Chevron’s refusal to pay for the cleanup of oil contamination in Ecuador demonstrates the crisis of multinational corporations prioritizing profit over human rights.
American oil corporations hail from a nation built on the concept of human equality. So how, when assuming a position of power over the indigenous communities whose land they profit from, do these corporations get away with discarding all concepts of equal treatment in favor of unethical means of generating revenue?
In the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Secoya people have lived off the land for centuries. Their rich culture is rooted in the jungle landscape that surrounds them, from which Secoyan families grow their food and make their living. However, hidden within the lush landscapes of the Secoya people, the corruption of big oil has spread into the lives of the people of San Pablo village. The Secoyans, who for ages have trusted the earth above all things, are being poisoned by the contamination of the water and ground from which they draw life.
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Texaco, now owned by Chevron, recklessly drilled for oil throughout the 1970s and 1980s, sidestepping environmental regulations and permanently altering indigenous communities’ way of life. Ricardo Piaguaje, the president of the Secoya Foundation, recalls an immense transformation of his community to a center of industry, claiming that “[Texaco] drilled wells and set off dynamite next to our people’s houses…. We began to live in a world very different from before, with noise, big machines and oil spills and petroleum waste products.”
When Texaco became inactive in Ecuador, it left a catastrophic mess behind. Rather than injecting the toxic sludge and various contaminants that are brought to the earth’s surface during oil drilling back into the deep ground, Texaco left over 1000 pits of hazardous oil waste all over the Secoyan land, contaminating the surrounding water sources.
When initially pressured to clean up the mess, Texaco chose the money-saving shortcut of covering these pits with dirt, leaving the indigenous people just as susceptible to health impacts from this contamination as before. Because Chevron bought Texaco in 2001, an Ecuadorean court ruled in 2011 that Chevron pay $18 billion – which was reduced to $9.5 billion in 2012 – to clean up the mess that caused both environmental ruin and a health crisis for the native people. Chevron has since taken every measure to avoid paying for the costs of Texaco’s pollution, repeatedly attacking the credibility of the Ecuadorean court system and the lawyers representing the Ecuadorean people.
Today, the Secoya people in the areas in the contamination radius are particularly affected by water pollution, as Texaco dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into the rivers from which the Secoya people obtain their water source. The contaminated water has been identified as the root cause of the elevated cancer rate of the indigenous Ecuadorians, as well as high rates of birth defects and miscarriages. Despite the visible signs of oil in the water, the Secoya people had no choice but to drink it, as their water sources are very limited. The Secoyan village of San Carlos has a cancer rate of 2.3 times that of the massive city of Quito.
The prevalence of cancer in the Secoyan communities has an immense impact on indigenous families, as the tragedy of these cancer deaths transcends generations. One Ecuadorian woman from the Sacha village near San Carlos describes the conditions of contamination that led to the death of her son, recalling how her family “lived in a house about 20 yards away from an oil well. Another Texaco oil well was upstream from where we got our drinking water, and the water was usually oily with a yellowish foam…. I lost Pedro when he was 19…. He had three cancerous tumors: in his lungs, liver and his leg.” For people who live in the natural world, purely off the land, there is no other explanation for these elevated cancer rates besides the toxic effects of the oil pollution. Still, Chevron maintains the absurd claim that the contamination and high cancer rates are not connected.
All throughout Latin America and in developing nations across the world, indigenous communities are too often left uninformed and without a say in decisions about what happens to their land. Regardless of the profits at stake, there should never be a situation in which economic gains are prioritized over human rights. Chevron’s crude means of handling the Ecuadorean environmental crisis highlights the need for corporations across the world to make a big change in how they treat indigenous societies and to stop making excuses for their consistent disregard for others’ humanity.