Like virtually everyone else in San Carlos, Ecuador, Hugo Ureña never imagined that danger might lurk in the shiny black liquid that began appearing in the water near his home roughly thirty years ago. "The creeks and rivers around here were suddenly full of oil," Ureña told me from the front porch of his modest, tin-roofed farmhouse in San Carlos, a small community nestled in the heart of the Ecuadorean Amazon, "and everyone thought, 'oil is good.' Many animals, especially cows, would drink the water and die. And we had no idea why."
Thirty years later, Ureña and 30,000 other Ecuadoreans, including several indigenous tribes, are among the plaintiffs in a billion-dollar class-action lawsuit that the people of the Amazon have filed against one of America's largest oil companies, Texaco. They accuse Texaco of causing vast destruction to the Oriente, a spectacular stretch of rainforest that dips beneath the Andes Mountains to form the eastern half of Ecuador. It's a unique–and potentially historic–case, not only because corporations like Texaco have rarely had to answer to people like Hugo Ureña but because the plaintiffs, convinced there is no way they can obtain justice in Ecuador, are attempting to sue Texaco in a US district court in lower Manhattan, a short drive from the company's headquarters in White Plains, New York. The case, like the current effort to bring Gen. Augusto Pinochet to justice, represents a bold attempt to expand the scope of international human rights law, only this time the target is not a dictator but a US corporation.
Thousands of miles from White Plains, beyond the wild flowers, potted plants and coconut trees at the entrance to Ureña's home, it is easy to make out the most enduring physical monument to Texaco's presence in the Amazon: a large, rusting metal pipeline, built in the early seventies, that cuts across the center of the Oriente. Through this pipeline, which snakes its way across the Andes to the port of Esmeraldes, Texaco, working in partnership with Petroecuador, the state oil company, pumped more than 1.4 billion gallons of crude out of Ecuador–and in the process created one of the great environmental catastrophes of modern history.
According to Judith Kimerling, whose 1991 book, Amazon Crude, first exposed the impact of oil development on the Oriente, the Trans-Ecuadorean Pipeline alone has accounted for oil spills totaling 16.8 million gallons, a figure that dwarfs even the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. On top of this, during its twenty years of operations in Ecuador, which ended in 1992, Texaco discharged an estimated 4.3 million gallons of highly toxic "produced water" per day into the Oriente, ignoring oil industry standards that call for reinjecting the wastes back into the ground. Instead, these viscous byproducts, laden with heavy metals and cancer-causing hydrocarbons, were dumped into hundreds of open, unlined pits that now pockmark the region and have been leaching into local streams and rivers ever since. When the pits threatened to overflow, Texaco simply burned off the excess, sending dark plumes of smoke into the air that would eventually result in what the locals came to know as "black rain."
In Shushufindi, a short drive from Ureña's home, I waded through a marsh of shoulder-high bushes that opened onto one of these pits. The smell of petroleum, sharp and overwhelming, filled the air as I neared the edge of an enormous pool of bubbling black liquid. One hundred feet away fresh water trickled through a creek, but just barely, for a thick bed of black-gold petroleum waste had formed along the banks. The entire Oriente is crisscrossed by these streams and rivers, part of the reason the watershed is home to more than 10,000 varieties of plants, fishes and birds, many of which are now endangered. The tropical biologist Norman Myers has called the Oriente "the richest biotic zone on earth…a kind of global epicenter of biodiversity." In the area I traversed, everything was eerily still, the fish and birds nowhere in sight and the vegetation stained black with petroleum residue.