When forest people defy big oil

This month's court hearing in N.Y.C. showsnew awareness of legalrights in remote areas.

Two hours down the Aguarico River from the nearest dirt road, hidden from the water by thick jungle, is the town of San Pablo de los Secoya. Some 350 Secoya live in the tiny village, and the community's total income from pursuits like fishing and handicrafts is about $4,000 a year.

Last month the Secoya gave back to US-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. a $20,000 down payment on rights to begin drilling for oil on their land. "Our life in the jungle doesn't compare with $20,000 - $20,000 is a lot of money, but this is our cultural identity," says Colon Piaguaje, a community representative.

The Secoya are also among the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Texaco being filed in New York. Mr. Piaguaje says that during the 1970s and '80s the extraction of oil up the river had catastrophic effects on San Pablo.

"It was out of control. There was oil floating down the Aguarico river. The whole river was black," he says. At the time the Secoya were hit with a wave of unknown illnesses, he says, and the fish and wildlife that the Secoya lived on were greatly reduced.

Trying Ecuador case in US?

In the past five years, the legal battle has been about where the case should be heard. Texaco thinks it should go back to Ecuador where the events took place. The plaintiffs say Ecuadorean courts are not sophisticated enough to hear the case. Also, because class action has no legal precedent in Ecuador, it would involve thousands of plaintiffs suing individually.

A New York district court has just heard the case, and the venue may be decided this month. Environmentalists say it would be a legal watershed if the decision is to try the case in New York. Either way this case has made a change in the Amazon region, according to Chris Jochnick, a Quito-based lawyer with the Center for Economic and Social Rights, a US organization involved with indigenous legal matters, including the long-pending suit against Texaco.

"Just five years ago people really did live with oil as if it were just part of nature," says Mr. Jochnick. "Today not only do they recognize that the oil is leading to a lot of their health problems, but they recognize that they have legal rights and that this is not the way things are supposed to be."

The Secoya say the return of $20,000 is the third deal they have rejected or annulled with Occidental. While the community has voted to allow the oil company to come in, the Secoya are trying to take their time and make sure they get plenty in return for what they fear will be a drastic change in their culture when the company builds a road connecting them to the outside world.

"The road is like sticking a knife in our body - that's what the older people say," says Piaguaje, "Fifty settlers could move in overnight, begin to mix and marry with Secoya.... Our culture could disappear."

At the same time, the road could bring development and trade, he says, something the younger villagers are excited about. The Secoya are starting to understand how to bargain with the big companies, he says, and they are going to try for a balance between preserving their culture and benefiting from the oil wells around them - perhaps getting a hospital or a water-treatment plant.

Occidental has a good environmental record within the industry, but its attitude with the indigenous has been reckless, according to Jochnick, the lawyer.

"In the past they [Occidental] were just offering things like volleyball courts or maybe a solar panel," he says. "Today they're offering maybe $90,000 to a community. It's still trinkets and beads for the companies, but to the communities it's a huge incentive. It has created divisions between different communities, it has certainly led to the corruption of local leaders."

Occidental did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its dealings with the Secoya.

The class-action suit against Texaco began five years ago and is still tied up in US courts. The plaintiffs are asking for $1.5 billion in damages for some 30,000 claimants. Texaco and the government pumped out about 1.4 billion barrels of crude over 20 years. The plaintiffs say they spilled about 17 million barrels into the jungle - half again the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

The area is pitted with hundreds of open pools of oil waste left behind when Texaco pulled out of Ecuador in 1992.

"You'll see open waste pits and then houses maybe 50 yards down the road where the stream passes by them and kids playing in the water," says Jochnick, "Even though they've come to know that it's contaminated, it's still the only place that they can go for water."

The environmentalists' most serious charge against Texaco is that the company dumped about 30 billion gallons of "produced waters" - million-year-old water that comes up with the oil in any drilling operation. The water is naturally laced with toxins.

Texaco's 50% of GNP

According to Texaco, the produced waters were filtered before they were released, and all prevailing industry standards as well as Ecuadorean laws were obeyed.

Texaco says that before leaving Ecuador it completed a $40 million cleanup deal with the government, remediating damages and sealing more than 200 of the waste pits.

"Texaco did operate responsibly in Ecuador," says Faye Cox, a company representative. "At the time Texaco provided 50 percent of the gross national product to Ecuador and that's important to an emerging country. There were schools built, hospitals were built, and we feel like we did a very good job."

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