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Greg Palast Reports on the Battle Between Indigenous Ecuadorians and the U.S. Oil Giant Chevron

StoryDecember 27, 2007
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Investigative Journalist Greg Palast files this report from the rainforests of Ecuador, where an indigenous tribe is suing Chevron for $12 billion for contaminating the Amazon. We also play part of Palast’s interview with Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we spend the hour in Ecuador. In a few minutes, we’ll play an exclusive interview with the Ecuador president, Rafael Correa, conducted by investigative journalist Greg Palast. But we begin today’s show with this report filed by Greg Palast from the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador. We’re going to bring you that report in a minute, but we’re going to go to a break first, and then we will go to the report on the peasants and indigenous Indians of Ecuador suing Chevron and then an extended interview with the Ecuadorian president. This is Democracy Now!, Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to this piece by BBC investigative journalist Greg Palast for Democracy Now!

    GREG PALAST: We’re flying past the snowcapped volcanoes of the Andes into the Amazon Rainforest for the rumble of the jungle, the biggest environmental slugfest in world history.

    This is the battleground, the rainforest of Ecuador, as large as England, where the Amazon’s waters begin their 4,000-mile journey to the ocean.

    To find Chevron’s opponents, we need to take a little boat ride. Deep in the rainforest are the Cofan Indians. No one knows how many thousands of years they have been here, living off what they could hunt, fish and craft from the river and jungle.

    Is that a hat?

    COFAN MAN: [translated] We use this to carry yucca, banana, corn and little animals we hunt. In the old days, we hunted with blowpipes. Now I have a shotgun.

    GREG PALAST: Their main meal used to be monkey. But today’s menu is chicken.

    In 1972, a helicopter landed, and everything changed. Chief Emergildo Criollo says the oil company obtained permission to drill from the Cofan speaking in Spanish, which the Indians didn’t understand.

    CHIEF EMERGILDO CRIOLLO: [translated] They gave us candy, sugar, diesel fuel and cheese. The cheese smelled funny; we threw it into the jungle. They say we could rub oil on our skin to cure our aches and pains.

    GREG PALAST: So they told you that if you put oil on your skin, it would make you better?


    GREG PALAST: Speaking in Cofan, Cecilia Quenama said she lost a daughter to the pollution. I asked her why she blamed the oil companies.

    CECILIA QUENAMA: [translated] Many children have died of strange new diseases, only since the drilling began.

    CHIEF EMERGILDO CRIOLLO: [translated] I lost two sons. My three-year-old went swimming and began to vomit blood.

    GREG PALAST: The Cofan say the damage to their health was caused by ChevronTexaco. Chevron says that’s nonsense.

    Let’s go find out.

    This pit is the result of an accidental puncture to a wellhead. Now, Texaco said that when it was operating these wells, you didn’t have many of these accidents. But that’s maybe because of this. It says, “PERSONAL & CONFIDENTIAL.” It says, “Reports are to be removed from the field division offices and destroyed.”

    Like that. If you were here with me, you could smell it. Yum.

    The Cofan say this is standard operating procedure. They drink this stuff. They swim in it. And they breathe it.

    In Texas, they call this “sky dumping.” That’s not Chevron’s smoke; it’s Ecuador’s own state oil company Petroecuador. Chevron’s long gone.

    I can’t show you all the leaking pits. There are over 200 on the lands of the Indians and settlers, like this one. Most people would be thrilled to find oil on their property, but not Manuel Salinas. All he’s got out of it, he says, is an empty oil drum, pustules all over his arms and a stomach ailment slowly eating him alive.

    MANUEL SALINAS: [translated] I’m suffering these terrible, terrible rashes. It feels like my head is splitting apart.

    GREG PALAST: And it’s back over the Andes volcanoes to the other side of the mountain for the other side of the story.

    Now it’s Chevron’s turn. Satanic polluter or innocent victim? Let’s ask them.

    CHEVRON LAWYER 1: Scientifically has nobody proved that crude causes cancer, OK?

    GREG PALAST: I asked Chevron’s lawyers about the rising number of cancers among Indian children.

    CHEVRON LAWYER 2: Did they show you a medical certificate?


    CHEVRON LAWYER 1: And it’s the only case of cancer in the world? How many cases of children with cancer do you have in the States, in Europe, in Quito? If there is somebody with cancer there, first they have to prove that it’s caused by crude or by petroleum industry, and second, they have to prove that it is our crude, which is absolutely impossible.

    GREG PALAST: So the Indians are attempting to do the impossible. They’ve put on war paint and feathers, and, heavily armed with lawyers, they are filing a new lawsuit. They are demanding no less than $12 billion from ChevronTexaco to clean up their forest.

    A bunch of natives in feathers in the jungle demanding $12 billion from an international oil company would be just a sad joke, but across the Andes in Ecuador’s capital, something happened which changed everything. An uprising of indigenous tribes and urban poor when I was here two years ago forced the president to flee out the back door of the presidential palace. In new elections, the left whips George Bush’s allies with the campaign theme song, the 1980s Twisted Sister hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore.” The new government kicked out the last of the big US oil companies, Occidental Petroleum. And just this month, Ecuador’s new president, Rafael Correa, flew to Saudi Arabia to rejoin the OPEC cartel and told George Bush to shut down the US military base in Ecuador, unless Bush gave Ecuador a base in Florida.

