"Our health has been damaged seriously by the contamination caused by Texaco. Many people in our community now have red stains on their skin and others have been vomiting and fainting. Some little children have died because their parents did not know they should not drink the river water."
The human rights situation of Indigenous peoples and environmentalists in Ecuador continues to be a serious concern for Amnesty International. For over four decades, Indigenous communities have witnessed multinational oil companies cut through the Ecuadorian Amazon and their ancestral lands in search of the country's vast petroleum resources. Testimonies by members of these communities, verified by independent health studies and reports (including "Amazon Crude" by Judith Kimerling) have described how oil companies have left dead rivers, road-scarred forests, polluted air, and daily discharges of millions of gallons of toxic waste in their wake that are affecting the daily lives of the communities in the area.
Operating in a region of the rain forest known as the ‘Oriente' both transnational and domestic oil companies threaten the survival of Indigenous populations as well as those who seek to protect their communities and the environment. Over the past four decades, a succession of U.S. petroleum companies including Texaco (now owned by Chevron Corporation), Occidental Petroleum, ARCO, and Maxus Energy Corporation, among others, have come to Ecuador in search of oil. Environmental and human rights defenders claim that these companies have left behind a trail of destruction, posing a serious danger to people's survival.
The Chevron Pollution and Three Decades of Neglect
Texaco, currently owned by Chevron Corporation (CVX), began prospecting for oil in Ecuador in 1964, becoming the first company to discover commercial quantities. Subsequently, Texaco's joint venture with Petroecuador, in which the U.S. company was an operating partner, set the standards for operations in the region. According to the 1993 report "Crudo Amazónico" (Amazon Crude) by the environmental lawyer Judith Kimerling, from 1972 until it left Ecuador in 1992, Texaco intentionally dumped more than 19 billion gallons of toxic wastewaters into the region and was responsible for 16.8 million gallons of crude oil spilling from the main pipeline into the forest. By comparison, the infamous Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in 1989 spilled 10.8 million gallons off the coast of Alaska. The report alleges that these actions contaminated both the soil and the groundwater of the communities in the area and will continue to threaten the economic and cultural bases of Indigenous peoples' survival.
According to the authors of the 1999 "Yana Curi" Report, which details the impact of oil development on the health of the people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, living in proximity to oil fields seems to have increased the risk of residents developing health problems. For instance, based on the characteristics of the population, cancer rates are statistically higher in the oil producing village of San Carlos than should be expected. Another study published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health points out the relationship between higher spontaneous abortion rates and living in the proximity of contaminated water streams. In some streams, the levels of oil chemicals like hydrocarbon concentrations was as high as 280 times the permitted levels in the European Community. Meanwhile, Chevron (CVX) has not only refused to acknowledge any link between the public health hazards and the environmental problems caused by its drilling policies in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but has also refused to clean up the pollution, claiming that a ‘clean up' agreement with the Ecuadorian Government has released it of any further liability. The company has further denied direct compensation to the affected communities for threatening their health and their economic and cultural survival by polluting their environment.
Violated Human Rights:
These reports point out serious human rights abuses against the people living in the area where Texaco operated. As set forth in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, their rights to the highest attainable standard of health, to an adequate standard of living and to water and sanitation, have been and are still being violated.
Corporate inaction ignores the fact that human rights responsibilities extend beyond states. Since 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has provided a common standard of achievement, which means that every individual and every organ of society bears responsibility for the universal and effective recognition and observance of the rights and freedoms in the Declaration. In 2003 the UN Norms on the responsibilities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights were adopted by the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and transferred for discussion to the UN Commission on Human Rights. The preamble to the UN Norms notes that "transnational corporations and other business enterprises, their officers and persons working for them are also obligated to respect generally recognized responsibilities and norms contained in United Nations treaties and other international instruments." While the UN Norms do not yet have legal status as law, they reflect the emerging consensus view, recognizing that if international obligations can be placed on individuals and states, then corporations too have character under international law.
Indigenous communities and their resistance to oil exploration
Both environmentalists and human rights defenders in Ecuador have been subject to anonymous threats and intimidation. The Sarayaku Indigenous community (part of the Kichwa nationality) of the Pastaza province oppose the oil concession of Block 23 given by the Ecuadorian Government to the Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC), an Argentine oil company, allowing it to start operations on Sarayaku territory. Burlington Resources, a US based energy company, holds a 50% working interest in this block. The Sarayaku community argues that oil extraction in their territory will damage their environment and way of life, which they do not want to abandon. They have proposed alternative, sustainable development in their territory so that their culture will not suffer.
Their community and their leaders, including their president, Marlon Santi, have been the object of a campaign of intimidation and defamation apparently because of their opposition to oil concessions. The perpetrators appear to be individuals aligned with the oil companies, acting with the acquiescence of the security forces. Death threats, along with physical and verbal abuse, led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), one of the bodies of the Organization of American States (OAS), to order that the Ecuadorian government protect the Sarayaku. Ecuador's Minister of Energy and Mines reportedly responded to the Inter-American Commission's precautionary measures by stating, "the OAS does not give orders here" ("la OEA no manda aquí").
Anonymous bomb and death threats have also been targeted to local human rights organizations that support the Sarayaku community. José Serrano Salgado, a member of the Ecuadorian non-governmental organization (NGO) Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales (CDES), Economic and Social Rights Centre, was reportedly threatened with death on April 25, 2004. The Fundación Pachamama, another supporter of the Sarayaku community, received a telephone bomb threat on April 6, 2004; this was not their first threat. To date, Amnesty International is not aware of any investigation by the Attorney General's office into these allegations. The last organization to be targeted was Acción Ecológica, whose offices were robbed in May 22, 2004. Amnesty fears that the lives of the organization's staff may be in danger.
On Block 24 (south of Block 23), environmental advocacy groups and Indigenous peoples continue to fight oil development in the Amazon. In April 2004, Pablo Tsere, a Shuar Indian leader, attended a shareholder meeting for Burlington Resources, the US energy company that holds the oil concession of Block 24, where Mr. Tsere lives. He sharply criticized Burlington's plans for oil drilling and called for the company to immediately halt its exploration in the remote part of the Ecuadorian Amazon area where his people, the Shuar, live with two other Indigenous groups, the Achuar and Kichwa. The indigenous peoples' opposition to both Compañía General de Combustibles and Burlington Resources operations in their territories has compelled the companies to halt their exploration activities and issue declarations of "force majeure" (literally "greater force", a clause designed to protect companies that can't perform contractual obligations because of unavoidable events beyond their control, such as natural disasters or wars) as specified in their contracts.
Heavy Crude Oil pipeline brings more Oil Concessions in the Amazon
Environmentalist defenders are concerned about the opening of almost the entire Ecuadorian Amazon region to oil development.
In June 2001, the Ecuadorian government gave the go ahead to start construction of a new 298 mile pipeline that runs from the Oriente, the country's eastern rainforest region, to the port in Esmeraldas on the Pacific Coast. The pipeline was inaugurated in December 2003. Touted as the panacea to Ecuador's economic crisis, the $1.3 billion project has the capacity to double Ecuador's oil production.
The pipeline was constructed by OCP (Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados) Ltd., a consortium of seven multinational corporations, including U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum, Kerr McGee, Alberta Energy of Canada, Agip Oil Company of Italy, Repsol YPF of Spain, Perez Compac S.A., and Techint of Argentina.
The heavy crude reserves that will flow through the pipeline are found in protected national parks, wildlife reserves, and Indigenous lands. Environmentalists fear this could lead to the irreversible loss and destruction of some the country's last remaining old growth rainforest and territories of isolated Indigenous peoples. New oil developments are threatening protected areas such as Yasuni National Park, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, the Limoncocha Biological Reserves, and the Pañacocha Protected Forest. This project is also fueling the search for additional oil reserves on millions of hectares of frontier forest, the majority of which falls on the ancestral territories of the Achuar, Shuar, Huaorani, Kichwa, Shiwiar, and Záparo Indigenous communities. Many of these communities have vowed never to permit oil development on their land, while others are afraid they will lose their lands if they try to resist.
In August 2004, the Ecuadorian government approved plans by Brazil's state oil company Petrobras to drill in Block 31, located in Yasuní National Park, despite the fact that UNESCO designated the Park as a protected biosphere reserve in 1989. Both the US corporation Occidental Petroleum and the Spanish Repsol-YPF hold oil concessions in the Park as well. These concessions have caused alarm among Indigenous and environmentalists groups who fear for the Reserve's biodiversity and the safety of their communities.
Because of Ecuador's dependency on oil, it is imperative that all oil operations comply with the highest social and environmental standards to ensure that oil's economic importance does not overshadow the importance of human rights.
Pattern of Abuses
Concerns for the safety of environmental and Indigenous activists in Ecuador's oil zones are well founded. AI has issued numerous Urgent Actions calling on the Government to investigate and protect the Sarayaku community and the Environmentalist defenders supporting them, and calling on the companies involved to cooperate with any investigation.
Alongside this, Ecuadorian security forces have been cited for numerous cases of human rights abuses against the civilian population. Amnesty has urged that the necessary steps be taken to ensure those members of the security forces accused of human rights violations be brought to justice. These incidents point to the need for a preventive strategy to ensure that communities and activists who oppose the government's development policies and the irresponsible practices of the oil industry are safe from abuse.