It’s difficult to imagine the courage it takes to go against a huge corporation. Worse, an oil giant like Chevron. But Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and Luis Yanza are not afraid: They are convinced Ecuador and its people deserve a clean Amazon, and their conviction has led them to the final stages of what could be the largest environmental lawsuit ever filed in the world.
According to Fajardo, Yanza, and several communities in the area, Texaco (later bought by Chevron) dumped nearly 17 million gallons of crude oil and 20 billion gallons of drilling wastewater directly into the Ecuadorian Amazon between 1964 and 1990. The effects on the inhabitants were devastating: The cancer rate in the area is now seven times higher than the rest of the country's population, and people living in proximity to pollution have suffered increased incidences of skin disease, respiratory ailments, and reproductive disorders.Many others would not have had the strength to demand a company like this should take responsibility for their actions and accept the consequences. Fajardo and Yanza did. Their fight to prove Chevron's fault in the matter and their claim for a full cleanup of the area began almost twenty years ago, and is finally coming to an end. Next year, an Ecuadorian court could make Chevron pay $16.3 billion for a complete cleanup, remediation of all contaminated water bodies and lands, recuperation of fauna, flora and aqueous life, and monitoring and improvement of the health of the inhabitants.
It has not been an easy ride: Fajardo and Yanza have received threats, persecution, and Fajardo has even lost a brother, who was murdered four years ago. Even though they cannot prove these happenings were Chevron’s fault, they cannot "say otherwise."
The Ecuadorian Amazon contains five percent of all the world's plant and animal species and is one of the most biodiverse places in the Amazon and on Earth. Thanks to Fajardo and Yanza, there is hope that this place will be brought back to life.
In this interview with TreeHugger, Fajardo and Yanza speak about the origin of their fight, motivation, and their difficulties. They also talk about the impact they’ve had on the Ecuadorian society in terms of environmental matters, and their hopes and fears.
TreeHugger (TH): When did you realize you were the ones who needed to fight against the contamination Texaco had left in the Ecuadorian Amazon?
Luis Yanza (LY): In my case, there were two moments that encouraged me to continue this fight. The first was the day in August 1977, when I arrived at Lago Agrio, which was the first city founded by settlers who arrived there in the early '70s, attracted by the opportunities the oil industry had generated. In that moment I stepped into smelly and viscous black oil: At that time, Texaco was irrigating roads with oil for maintenance and to eliminate dust -- oil that, when heated, contaminated rivers, soil, and the air with toxic vapors.
The second time I realized this was a fight I had to take on was in the early ‘90s, when I became involved in and started leading social groups of trade unions, peasants, women, and young people.
Pablo Fajardo Mendoza (PFM): I arrived in the canton Shushufindi in 1987. This region and the Sacha canton are two of the areas most affected by the contamination. I came to the region in search for work, like thousands of others who left the Coast and Inter-Andean regions of Ecuador in response to the jobs Texaco was offering.
I was 14 years old and at that moment I was a witness of the environmental and human damage that was taking place at the Ecuadorian Amazon. When I realized what my family and I were going through, and when I noticed that the suffering was worse in rural areas, I threw myself into social work through the catholic church. It was there where I started working and sharing with people, hoping to achieve justice.
All along, it’s been a 20 year ride, but I’ve always believed the only way to make our dreams of a better world true, is to organize ourselves. For me this has been a permanent search for social organization.
A polluted river in the Ecuadorian Amazon
TH: Where does the cause stand today?
PFM: We have proved virtually all of our arguments: the existence of oil pollution, the damage to the lives of indigenous peoples, to the ecosystem, to soil and water, to Ecuador, and Chevron’s responsibility.
Last April 1, an independent expert accompanied by a group of scientists from various backgrounds submitted a report to the Court. The report confirms what the claimants have been saying over 15 years of litigation.
LY: Yes, we are in the final stretch. That report confirms Texaco’s responsibility for the damage, and estimates repair at $16.3 billion. We’re still missing some judicial proceedings, but we believe we could have a sentence during the second quarter of next year.
TH: Can you describe a typical week?
LY: Tuesday through Thursday, as I am also administrator of the main office, I am at the office in Quito. The rest of the week I stay in the affected area. I spend time visiting communities, meeting with leaders of the Assembly and the Front, monitoring the trial, and coordinating other activities of the case.
PFM: For me it's a very agitated reality. The days are long for our team, because our human and economic resources are very limited. This forces us to work twice as much to withstand the enormous pressure Chevron puts on us, the Court, and on Ecuador itself.
A demonstration lead by Fajardo and Yanza claiming for their cause.
TH: What difficulties have you encountered in this fight and how do you feel about them?
PFM: There have been persecutions, telephone calls, and defamatory publications in the Ecuadorian and American press. Then, four years ago one of my brothers was brutally tortured and then murdered. Even though I cannot prove Chevron was responsible, I cannot say otherwise. He was killed eight days before we began the strongest phase of this litigation.
So we are aware that we must be careful and we are. However, although our group is small, we work as a team, and that ensures that the struggle will continue no matter if we are here or not.
LY: To fight for justice and against social inequalities is a decision I took more than 20 years ago. I am aware of the risks and take precautions. Chevron might have the money and power, but we have the unity and strength of our communities.
However, even though I have no fear for myself, sometimes I do fear for my family. Especially for my 11 year-old daughter, who they’ve tried to hurt before.
TH: What motivates you to go on?
LY: The fact that we are fighting for a fair cause, for justice and the truth. Also, the support and confidence of the communities.
We want the damage repaired, so that our fellow farmers and indigenous people can live in a better environment, with health and dignity. We also wish to leave a precedent for future generations, we want them to continue fighting for their rights.
PFM: My motivation is the thirst for justice. So far, companies have made what was more convenient for their businesses in many parts of the world. It’s time for us to make them work with greater responsibility against humanity and the land itself.
Our dream is to see, within no more than 20 years, a restored Amazon, where people can live in a healthy environment, and the ecosystem has been rebuilt. Where justice, respect for human rights and environmental concerns are imposed. We know it’s difficult, but we will continue striving for it.
A kid stands by a barrel left by Texaco in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
TH: What do you think is the most important influence you’ve had on the Ecuadorian society and government?
LY: The struggle of those affected by Texaco brought to the table and made public the other side of the coin that is the oil business: pollution, disease and death.
This has led local and national governments to discuss environmental issues and create laws to regulate and control environmental pollution. However, Ecuador still has a long way to go.
People now know they have rights, that oil companies are not gods, and that they must be held accountable for the damage their operations cause.
PFM: I think people now realize that it is possible to confront a big corporation with conviction. Today in Ecuador people speak more about the environment, especially about our responsibility to take care of it.
We have gained greater awareness on how we should respect nature and human rights. And we have learned that land can live without us, but we can never live without land.
Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and Luis Yanza receive the 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize for Central and South America for their work.
Read more about Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and Luis Yanza at the Goldman Environmental Prize website.
This is one in a series of interviews with the Goldman Environmental Prize Winners.