Investigative Journalist Greg Palast files this report from the rainforests of Ecuador, where an indigenous tribe is suing Chevron for $12 billion for contaminating the Amazon. We also play part of Palast’s interview with Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa
GREG PALAST: We’re flying past the snowcapped volcanoes of the Andes into the Amazon Rainforest for the rumble of the jungle, the biggest environmental slugfest in world history.
This is the battleground, the rainforest of Ecuador, as large as England, where the Amazon’s waters begin their 4,000-mile journey to the ocean.
To find Chevron’s opponents, we need to take a little boat ride. Deep in the rainforest are the Cofan Indians. No one knows how many thousands of years they have been here, living off what they could hunt, fish and craft from the river and jungle.
Is that a hat?
COFAN MAN: [translated] We use this to carry yucca, banana, corn and little animals we hunt. In the old days, we hunted with blowpipes. Now I have a shotgun.
GREG PALAST: Their main meal used to be monkey. But today’s menu is chicken.
In 1972, a helicopter landed, and everything changed. Chief Emergildo Criollo says the oil company obtained permission to drill from the Cofan speaking in Spanish, which the Indians didn’t understand.
CHIEF EMERGILDO CRIOLLO: [translated] They gave us candy, sugar, diesel fuel and cheese. The cheese smelled funny; we threw it into the jungle. They say we could rub oil on our skin to cure our aches and pains.
GREG PALAST: So they told you that if you put oil on your skin, it would make you better?
CHIEF EMERGILDO CRIOLLO: Si.
GREG PALAST: Speaking in Cofan, Cecilia Quenama said she lost a daughter to the pollution. I asked her why she blamed the oil companies.
CECILIA QUENAMA: [translated] Many children have died of strange new diseases, only since the drilling began.
CHIEF EMERGILDO CRIOLLO: [translated] I lost two sons. My three-year-old went swimming and began to vomit blood.
GREG PALAST: The Cofan say the damage to their health was caused by ChevronTexaco. Chevron says that’s nonsense.
Let’s go find out.
This pit is the result of an accidental puncture to a wellhead. Now, Texaco said that when it was operating these wells, you didn’t have many of these accidents. But that’s maybe because of this. It says, “PERSONAL & CONFIDENTIAL.” It says, “Reports are to be removed from the field division offices and destroyed.”
Like that. If you were here with me, you could smell it. Yum.
The Cofan say this is standard operating procedure. They drink this stuff. They swim in it. And they breathe it.
In Texas, they call this “sky dumping.” That’s not Chevron’s smoke; it’s Ecuador’s own state oil company Petroecuador. Chevron’s long gone.
I can’t show you all the leaking pits. There are over 200 on the lands of the Indians and settlers, like this one. Most people would be thrilled to find oil on their property, but not Manuel Salinas. All he’s got out of it, he says, is an empty oil drum, pustules all over his arms and a stomach ailment slowly eating him alive.
MANUEL SALINAS: [translated] I’m suffering these terrible, terrible rashes. It feels like my head is splitting apart.
GREG PALAST: And it’s back over the Andes volcanoes to the other side of the mountain for the other side of the story.
Now it’s Chevron’s turn. Satanic polluter or innocent victim? Let’s ask them.
CHEVRON LAWYER 1: Scientifically has nobody proved that crude causes cancer, OK?
GREG PALAST: I asked Chevron’s lawyers about the rising number of cancers among Indian children.
CHEVRON LAWYER 2: Did they show you a medical certificate?
GREG PALAST: No.
CHEVRON LAWYER 1: And it’s the only case of cancer in the world? How many cases of children with cancer do you have in the States, in Europe, in Quito? If there is somebody with cancer there, first they have to prove that it’s caused by crude or by petroleum industry, and second, they have to prove that it is our crude, which is absolutely impossible.
GREG PALAST: So the Indians are attempting to do the impossible. They’ve put on war paint and feathers, and, heavily armed with lawyers, they are filing a new lawsuit. They are demanding no less than $12 billion from ChevronTexaco to clean up their forest.
A bunch of natives in feathers in the jungle demanding $12 billion from an international oil company would be just a sad joke, but across the Andes in Ecuador’s capital, something happened which changed everything. An uprising of indigenous tribes and urban poor when I was here two years ago forced the president to flee out the back door of the presidential palace. In new elections, the left whips George Bush’s allies with the campaign theme song, the 1980s Twisted Sister hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore.” The new government kicked out the last of the big US oil companies, Occidental Petroleum. And just this month, Ecuador’s new president, Rafael Correa, flew to Saudi Arabia to rejoin the OPEC cartel and told George Bush to shut down the US military base in Ecuador, unless Bush gave Ecuador a base in Florida.
Behind little Ecuador is big Venezuela and its larger-than-life leader, Hugo Chavez. Chavez has given Ecuador a quarter-billion dollars and the political weapons to stand up to George Bush.
But Chevron has a few friends in Washington. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice served on Chevron’s corporate board for ten years and is the only member of George Bush’s cabinet who can carry 30 million gallons of crude oil. Chevron named a supertanker after her.
Now, Chavez stands with Ecuador’s leaders, and Ecuador’s leaders are standing with those suing Chevron.
We caught up with the man who designed the new alliance with Hugo Chavez, the powerful incoming president of the Constitutional Assembly, Alberto Acosta. And he’s architect of the plan to return Ecuador to OPEC and take down the US oil companies like Chevron. Assembly President Alberto Acosta, I asked him about Chevron’s treatment of the Indians.
ALBERTO ACOSTA: [translated] Chevron is responsible for the environmental and social destruction in the Amazon, and that’s why they’re on trial.
GREG PALAST: What if every small nation on the planet sued big oil companies, big US oil companies, for damage created years ago? Wouldn’t that bring the entire worldwide oil industry to a stop?