Taking on Big Oil
By Natalie Miller and Camilla Mortensen. Interview with Pablo Fajardo translated by Natalie Miller
Ugly pits leaking oil scar the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, and once pristine streams ooze with sludge.
The photos Pablo Fajardo shows on his laptop sitting in the small and comfortably worn offices of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) in Eugene are a slideshow of waste and destruction. The Ecuadorian Amazon contains 5 percent of all the world’s plant and animal species and is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, but not near Lago Agrio, where the toxic sludge and wastewater left from years of oil drilling in the once-pristine forest have killed off fish and wildlife and sickened the people who live nearby. The environmental damage to the area around Lake Agrio is so extensive, it’s been called the “Amazon Chernobyl.” The effects on the people living in the area have been called a humanitarian disaster.
|Fajardo with indigenous people from the Lago Agrio area by an open-air oil pit|
Fajardo, who grew up poor and worked from a young age in the midst of the oil drilling and its pollution, is the David in a David and Goliath-esque case pitting Ecuadorian Indians and mestizos against major American oil companies. Fajardo and two fellow attorneys represent about 30,000 Ecuadorians in this class action suit trying to clean up the oily mess in their part of the Amazon. They’re tackling the big money of big oil with guts and determination more than anything else. Their case is lengthy and complex and has generated thousands of documents both in Spanish and in English.
Fajardo came to Eugene via a fellowship through ELAW and the Wayne Morse Center for Law & Politics in order to study English at the UO’s American English Institute. He spoke with EW earlier this month.
Big Oil, Small Country
The legal case, Aguinda v. Chevron Texaco, was first filed in 1993, 10 years before Fajardo had his law degree. But the oily tentacles of the case stretch back even farther. In 1964, Texaco Petroleum Company (Texpet) began its oil operations in the once wild and untouched Lake Agrio area with full-scale oil extraction beginning in 1972 — the year Fajardo was born. Before the arrival of oil exploration, the sparsely populated area was home to six or so indigenous tribes whose main contact with North America was missionaries. “Texaco is the face of America,” says Andrew Woods, an American attorney working with Fajardo and another American attorney, Steven Donziger, on the case. “It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of our country.”
The lawsuit alleges that from 1964 until 1990, Texaco deliberately dumped 18.5 billion gallons of “produced water” into the waterways of the Amazon. Produced water is what is brought up along with crude oil during the oil extraction process. According to the Produced Water Society, it can contain dissolved inorganic salts, dispersed oil droplets and dissolved oil; treatment and workover chemicals; dissolved gases, particularly hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide; and bacteria and other living organisms. Hydrogen sulfide inhaled in low concentrations can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. In high concentrations, it can cause death, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The EPA has not yet classified its potential to cause cancer.
The case alleges also that Texaco created open, unlined waste pits and filled them with sludge from the drilling process. According to the lawsuit, sludge and liquids containing chemicals like the cancer-causing chromium 6 were discharged into streams and rivers; waste pits were lit on fire to burn off oil; oil-laden sludge was spread on dirt roads to keep the dirt down and numerous oil spills contributed to the pollution that has caused cancer rates to skyrocket in the region. One study out of the University of London on the town of San Carlos found that cancer rates there exceed the average rate by up to 30 times. The New York-based Center for Economic and Social Rights found that hydrocarbons in the waters around the region at polluted the rivers and streams at rates between 10 and 1,000 times the level allowed by the U.S. EPA for acceptable limits for drinking water.
Woods says Texaco’s practices in Ecuador were substandard. “The system was faulty,” Woods says. “We think this is fairly simple matter of law. The operator is 100 percent liable for any damage caused by the system.” Questions have arisen over whether the oil company tried to cover up some of its damages. An internal memo from Texaco, dated 1972 and referring to oils spills in Ecuador, instructs that “only major events are to be reported” and adds that “no reports are to be kept on a routine basis and all previous reports are to be removed from Field and Division offices and destroyed.”
The case doesn’t only involve Texaco, which ran the oil concession in Lago Agrio. In 1974, the Ecuadorian government’s oil company, CEPE (now called PetroEcuador) got a 25 percent interest in the oil consortium, which also involved Gulf Oil. Gulf sold its interest in the oil field to CEPE in 1977, and in 1990, management of the consortium was given to PetroEcuador. In 1993, Texaco’s concession expired, leaving PetroEcuador in control of the oil field. Texaco merged with Chevron in 2001. According to Chevron, the company is not responsible for the environmental disaster at Lago Agrio and lays culpability at the feet of PetroEcuador. According to Woods and Fajardo, Chevron needs to clean up the toxic mess it became responsible for when it acquired Texaco.
