*** 15-Nov-96 ***
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov 15 (IPS) - A bid by indigenous and farmer communities in Ecuador to get compensation for environmental damage caused by oil multinational Texaco has been thrown out of U.S courts.
New York federal courts judge Jed Rakoff has dismissed a 1.5- billion-dollar lawsuit filed by some 30,000 people from the Amazon forests of Ecuador.
The lawsuit was filed in Nov. 1993 in New York, where Texaco has its headquarters, on grounds of ''callous disregard for the health, well-being, and safety'' of local people. The plaintiffs also charged the company with ''large-scale disposal of inadequately treated hazardous waste and destruction of tropical rainforest habitats.''
Texaco extracted 1.4 billion barrels of oil over 25 years from the Amazon forests of Ecuador under a joint venture with PetroEcuador. During this time, the company spilled an estimated 26.35 million litres of crude oil into local rivers from the operation, studies show.
But a six-page judgement issued by Rakoff Wednesday said that the matter did not belong in U.S courts, especially because any order from the court would be unenforceable and ''an open invitation to an international political debacle.''
''While the parties dispute whether the courts of Ecuador can provide them with an adequate remedy, it is patently clear that the courts of the United States cannot,'' wrote Rakof. ''United States courts are courts of limited jursidiction. While their power within those limits is substantial, it does not include a general decision to right the world's wrongs,'' he added.
The decision was condemned by Cristobal Bonifaz, a Boston- based lawyer who is acting for the Ecuadorean plaintiffs.
''This is outrageous; it is a totally brutal decision,'' Bonifaz told IPS by telephone.
Bonifaz says he will appeal the decision immediately. He pointed out that since the decision says the Ecuador government should have been a party to the lawsuit, this may offer a way to bring the matter back to the courts.
Activists in Ecuador have also responded to the judgement. Paulina Garzon of Accion Ecologica in the Ecuadorean capital of Quito says she plans to ask the government to back the lawsuit.
''If it ņefuses to back these plaintiffs, it will be complicit in Texaco's crimes,'' said Garzon of the government. She added that her group had called for a boycott against Texaco.
U.S. environmental activists say this week's court decision has opened the door for U.S. multinational companies to conduct ''environmental racism'' abroad without worrying about being brought to justice in their home country.
''For decades, Amazonian peoples have suffered the toxic consequences of Texaco's environmental racism,'' says Shannon Wright of the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN). ''This court decision just confirms for them that justice will only be reached through local citizen mobilisation.''
The activists note that several reports have documented the extensive damage done in the area where Texaco operated. ''Rivers and tributaries are so contaminated with crude oil that the local communities can no longer use them for fishing, drinking or bathing,'' says a recent RAN report, which also cites ''crops with extremely low production due to soil and air contamination; loss of game animals; adolescent girls sexually assaulted by oil workers; and tribal lands (that have been) invaded.''
Tests have also shown that drinking, bathing, and fishing water contain levels of cancer-causing toxic compounds 10 to 1,000 times greater than permitted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's safety guidelines.
Activists are afraid that the Rakoff decision may affect several other lawsuits that have recently been filed in the United States against multinational corporations.
Only last week, Nigerian activists filed a lawsuit against Shell for environmental and human rights abuses in their country. Two months ago, Burmese indigenous peoples and the Burmese government-in-exile brought two lawsuits against Unocal for building a pipeline in their country with the help of the military dictatorship. Earlier this year, indigenous peoples of New Guinea filed a lawsuit in New Orleans courts against Freeport McMoRan, operators of the world's largest gold mine.
And last year, 25,000 workers from 12 countries -- from Ecuador to the Honduras -- brought a case against Dow Chemical, Shell Oil, Occidental Petroleum. Del Monte Fruit, Chiquita Brands, and Dole Food for using dibromochloropropane (DBCP) -- a pesticide for banana crops. (END/IPS/PC/YJC/96)
[Reposted with permission. Check out the IPS Web site at http://www.ips.org.]