    Behind little Ecuador is big Venezuela and its larger-than-life leader, Hugo Chavez. Chavez has given Ecuador a quarter-billion dollars and the political weapons to stand up to George Bush.

    But Chevron has a few friends in Washington. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice served on Chevron’s corporate board for ten years and is the only member of George Bush’s cabinet who can carry 30 million gallons of crude oil. Chevron named a supertanker after her.

    Now, Chavez stands with Ecuador’s leaders, and Ecuador’s leaders are standing with those suing Chevron.

    We caught up with the man who designed the new alliance with Hugo Chavez, the powerful incoming president of the Constitutional Assembly, Alberto Acosta. And he’s architect of the plan to return Ecuador to OPEC and take down the US oil companies like Chevron. Assembly President Alberto Acosta, I asked him about Chevron’s treatment of the Indians.

    ALBERTO ACOSTA: [translated] Chevron is responsible for the environmental and social destruction in the Amazon, and that’s why they’re on trial.

    GREG PALAST: What if every small nation on the planet sued big oil companies, big US oil companies, for damage created years ago? Wouldn’t that bring the entire worldwide oil industry to a stop?

    ALBERTO ACOSTA: [translated] What we should ask is not whether that will create chaos in the oil industry, but whether the oil industry is creating chaos in the world.

    GREG PALAST: What about his new alliance with Hugo Chavez?

    ALBERTO ACOSTA: [translated] We don’t have an imperialist relationship with Venezuela. We are brother countries, building a whole new Latin America.

    GREG PALAST: The conflict between Indians and Chevron is becoming a battlefield in a war between Bush and Chavez. Not everyone’s happy about the new oil order. One dissenter asked us to meet him at the Hotel Quito.

    This drink is called the “Spirit of Ecuador.” Oh, that’s good. Fabian Loza is relaxing after a long day as Ecuador’s top television newscaster.

    Do you think Acosta’s demands on Chevron and the oil companies —-

    FABIAN LOZA: Yeah.

    GREG PALAST: —- are demagoguery, are just — are false?

    FABIAN LOZA: No. I think it’s more dangerous. I think Acosta hates the United States, hates Occidental. He loves socialists. He loves, loves Chavez. He loves Cuba. He don’t like petroleum company, you know? Acosta is very, very left, and he is the new president of Assembly.

    GREG PALAST: He raises questions about the environmentalists suing Chevron.

    FABIAN LOZA: Environment activist people are communists in the past. Now, they are over green but red down, like a sandia. What’s that mean in English?

    GREG PALAST: Right. Oh, like a watermelon.

    FABIAN LOZA: Yeah, watermelon.

    GREG PALAST: Green on the outside, red on the inside.

    As we left, the oil minister of the old regime waved goodbye, and I headed off to the jungle to meet one of these so-called watermelons. This is the Cofans’ lawyer for their last filing, twenty-seven-year-old Julio Prieto. He describes the difference between his legal team and ChevronTexaco’s.

    JULIO PRIETO: Here comes, in one yellow car, two lawyers and one technician. Here they come, Texaco’s convoy, with ten big white trucks and — I don’t know. At least four of them are full of bodyguards, well-armed bodyguards, because they’re still thinking that we are dangerous around here.

    GREG PALAST: I asked him why he’s not suing Ecuador’s own oil company.

    Isn’t it easy to blame the big rich gringos who left the country fifteen years ago, and it’s a mess right now?

    JULIO PRIETO: But Ecuador has done bad. Now we are thinking about suing Petroecuador, too. But that’s not an excuse for Texaco to go away.

    GREG PALAST: And that really burns up the lawyers for the American companies.

    CHEVRON LAWYER 2: So they’re looking for deep pockets, simple as that. That’s all what they want.

    GREG PALAST: They’re just going after rich gringos.

    CHEVRON LAWYER 1: Exactly.

    CHEVRON LAWYER 2: That’s — it’s the largest fraud in the history.

    GREG PALAST: Is ChevronTexaco just an easy target for lawyers backed by the new oil-charged politicians of South America? Or is the new oil order a chance for long-delayed justice for long-ignored natives? And what happens to this jungle and the Cofan when Ecuador’s own oil company begins new drilling? Chevron versus rainforest Indians or Bush versus Chavez, whatever you call it, it’s just another front in the war over that dark commodity that’s left half the world in flames. For Democracy Now!, this is Greg Palast.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. When we come back from our one-minute break, Greg Palast’s exclusive interview with the President of Ecuador. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Rafael Correa was elected president of Ecuador just over a year ago. The leftist economist grew up in poverty. He won a surprise victory over banana multimillionaire Alvaro Noboa. Elected in the midst of a debt crisis, Correa’s victory was seen as further proof of Latin America’s leftward turn.

He is now setting out to reverse the course of Ecuador’s economic and political history. Over the past year, President Correa has called for renegotiating Ecuador’s external debt, opposed a free-trade pact with the United States, and set up a Constitutional Assembly. As Finance Minister in 2006, Correa helped end Ecuador’s contract with US oil giant Occidental. Since being elected president, he has also pledged to shut down the sole US military base in South America.

Rafael Correa taught at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. But he’s also personally acquainted with poverty and what he calls “the human drama of migration.” When banana prices hit rock bottom in the ’60s, Correa’s family was badly hit. Desperate to get to the United States, his father served as a drug mule but was arrested and spent four years in a US prison.

Today, we bring you an exclusive Greg Palast interview with Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. He talks about the lawsuit against Chevron, ending his country’s debt, his relationship with the United States and Venezuela, his dreams for Ecuador and his own personal history. Greg Palast did the interview in Ecuador.

    GREG PALAST: Let me ask you, there’s a massive multibillion-dollar lawsuit against ChevronTexaco for supposedly destroying your rainforest. What if every little nation on the planet decided to sue oil companies for billions? Wouldn’t that disrupt oil production worldwide?

    PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: Well, with these lawsuits, well, they don’t go to interrupt the oil production in the third world. They go to push these big international companies in order to be a lot more careful when they want to extract our oil, because they did and they do in the third world things that they don’t do in the first world. So it’s a double standard that they have.

    GREG PALAST: Well, according to Chevron — and I’ve spoken to them — they said that they operate very cleanly, just as they do in the US.


    GREG PALAST: I’ll tell you what they’re saying.

    PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: And also Cinderella cheats and a lot of things, yeah.

    GREG PALAST: And they blame your oil company. They say it’s your fault.

    PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: That is not true. Of course, our oil company has also done a lot of damage in the rainforest, but it is very clear that the problem comes from the ChevronTexaco period, OK? — Texaco period, because at the beginning it was just Texaco, so there are a lot of evidence about that.

    GREG PALAST: Well, but here’s the problem. First of all, can they get a fair trial here? They say that there’s no chance that they can get a fair trial here.

    PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: Always there is a pretext, excuse in order to avoid the responsibilities, you know? We think that they can have a fair trial here. I cannot — the evidence is there, of course. They are blaming our oil company, but before our oil company took over the exploitation, the damage was there.

    GREG PALAST: If your courts rule against ChevronTexaco, how in the world are you going to collect? They have nothing here. How is little Ecuador going to collect against big Chevron?

    PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: Well, that will be a problem. It’s not a public lawsuit. It’s a lawsuit followed by indigenous communities from the Amazonia. Any way we go to support [inaudible] or in order to collect the money, if they win the lawsuit, but, well, that will be a precedent, because we can do the same thing if, for instance, Occidental, a lot of oil companies are following lawsuits against the Ecuador government. So we can follow the same strategies we want. How in the world they can collect the money? It’s a demonstration of faith. So I think their own United States, their own international community should impose to ChevronTexaco [inaudible] the moral duty of paying this money.

    GREG PALAST: Well, besides the moral duty, there are no Chevron assets in Ecuador anymore.

    PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: Well, of course.

    GREG PALAST: But there are billions in Chevron assets in Venezuela. Will your friend Hugo Chavez help you collect if your citizens win?

    PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: You know, it’s not a government problem. It’s not our lawsuit. It’s a private lawsuit. So — but I think there is a moral issue here. So it’s not possible to have this kind of impunity, if this indigenous community wins the lawsuit against ChevronTexaco. So in this case, we think that the moral duty of the international community is to push to ChevronTexaco in order to pay this money.

    GREG PALAST: Will you call on President Chavez or others to help you enforce — protect your citizens in the rainforest?

    PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: I will call the whole international community. Always you are giving us moralist speeches, advice about economic policy, social policy, environmental policy, moral policy, etc. So we are sure that in this case you will not support this indigenous communities against a huge, a big, a very powerful transnational, ChevronTexaco.

    GREG PALAST: Do you think that the US government is going to support your attack, your government’s attack, your people’s attack on the oil company that Condoleezza Rice came from?

    PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: It’s not an attack. It’s justice. So we expect — yes, we hope that the US government supports this, if you want, this claim.

    GREG PALAST: Now, you’ve thrown Occidental Petroleum out. You have forced ChevronTexaco out of your country. What is Ecuador’s problem with US oil companies?

    PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: What is the problem of the US company [inaudible]? Because we are not crazy. We are —- our indigenous people are fighting against ChevronTexaco [inaudible], you know? You can see our rainforest before Petroecuador. It’s not true that the fault is in Petroecuador. You know, before Petroecuador, we already had a lot of damage in our rainforest. And also with Occidental, it’s very clear that they break up their contracts on the Ecuadorian law. So it’s not -—

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been watching and listening to an interview with the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, conducted by Greg Palast in Ecuador. We are breaking out of this interview because of breaking news from Pakistan.

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