Fajardo was fresh from law school in 2003 when he began working as an assistant for two high-profile Ecuadorian lawyers, who at the time were fighting against Chevron. Little did Fajardo know that shortly after starting his law career and with nearly no experience, he would become the lead lawyer in his first lawsuit — a fight costing millions of dollars and dragging on for more than 15 years.
With such little legal experience, how did Fajardo wind up as the Don Quixote of the Lago Agrio oil war? The charismatic 37-year-old mestizo has lived most his life dangerously close to Texaco’s oil mess in Lago Agrio. And after years of smelling burning petroleum, drinking contaminated water and watching neighbors suffer from health complications, he speaks passionately about conditions of the place he and roughly 120,000 others call home.
Although this is Fajardo’s first time legally defending his community, it is not his first fight for human rights. When Fajardo was 14, he and his family moved from the coastal province of Manabi to Shushufindi, a small village in the Amazon, east of Quito. There he became involved with the Catholic church, working with indigenous communities and people from the countryside. Through his work with the church, Fajardo says he became aware of the problems affecting his community. He realized that livestock that people depended on for food were falling into Texaco’s petroleum pits, and that people and animals were becoming ill from drinking the murky water and inhaling the dirty air. Something had to be done.
Along with the priest, Fajardo organized a group of roughly 20 people to defend the rights of the community. He was 16 years old and the leader of the group. The rights group would listen to accusations of people living in the area, but little could be done. “If someone went to the authorities, they’d tell the person to go get a lawyer,” Fajardo says. “But there weren’t any who would help us. The lawyers who lived in the area all worked for the big oil companies. That’s when I decided to study law.”
Before he could begin that study, Fajardo had to finish high school. He studied at night and worked during the day for an oil company to support himself. But after a while the company fired Fajardo, he says, for standing up against poor work conditions and low pay. Once Fajardo had completed high school, he was able to pursue law. Because there weren’t any universities nearby, he began a six-year correspondence program through a university in Quito. Meanwhile, the case against Chevron was gaining speed.
Soon after Fajardo joined the team, the two lawyers he was assisting moved away and couldn’t continue the case. Fajardo stepped forward and assumed the role of lead lawyer. “I was the only one, and I had to face Chevron’s team of eight attorneys, each one with more than 25 years of experience,” Fajardo says. “It was challenging, but at that point I decided that my only strategy would be to tell the truth.”
Fajardo says that his goal was to face his opponents as one should, as a human being and with respect. “Thanks to God, I’ve never felt as though I was less than anyone or superior to anyone,” he says. “I believe we’re all equal.”
Big Bad Oil?
Chevron says it’s getting the short end of the stick in this case. “We’ve been fairly outspoken in our belief that the complaint against Chevron is without merit,” says Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson.
In 2008 when Fajardo and activist and community leader Luis Yanza were awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for their work on the case, Chevron went on the attack, taking out an advertisement in major newspapers calling Fajardo a “front man for a group of Ecuadorian and American trial lawyers,” and saying Fajardo and Yanza were “complicit in protecting polluters.” A site at Texaco.com calls Fajardo’s case “a farce” and calls Fajardo’s claims about the pollution and its affects on human health “big lies.”
The site shows photos of green and productive fields, a far cry from the oily toxic mess the small farmers of Lago Agrio say is killing their hard-won livelihoods.
Robertson says, “The entire process has been something of a distraction.” He says, “What has been allowed to happen is PetroEcuador has been allowed to escape scrutiny for its environmental practices.” According to Robertson, Chevron has done the clean up it is responsible for — 37 percent, the same percentage as the interest it once held in the consortium — spending about $40 million. “PetroEcuador is responsible for the balance of the clean up work that needs to be done,” he says.
Fajardo says what clean-up was done wasn’t nearly enough. “For every 100 pits, Chevron was responsible for cleaning 37, while the government cleaned the rest,” he says. “However, when they declared that there were 100 pits, in reality there were 200. And when they said that 100 pits had been cleaned, really they had just covered 100 pits over with dirt.”
“It’s like putting makeup over skin cancer,” Woods says.
