted trial lawyers from prospecting for Chevron’s gold beneath Petroecuador’s sludge. In 1993, “international human-rights lawyer” Cristobal Bonifaz filed a lawsuit against Texaco in the U.S. for $1.5 billion. Mr. Bonifaz’s suit was repeatedly tossed from American courts, most recently last fall when the court also fined Mr. Bonifaz $45,000 for his legal chicanery.

    Yet the case has lived on in Mr. Fajardo’s parallel suit in Ecuador. According to last month’s “expert” report, written by a mining engineer named Richard Stalin Cabrera, Chevron owes $2.9 billion in compensation for 428 cancer-related deaths; never mind that the report fails to establish a causal link between oil spills and cancer. Chevron is also supposed to pay $8.3 billion for its “unjust enrichment,” another whopper considering that Petroecuador was by far the greatest beneficiary of its consortium with Texaco. Other alleged Texaco sins include introducing alcohol into the region, a claim said to be substantiated by the alcohol-induced death of an indigenous shaman.

    Meanwhile, the case has become the latest environmental cause celebre. In December, CNN awarded Mr. Fajardo one of its “Hero Awards.” Actress Daryl Hannah has had herself photographed dipping her hands in oil spills almost certainly caused by Petroecuador. Groups like AmazonWatch offer one-stop shopping for misinformation about the case. Also in on the act is Ecuador’s radical president (and Hugo Chavez ally) Rafael Correa, who has his own reasons to seek a huge Chevron payday.

    How all this will play out is anyone’s guess. Charles James, Chevron’s general counsel, says his company does “not intend to succumb to extortion.” The company will seek international arbitration should it lose in Ecuador’s kangaroo courts. That could take years. In the meantime, we wonder whose interests are served by a case that deflects attention from the real source of Ecuador’s pollution while burnishing the country’s reputation as a banana republic. Certainly not the people of Ecuador.

  4. Ms Gregory,
    The filmmaker is evidently badly misinformed with respect to the lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador and the situation in the Oriente. Rather than elaborate here on the immumerable falsehoods and distortions contained in film, I urge your readers to review the information on this website http://www.texaco.com/sitelets/ecuador/en/. Hopefully, this will help readers/viewers avoid being fooled in the future by disinformation spread by the plaintiffs and their U.S. trial lawyers in their attempt to extort a juicy settlement in this case. Thank you.

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