Texaco on Trial
In his spacious, wood-paneled office in Quito, Ramón Jamanez, Ecuador's current attorney general, refused to speculate on where the case would eventually be tried. But Jamanez, an amiable, round-faced man who chose his words very carefully when we spoke, did allow that it was no mystery why Texaco wished to have the trial held in Ecuador. "It is true--it is a fact--that the US justice system has more experience with class-action lawsuits and therefore is more likely to bring a powerful lawsuit against Texaco," he conceded. "That is a fact."
That Jamanez should acknowledge as much is a testament to the remarkable grassroots movement that has arisen in Ecuador in the wake of this case. When the Texaco lawsuit was originally filed, some within the Ecuadorean government went to great lengths to have it dismissed. In a letter to the State Department, Ambassador Edgar Terán wrote that holding a trial in the United States would threaten Ecuador's national sovereignty and deter foreign investment (this in a country heavily burdened by debt and deeply dependent on oil exports). Two years later, the Ecuadorean government cut a deal with Texaco on a $40 million cleanup operation and last year signed an agreement relinquishing further claims against the company.
In response to the government's efforts to reach an accommodation, an array of grassroots organizations in Ecuador, including the Frente, an umbrella group representing indigenous groups in the Oriente, and the Center for Economic and Social Rights, based in Quito, have staged a barrage of protests, pointing out that the deal signed with Texaco had no input from local people and covered a mere fraction of the cleanup costs, which independent estimates have placed at more than $600 million for the pits alone. In January, after protesters occupied the attorney general's office and demanded that he support the plaintiffs' right to pursue their claims, Ramon Jamanez sent a letter to Judge Rakoff in which he explained that Ecuador, despite its settlement with Texaco, will fully support whatever decision US courts should reach. When I met Jamanez, he reiterated this pledge and also made note of a measure recently passed in Ecuador, Law 55, which stipulates that once Ecuadorean citizens bring a lawsuit in a foreign domain, Ecuador's courts will not accept the suit on remand. If Judge Rakoff sends the suit back to Ecuador, Jamanez strongly implied, Ecuador will likely send it right back to the United States.
Time, of course, is not on the plaintiffs' side. Six years after the Texaco suit was filed, the people of the Oriente have seen little substantive change on the ground. Down the road from Hugo Ureña's home, I stopped and spoke with Margarita Molina, a thin, brown-haired woman who lives directly across from one of the production sites once operated by Texaco in San Carlos. Sighing, she told the familiar story of pigs and cows dying after drinking water from the pits, and she pointed to the legs of three of her daughters, who were all born with a birth defect that has made them so severely bowlegged they are virtually unable to walk. Strange ailments like this have become common in the Oriente, and the cause, a doctor has told Molina, could well be oil pollution. At the very least, Molina would like to see Texaco pay for providing the region with fresh drinking water, but the look on her face, hard and dejected, suggested she was not expecting the company to be forced into action anytime soon.
Despite how long and undoubtedly frustrating the process of attempting to hold Texaco accountable has been, many of the people I encountered in the Oriente vowed to battle on. "We will fight Texaco till the end," promised Manuel Silba, an organizer with the Frente who traveled to New York this past January with a group of indigenous leaders, their heads adorned in traditional feathered crowns, to attend the latest hearings. The battle against Texaco has clearly taken on enormous symbolic meaning in a country where, as in so much of the world, corporations have routinely done as they pleased. "This case has brought to light the whole problem of corporations using double standards in the Third World," says Paulina Garzón of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, in Quito. Like other activists, Garzón is concerned that the lawsuit could raise false expectations--and meanwhile shift attention away from ongoing problems in the Oriente to Bonifaz and the lawyers--but she says the effect has already been overwhelmingly positive. "Now," she explains, "we find that the first thing companies say when they come to Ecuador is that they are not like Texaco."
Bonifaz echoes this point. "We've already had people from Occidental and Mobil communicate to us that they will not dump the produced water--they're aware this could bring a lawsuit," he says. "The principal issue in this case is that corporations have to stop looking at the rest of the world as a frontier like the old Wild West. If you go to the maquiladoras in Mexico, there are cases of incredible pollution all along the border. How many of them violate the law of nations, I don't know, but the point is that real people live in these countries, and US corporations have an obligation to use the same care there as they do at home. That is what this lawsuit is ultimately about.