By Camila Cabrera
Ecuador, a small country located on the equator, bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west, traversed by the Andes mountain range, and covered by part of the Amazon rainforest in the east, is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Nevertheless, as Nathalie Cely, the former Ecuadorian ambassador to the United States, stated, “underneath this natural beauty lies both a treasure and a curse: oil.”
Oil was discovered in the Ecuadorian Amazon in 1967 by the petroleum company Texaco. Rapidly, they began large-scale exploitation, generating impressive national revenues not seen in the past. However, such economic fortune did not bring equivalent social and environmental advantages.
As the political analyst Julio Ballesteros has stated, the Amazon has long been an isolated territory not only geographically but also anthropologically. For centuries, its inhabitants have subsisted thanks to the abundant vegetation and availability of natural resources such as water. Despite the presence of human groups in this area, the oil company generated around 18 billion gallons of toxic water, which drained directly into soils and watersheds.
During the 26 years of Texaco’s operation in Ecuador, more than 339 oil wells were drilled in an area of around 430 hectares, extracting 1,500 million barrels of oil and burning thousands of millions of cubic feet of gases. For years, contaminated water, as well as other natural resources, was ingested by local individuals, both animal and human beings, on a daily basis.
Attempting to quantify environmental harm in economic terms is a complicated task. Nevertheless, a publication from the World Rainforest Movement estimates the damages resulting from Texaco’s actions in the tens of billions of dollars—this includes causing the deaths of domestic and wild animals, appropriating natural resources, underpaying workers, and causing diseases. This last element indicates a public health crisis: among people living adjacent to oil wells or in the same Amazonian territory, cancer rates of 31 cases per 1,000 people, compared with the national average of 12 cases per 1,000 people, have been observed.
The disproportionate harm suffered by inhabitants of the region motivated activists to create a group named the “Comité de Derechos Humanos de Shushufindi” (Human Rights Committee of Shushufindi) in 1989, which sought effective and real environmental remediation. In 1993, affected residents of the Oriente (eastern) region of the country, together with the new organization, sued the oil company Texaco (later acquired by Chevron in 2001). The company was accused of “the dumping of around 80,000 tons of oil and toxic residues on their land between 1964 and 1990 during operations in the Lago Agrio region of northeastern Ecuador,” as stated in an article written by Claudia Garcia for Deutsche Welle.
The historic and well-known trial against Texaco (now Chevron) concluded with the Ecuadorian Supreme Court ruling that the oil company had to pay $9.5 billion in compensation. Afterwards, the company agreed to clean up 161 oil wells at a cost of $40 million, but the action was inadequate. It is true that the work was finished by 1998 and the government signed an agreement discharging the company from any other liability, as supported by an article published in The Economist. However, tests undertaken by different parties and organizations, including Chevron’s own, proved that the “remediation” was a fraud. The wells that had been “cleaned up” were still contaminated. As Hinton states, “Chevron’s own tests taken at Texaco’s remediated well sites show illegal levels of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH). For example, Chevron found 13,000 parts per million (ppm) of TPH levels at the oil well site, known as Shushufindi 48. Ecuador requires the TPH level to be below 1,000 ppm; the average US standard is even lower, at 100 ppm.”
The still-contaminated Amazon territory will not be ecologically remediated nor will the affected people be economically compensated. On 8 August 2016, Chevron won a victory in the long-running legal battle against the 30,000 Ecuadorians, including many indigenous people, who had initially sued them. A US appeals court upheld a decision that rejected the earlier $9.5 billion judgement against Chevron, rendering it unenforceable in the USA.
This lamentable case—described by the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio as probably one of the worst environmental disasters on the planet—is directly related to environmental justice. But what does this term mean? According to Mohai et al., the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as:
The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no population, due to policy or economic disempowerment, is forced to bear a disproportionate share of the negative human health or environmental impacts of pollution or environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local and tribal programs and policies.
After analyzing this definition and its implications, is it fair and valid to claim that, after the overwhelming evidence of environmental impacts in the Ecuadorian Amazon forest where Texaco-Chevron operated, environmental justice was carried out? The case of oil extraction in the Amazon forest exemplifies not only the vulnerability of the natural biome but also the treatment that human groups receive. Since nature cannot advocate for itself, directly affected inhabitants have become activists and demanded fair treatment regardless of their origin and situation. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether the ongoing effects of environmental harm in this case—a public health crisis among indigenous communities and impacts on their living conditions—truly reflect what the EPA illustrates as environmental justice. Therefore is this rather a case of environmental injustice?