During a visit to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño joins us to discuss his government’s involvement in two closely watched environmental legal battles. An Ecuadorean court has ordered the oil giant Chevron to pay $19 billion to indigenous and rural Ecuadoreans for the dumping of as much as 18.5 billion gallons of highly toxic waste sludge into the rainforest. But Chevron has refused, winning a partial victory last week when an international arbitration panel based in The Hague delivered an interim ruling questioning the validity of the original 2011 verdict. Patiño also addresses why Ecuador recently dropped a plan to preserve swaths of the Amazon rainforest from oil drilling by having wealthy countries pay them not to drill, an effort that the Ecuadorean government says failed to attract sufficient funding. Leading environmentalists, including Vandana Shiva, Naomi Klein and James Hansen, recently wrote an open letter to President Rafael Correa asking him not to forsake the initiative, saying: “Along with thousands of other world citizens, we look to the Yasuní-ITT initiative as a pioneering step in the international struggle for a post-fossil-fuel civilization. We have been inspired by the determination of the Ecuadorean public to rejuvenate the initiative following your government’s recent decision to abandon it.”
AMY GOODMAN: World leaders, including President Obama, are gathering this week here in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. On Monday, I had a chance to sit down with Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, at the United Nations.
Ecuador has been at the center of several major international stories in recent years. In 2012, Ecuador granted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum. He has spent more than a year in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Over the summer, Ecuador played a role in the drama surrounding National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and his attempt to secure political asylum.
Ecuador is also at the center of a closely watched environmental legal battle. Between 1964 and 1990, Texaco drilled for oil in the Ecuadorean Amazon and dumped as much as 18.5 billion gallons of highly toxic waste sludge into the rainforest. The waste contaminated the streams and rivers used by local people for drinking, bathing and fishing. For the past two decades, there’s been a legal battle over the cleanup. In 2011, an Ecuadorean court ordered the oil giant Chevron, which acquired Texaco in 2011, to pay $19 billion to indigenous and rural Ecuadoreans. But Chevron has refused to pay. Last week, Chevron was dealt a partial victory when an international arbitration panel based at The Hague delivered an interim ruling questioning the validity of the 2011 verdict. The arbitration panel claimed the lawsuit against Chevron lacked a legitimate legal foundation because Ecuador had released Texaco, they said, of all potential liability back in the '90s. Ecuador has rejected the findings of The Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration, saying indigenous plaintiffs should not be precluded from suing Chevron.
Yesterday I sat down with Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño at the permanent mission of Ecuador to the United Nations. I began by asking him to explain this latest twist in the Chevron saga.
RICARDO PATIÑO: [translated] This tribunal has issued some decisions. One of the decisions is that Ecuador, of course, never sued Texaco, and we can’t, but ChevronTexaco could be sued by individuals for the impacts on those individuals, and not for impacts on collectives. So, that’s something that has to be looked at further, but the government of Ecuador considers that the court of arbitration lacks jurisdiction and that this bilateral investment treatment is not applicable retroactively.
So, just to conclude the issue of ChevronTexaco, it’s important to note that Chevron has spent millions of dollars on a campaign to discredit the Ecuadorean government, arguing that there were problems with the legal process. If that’s the case, then they need to address those as such in the Ecuadorean legal system. But one of the things that they argue is that they cleaned up after devastating the Amazon and that they didn’t leave anything amiss. And ChevronTexaco argues that any damages that is still visible wasn’t their fault and corresponds to the Ecuadorean government to address.
President Rafael Correa, a few days ago, went to an area where ChevronTexaco was operating, and the president put his hands in the toxic waste pits that ChevronTexaco left, and raised his oil-stained hand up to show the world how ChevronTexaco has destroyed the Ecuadorean Amazon and did not use the cleanup methodologies that were available at the time to mitigate or even avoid environmental damages.
So, ChevronTexaco didn’t care at all about the destruction of the environment that it caused, and that is why we are now inviting the world to come to the Ecuadorean Amazon and see for themselves the destruction that ChevronTexaco has caused. And even though Texaco left the country in 1992, these damages are still very much evident. And we have no interest in taking legal action in this regard; we simply want to show the world that they’re lying.
