Long Wait for Justice in Amazon Pollution Case

Hundreds of families caught in 22-year-long legal battle with Chevron over Ecuador pollution, with no end in sight.

Ecuador 2015

By Priyanka Gupta

November 03, 2015

Also published by Al Jazeera English

It is exactly 22 years since the first class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the residents of the Ecuadorian Amazon region, known as the 'Oriente,' against Texaco in New York for allegedly causing environmental damage and increasing the risk of exposure to diseases like cancer among others.

The US company is accused of dumping toxic waste water carrying hazardous hydrocarbons and carcinogenic materials into the surrounding water bodies and rain forests, during its oil exploration and drilling operations between the late 1960s and early 1990s.

Hundreds of families have been caught in the legal battle with the US multinational energy company Chevron, which had acquired Texaco in 2001.

The company has denied any involvement and has called the allegations false.

Activists and lawyers representing the community say the remediation process carried out by Texaco to remove toxic waste from open pits and wells did not fix the problem, instead more than two decades later, saying a simple drill under the surface reveals mud-soaked in oil.

In 2013, Ecuador's highest court imposed a fine of $9.5bn on the company, upholding an earlier ruling by a local court, holding it responsible for pollution in the Amazon.

The case is now caught in international tribunals and class actions suits in several other countries. For the families of Lago Agrio, it has been a long wait for "justice."

Activists say statements by Chevron, and its subsidiary Texaco, that it cleaned oil pits and ponds between 1995-1998 are false. The company says the remediation process was complete and done in compliance with local and international regulations, at a cost of $40 m before the company's exit from Ecuador.

Mariana Jimenez, 75, is one of the many people who came from Loja in the south of the country, 45 years ago, escaping drought back home in search for fertile land for farming. Mariana says oil spills damaged her farm and killed her animals. 'It could take one month, one week or one year. We don't know. There's a lot of uncertainty. We want to ensure that they don't do what they did to us in other countries. We want to put fear in them so that they don't continue to kill people,' said Mariana.

Carmen Chamba suffered miscarriages and illnesses which she blames on contaminated water. She says she suffered frequent headaches and was exhausted all the time. Her husband is suffering from cancer. 'He who did the contamination should clean it,' she says.

Segundo Leonardo Chamorro, 78, lost his brother to cancer and lives right next to abandoned oil pits and contaminated ponds which he alleges were covered with dirt as part of the company's cleaning process. He says his animals were excreting blood and started to die because of toxic waste. 'We were blind, we had no knowledge, we were told that the oil is good for body aches. I have to pray to god for justice. It's not just me but thousands, we want to recover everything we have lost. The company has to pay, that's justice for us.'

Gloria Salazar, 65, says she first understood the dangers of living near toxic contamination when her cattle, which she had bought with her sole inheritance money, started dying. She says her children would suffer from frequent diarrhoea and anemia. Her family spent a lot on medical expenses and she was forced to wash clothes for other people to meet the expenses. 'Because we are poor no one listens to us, we used to be asleep, but we are not anymore. We have hope of winning and that the case turns out well. I am just waiting for god's will to be done,' she says.

Wilson Angel Vidal Masachi, 62, suffers from a skin disease and says it is because of an oil well which used to be near his house.

Residents collect and use rainwater for drinking after fears of widespread contamination of potable water by toxic waste.

Don Emilio Rivera, a cocoa and coffee plantation owner in the Amazon, says he lost his cattle in a recent oil spill. He also complains of new diseases affecting his plants, which he blames on oil contamination that still continues by other oil companies in the region.

Priyanka Gupta reported from Ecuador on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP).