Something strange was going on in Quito's historic center. Hundreds of Amazon indigenous people in typical dress were marching with mallets, picks, shovels and sledge hammers.
"Down with the Compania church!" shouted one. "We'll knock down San Francisco church," threatened others. The rest exclaimed, "let's trash la Merced! If they don't respect our sanctuaries, we won't respect theirs!"
Nobody understood or knew how to respond. Horrified city dwellers said, "They're going to destroy our colonial churches! They're crazy. That belongs to the cultural patrimony!"
The marchers advanced up Guayaquil street, took Sucre street, and arrived at San Francisco plaza. Thousands of indigenous had gathered there. Heralded by drum music, a feather-crowned elder climbed the front steps, flanked by three younger men. Something weighed upon him, belying his serene countenance. Silently the elder raised his arms. He began to speak.
"Friends, the jungle has always been a sacred place for my people. Every tree, butterfly, and bird is part of our family. All the sap that runs through the trees carries with it the memory of my people. The water that ran through rivers and streams was venerated by our ancestors and will be venerated by our sons. The reflection of these crystalline waters tells our story."
"This reflection is no more; we can no longer see it for the petroleum men have soiled our forest. These men are destroying our natural sanctuary. When lumberjacks come to cut our trees, our wood, our palms, they are offending our gods. Like your colonial churches, the jungle is the natural patrimony of my people. We have come to ask you, "how would you feel if we were to destroy the Francisco church, this sanctuary of your people?"
The elder paused, then continued in his deep, strong voice. "We make this threat, knowing full well that we would never do such a thing. We respect your sanctuaries, but we ask that you learn to respect ours. Please, stop your destruction of the Amazon!
"Impossible!" citizens exclaimed, "this is part of the patrimony of our city." Once in the plaza, the activists explained that now residents of the colonial center would understand how the Huaorani people felt, whose territory would be destroyed because petroleum had been discovered there. The Huaorani territory is located in the heart of the jungle, within Yasuni National Park, and although the reserve has been declared part of the Natural Patrimony of Humanity, petroleum companies were permitted to drill there.
A month later the Amazon Campaign for Life organized another protest, a funeral procession to mourn the auctioning off of the Ecuadorian Amazon to petroleum companies. Marchers dressed in black, and carried a coffin to symbolize the death of the Amazon.
Since 1985, seven auctions for oil concessions have been held in Ecuador. The sixth round allowed two protected areas, Yasuni National Park and the Cuyabeno Fauna Reserve, to be penetrated by international petroleum companies. The seventh, which took place in January, means that 85% of the Ecuadorian Amazon will be affected by oil development.
But the situation has changed. Industrial activities such as oil production, logging and palm cultivation have destroyed and continue to destroy immense extensions of land in indigenous territory as well as contaminating water, land and air.
Thousands of colonists, poor farmers from the Andes and coast, followed the oil companies into the jungle. They sought farmland, work opportunities and an improved living conditions. But they have not found them.
Although the Amazon is the region with the most lucrative natural resource--oil, its residents are the poorest in Ecuador. Indigenous and colonist residents have requested that government ask international oil companies to pay for damages they have done to the environment and restore the affected areas. These efforts have been supported by nonprofit organizations, but to no avail. Both government and industry have ignored the claims. The following are typical of the complaints registered by Amazon inhabitants.
* Lauro Guaman's few cows fell into an oil pit near his house, burying his life's savings in crude. Although he sued the oil companies and asked for compensation, nobody has recognized his case.
* The Placencio Valencia family came down with a rash of bleeding boils, the product of contaminated water. They presented a request to the oil company, but were ignored.
* The community of El Descanso complained of frequent diarrhea after about 2000 barrels of petroleum were spilled into the Quinchayacu River. Despite various commissions sent to investigate, no indemnification was granted.
Indigenous groups, colonists and environmental activists hope that the U.S. courts will act more forcefully than their Ecuadorian counterparts. CONFENIAE (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon) president Edmundo Vargas explained that it is not that the group distrusts the Ecuadorian judicial system, but that Ecuadorian environmental protection laws are weak. For example, although Texaco was required to present an environmental impact report to the Ecuadorian government, the results of this study have never been made known to the public. Bringing the suits to the United States courts may help Amazon indigenous groups see justice.
Moreover, the ability to sue U.S. companies on their own soil gives teeth to petroleum contamination cases that cross international borders. If the Ecuadorian cases come to trial, oil companies will have to be much more careful of the environment and local populations of the countries where they operate.
The Ecuadorian government does not believe the suit should be filed abroad. Ecuadorian President Sixto Duran Ballen commented that these lawsuits violate Ecuadorian sovereignty, and the Ecuadorian ambassador sent a letter to the U.S. Department of State expressing his concern that the U.S. courts would accept jurisdiction to process claims regarding damages incurred in Ecuador under Ecuadorian law.
Lawyers for Amazon indigenous groups claimed this is a smoke screen to protect Texaco. The trial should take place in New York and not in Ecuador, because the company's world headquarters are in New York, affirmed the legal experts. It was Texaco that violated Ecuadorian sovereignty by using technology that damaged the environment and Amazon peoples. Ecuador's position simply shows they are more interested in the powerful US company whose annual budget is forty times that of Ecuador's than the needs of its citizens, said the lawyers.
Amazon Campaign for Life wants the world to know how petroleum hurt Amazon populations and their surroundings. The 1990 taking of the Plaza de la Independencia, the funeral procession and other public protests are part of an effort to make Texaco and its government partner accept the responsibility to mend the damages.
Activists seek, above all, to make sure it doesn't happen again. The strategy has several components, all of which seek to bring international pressure against Texaco on its home turf, the U.S. The lawsuit by Ecuadorian indigenous groups in the American court system will help hold American companies responsible for the environmental damages they cause on foreign soil. A letter-writing campaign is underway in North American and Europe in which participants mail the company toilet paper rolls with a note that says, "Texaco should clean up what it has soiled," as well as sending letters to the U.S. and Ecuadorian presidents. Consumers are also asked to boycott Texaco products.
The campaign has brought the problem to the public eye. Many cars in Ecuador have bumper stickers which say, "Don't buy Texaco, Texaco destroyed our Amazon and must clean up the damage." As if in response, other vehicles display stickers with the message "I love Texaco." It was surely one of these that took York Le Corge, General President of Texaco to Hotel Oro Verde this past January 12th.
A group of young people were waiting for him, and upon his arrival a girl approached him with a magnificent tropical bouquet. A grin slowly spread over Le Corge's face. Paulina Garzon, the young flower bearer stopped several feet away, and poured oil over the brilliant blooms. Then she offered them to Le Corge, saying "these oil-covered flowers are the symbol of what you have done to the Amazon." The Texaco President hung his head and didn't say a word.
(From Q., Ecuador's English Language Magazine, March 1994 (No. 8), pp. 12-13.)