Indigenous Ecuadoran woman humbles US oil giant
By Valeria Pacheco | AFP News – Wed, 23 Feb, 2011 9:09 AM EST
She has no legal training, and doesn't speak the Spanish that dominates government in Quito but indigenous villager Maria Aguinda helped bring a landmark judgment against US oil giant Chevron for polluting the rain forest she calls home.
The diminutive grandmother whose modest home sits near marshes clogged for decades in sticky oil has been at the heart of the David-and-Goliath case, and spoke out after Chevron was slapped last week with a $9.5-billion fine, among the heaviest ever handed down for environmental damage.
"Before I die they have to pay me for the dead animals, and for what they did to the river, and the water and the earth," the 61-year-old Aguinda told AFP at her home in Rumipamba, a town in remote Orellana province where pollution caused by 30 years of oil drilling and petroleum accidents had become a sad fact of life.
Texaco operated in the area between 1964 and 1990, and was bought in 2001 by Chevron, which inherited Texaco's legal nightmare.
"The demand (for compensation) is going on track," said the ethnic Quechua woman, pointing to a nearby spot marked by spillage from an oil well run by Texaco in the 1970s.
"Mary Aguinda et al" are the opening words of the suit launched in 1993 on behalf of 30,000 residents of Orellana and Sucumbios provinces, in which they charge Texaco dumped billions of gallons of toxic crude during its operations, fouling rivers, lakes and soil and causing cancer deaths in indigenous communities.
Aguinda said she believes her husband and two of his 10 children died from effects of the pollution, which rights group Amazon Watch says has affected an area the size of the US state of Rhode Island.
Several of her family members "have skin problems, like fungus," Aguinda said as she lifted her granddaughter's foot off the dirt floor to show an outbreak on her leg.
Chevron blames state-run Petroecuador, with which Texaco formed a consortium from 1972 until the US firm departed in 1992, of not doing its part in the clean-up agreed with the state.
"When Texaco came we never thought they would leave behind such damage, never. Then it began to drill a well and set up burn pits," she said, helped in translation by her son William Grefa.
"It changed our life: hunting, fishing, and other food, it's all finished."
She skeptically eyes the ongoing cleanup of a marsh just meters from her house, where workers dressed in oil-stained yellow overalls dredge thick black ooze into suction pipes.
Aguinda said the spill is leftover from a Texaco storage pool which overflowed into the marshes during 1987-1990 operations of the Auca South 1 well about 200 meters (656 feet) from Rumipamba.
Texaco performed operational repairs in the area in the 1990s, and oil extraction continues in the region, according to Grefa.
Six months ago, a dozen workers from Petroecuador, which has managed the concession since 1990, began cleaning up the marshes, reviving bitter memories within the community of the slow-motion disaster.
The company "made arrangements, but they covered everything with sticks and earth and nothing more," said Grefa, a member of the Assembly of People Affected by Texaco, which represents the 30,000 indigenous people in the suit.
The operation has done little to improve conditions, Aguinda said.
"With the cleanup that Texaco left, the air is just unbearable. I can't live above the oil," groaned Aguinda, who grew visibly irritated talking about the disaster.
"If someone comes here from Texaco" he'll get "pepper in his eyes," she winced.
A strong petroleum smell permeates Rumipamba, home to nine families, some of whom complain of headaches. Several areas of Sucumbios are also contaminated, according to the plaintiffs, who argue that merely sinking a shovel into the ground yields a thick layer of crude.
Chevron, which has called the judgment "illegitimate and unenforceable," has asked a judge in Ecuador for clarification of the ruling as it seeks to appeal.
The court last week announced a penalty against Chevron of $8.6 billion with an additional 10 percent for environment management costs.
The plaintiffs, too, plan to appeal, saying the ruling fails to adequately compensate for certain damages and illness. They were seeking more than $27 billion in their suit.