According to Woods, “Chevron is after the government to pay for something Chevron did.” An expert appointed by the Ecuadorian court recommended the judge award $27 billion in damages from Chevron. Chevron is “avoiding any sort of responsibility,” Woods says. In addition to the main case, Woods says that Chevron has filed other cases in an effort to get a U.S. court to say that the courts in Ecuador, where Fajardo’s case against Chevron will be heard, are biased against them. That strategy doesn’t seem to be working out. For one thing, the plaintiffs in the original case sued Texaco in the U.S., but Texaco convinced a U.S. circuit court (one that then included newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomajor) that the case should move to Ecuador and praised Ecuador’s judicial system in their court documents.
Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt Chevron another blow when it refused to hear one of Chevron’s cases, The Republic of Ecuador and PetroEcuador v. ChevronTexaco Corporation and Texaco Petroleum Company. That case was related to Chevron’s claim that the Ecuador’s government and PetroEcuador are responsible for the mess oil extraction has made of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Chevron withdrew the case on July 20.
Big Oil is Watching You
After six years of battling Chevron, Fajardo says that aside from an “immense pain in his back,” it would be a lie to claim that everything, good or bad, that has happened to him has been a result of the case. But one thing is true: His family ties are a casualty of his battle against Big Oil. “I have two children in Ecuador, whom I barely see every 15 days,” says Fajardo. “And in 2004, one of my brothers was assassinated. I can’t say it was Chevron who killed him. But I can’t say it wasn’t, either.”
Chevron’s spokesman Robertson takes umbrage at this. He says Fajardo’s claim is “an outright lie.” He adds, “Quite frankly, it’s disgusting. He knows what happened and is now exploiting it. It’s repugnant.”
In the months following the death of his brother, Fajardo says he became a target. But whose target exactly? Fajardo isn’t sure. However, for the next three months he says that he was persistently harassed. And from what others have told him, a few times he narrowly escaped being shot. “I was being looked for everywhere: at my house, my room, my work,” he says. “It was challenging, because you begin to lose trust in everyone. And it doesn’t matter if the person is an acquaintance or a stranger. Anyone could be the person who’s going to shoot you.”
“It’s a hell of an accusation,” Robertson says of the notion that Chevron could be behind these pressure tactics.
So Fajardo began taking precautionary measures; he changed his clothes often and varied his routine. But he wasn’t the only one being harassed. The other lawyers on his team received telephone threats, and eventually they all had to ask for court ordered protection from the OEA (The Organization of American States), he says. Despite the stress and the danger, Fajardo is determined to continue the fight — living, he says, by the words of poet Carlos Portela: “No one dies a day early or a day late.”
In addition to the OEA’s protection, Fajardo says that as the case has progressed and gained media attention, the public has started to recognize him and his colleagues. “If anything bad happens to me or anyone else working on the case, the public will know and think that Chevron is at fault,” Fajardo says. “The fact that Chevron knows that makes me feel more secure.”
Fajardo says he wants the public to know too that the “people living in and around Lago Agrio need support, strength and unity.” He says, “These companies should be held to the same responsible standards in all parts of the world.”
Robertson contends that some of the illnesses experienced by the people of Lago Agrio are caused by their own fecal matter and that of their livestock. According to Woods, “Essentially Chevron’s attitude is that these are dirty peasants. That’s incredibly insulting.” He points out that fecal bacteria don’t cause cancer.
Fajardo says, “We need to rethink what we value and what we put a price on, because currently we give more merit to the things that have prices than those that have value. The things that have value, oxygen, clean water, life, a good ecosystem, don’t have a price. We often think about the cost of life, but we don’t think about the value of it that we’re destroying.”
The lawsuit is expected to be settled before the end of this year. If Fajardo wins, it could would not only be a win for the environment — this suit is possibly the biggest environmental lawsuit in the world — it would be a win for social justice. The plaintiffs accuse ChevronTexaco not only of sickening people and polluting the environment but of destroying indigenous cultures as well.
Fajardo says, “I think it’s possible for everyone to coexist if only the oil companies could drill for oil in more responsible ways, with respect for the rights of indigenous communities, the environment and the ecosystem and if governments were capable of maintaining better standards.” ew
You can meet Pablo Fajardo at 5:30 pm Aug. 27 at an ELAW event at the Lord Leebrick Theater. Purchase tickets at: www.elaw.org/give or call ELAW at 687-8454. $40 per person or $75 per family in advance.