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.
What has the Agent Orange disaster of the 1960s in Vietnam left behind, other than the terrible health effects suffered by innocents and persistent ecological damages?
Are there lessons to be learned from the way the legal system handles such human-made disasters, from the way relief was sought and granted to victims in Vietnam, the US, and other countries? Given that many environmental disasters today have international repercussions, is transborder litigation the means to achieve “global justice”? And how can we ensure the accountability of corporations and government institutions that are responsible for wide-spread health injuries and environmental damages?
Boliche is one of the few remaining peasants in the paramo of La Nevera, a zone located 3,000 meters above sea level (4,200 m. max.) near the Las Hermosas National Park in the peaks of the Central range of the Colombian Andes. Accompanied by his two dogs, an old radio, and a white horse, and with his closest neighbors two hours away, Boliche works alone every day, caring for his dairy cattle. The cattle provide an income sufficient just to buy food. Boliche lives in a 200-hectare plot of land that he inherited from his father, who acquired it by cutting and burning trees and paramos to cultivate potatoes, first, and later to establish pastures for cattle. This happened more than 70 years ago, when Don Antonio (Boliche’s father) arrived from Nariño – a region in the south of Colombia on the border with Ecuador – looking for baldios (lands “without owners”) to colonize. Boliche has an extended family but none of them want to live in the countryside. Life in the high mountains is hard and without amenities; every day requires great effort. Inhabitants in La Nevera, as in other places in rural Colombia, are increasingly scarce. Many left their lands and belongings; they were either forced out or were tired of being caught between the warring parties in a long, endemic armed conflict. Today, only a few remain, holding onto their lives and to the only occupation they know – being a peasant in the mountains.