AMY GOODMAN: Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño. After break, we talk about Ecuador’s new plan to drill for oil in the Yasuní National Park in the Amazon rainforest; what Ecuador would think, what the president would think, of a public referendum. We also talk about Edward Snowden, Julian Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, and more. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño. I interviewed him Monday at the permanent mission of Ecuador to the United Nations. We discussed the United Nations General Assembly meeting and why Ecuadorean President Correa isn’t attending, as well as the plight of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has spent more than 450 days in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. We also talked about the health of Cuba’s revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, and the legacy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. But first, I asked the foreign minister why Ecuador recently dropped a plan to preserve large areas of the Amazon rainforest from oil drilling by having wealthy countries pay them not to drill. President Correa said the plan to save parts of Yasuní National Park had not attracted sufficient funding. UNESCO has designated the park as a world biosphere reserve because it contains 100,000 species of animals, many which are not found anywhere else in the world.
Well, environmentalists Vandana Shiva, Naomi Klein, the scientist James Hansen and others recently wrote an open letter to President Correa, asking him to not forsake the initiative. The letter read, in part, quote, “Along with thousands of other world citizens, we look to the Yasuní-ITT initiative as a pioneering step in the international struggle for a post-fossil-fuel civilization. We have been inspired by the determination of the Ecuadorian public to rejuvenate the initiative following your government’s recent decision to abandon it.
“Accordingly, we are extremely concerned at reports that your government is attempting to repress the voices of the majority of Ecuadorians who continue to support the Yasuni proposal. We understand that efforts are under way to block a public referendum on the question, that press freedom is being curtailed, and that students exercising their right of dissent are being threatened with expulsion from their schools.”
That’s what the letter to President Correa read. I asked Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, to respond to the letter.
RICARDO PATIÑO: [translated] First of all, it’s important to say that it was the Ecuadorean government that presented the initiative, and we’ve been working on it for six years. What does the initiative say, basically? It says, well, we’d like to preserve the extraordinary biodiversity on the surface of Yasuní and that we want to exploit the oil in the subsurface—that is to say, underground—and that we also want to avoid drilling and selling and burning this oil, and thus avoid polluting the atmosphere.
The initiative said the following: The Ecuadorean government is willing to sacrifice 50 percent of the resources that this oil could generate for Ecuador, resources that we need. Ecuador is not a rich country, and Ecuador needs resources for its development. There is still quite a lot of poverty. A lot has changed in the last six years. A lot has been improved, but we need to work quickly to achieve even better conditions, and we need these resources. All over the world, natural resources are being exploited without a great deal of concern about the impacts of that exploitation. And we appeal to the world, and we said we’re willing to sacrifice 50 percent of the income that could potentially be generated, but the world has to contribute. And we said, if the international community would cover the other 50 percent, we were willing to completely preserve the area of Yasuní-ITT and not exploit the oil indefinitely.
But the world’s response was negative. We only got very few million of dollars. And we said, if we don’t—the world doesn’t respond to our appeal, we are going to have to exploit this oil, because we need these resources and the resulting income. After having done—appealed and appealed and appealed and not seen an echo to our appeal, Ecuador decided to exploit the oil without affecting the surface of Yasuní—this is very important. It will have some impact, but it will be minimal.
We respect the criterias that were expressed in that open letter. If the people who signed it could raise the awareness of the world to achieve the ends that we didn’t manage to achieve, we would be delighted. But, unfortunately, we didn’t achieve what we had proposed. And maybe there are other issues that the world is more concerned about or interested in. The world spends $2 billion in arms and weapons—or $2 trillion, and the rich countries and companies did not want to contribute to the fund for Yasuní. Even in very rich, wealthy and powerful European countries, it was the local authorities that contributed to the fund, but not the federal governments. The world has other priorities, but we also need to try and eliminate the misery that people are suffering in Ecuador. There are a lot of people who still die from intestinal illness and a lack of drinking water, and so we need these resources.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the call for a public referendum in Ecuador on Yasuní?
RICARDO PATIÑO: [translated] The government of Ecuador can make the decision through its legislative body, and that’s why the president has sent this proposal to the National Assembly to analyze it and make a decision on it. If a significant part of the population wants to organize a public referendum, they can do so, and they can collect signatures to that effect, and then we can go and have a public referendum. We don’t have any problem in doing that.