Friday, April 27, 2012

Los Afectados

{This article was written in 2007, a year before the collapse of global capitalism and its underlying rot. Los Afectados first appeared in the Kansas City Star.}

The oil field is named Ispingo-Tiputino-Tambococha, a Quechua word. Quechua was the language spoken by the people that lived in the region now called Ecuador, long before the Spaniards arrived in search for gold, glory and God.

The Spaniards that trudged up the Andes Mountains in the 16th century were not the effete from the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, but hardened peasants in search of the “better” life. The clash of civilizations was inevitable, a clash the Incan rulers lost in a relatively short period of time. Today, a struggle on a global scale is taking place and Ecuador is both a metaphor for this battle as well as a very real, heart-wrenching example of an environmental heart-of-darkness.

The present day story of Ispingo-Tiputino-Tambococha or ITT caught my attention, as I had lived in Ecuador in 1973 working with the Peace Corps and the Pan American Health Organization, a year or two after oil drilling had begun in earnest, but which at the time I knew little about, except for the occasional oil executive I noticed being driven to the presidential palace or the “roughnecks” I’d run into at some bar in Quito, the capital. The Ecuadorian oil story, however, started well before ITT.

In actuality, hardly anyone in Ecuador knew much about the search for oil, including the corrupt archetypal military junta that ran the country, albeit useful to the decaying oligarchs dwelling in their colonial past, as well—in another reality—assorted North American corporations.

Out of sight and out of mind was the reality. The oil was located in the unmapped and remote Amazon region of the country. Of course nothing of importance was there, except for animals, plants and a few jungle “primitives,” who could hardly be called human by the standards of the ruling class in Quito and the oil executives in Houston and New York.

Of course everyone had a view of the “others.” Those that lived in the Sierras referred to the coastal people as los monos, the monkeys. The “Indians” were merely held in contempt, even among some mestizos, those that were only half-Indian.

Above all, this was the early 1970’s. “Green” was just a color, “climate change” yet to be discovered, and Earth Day only recently established. Finally, the United Nations had declared Ecuador one of the poorest countries in South America; the indigenous people lived lives of quiet desperation, at least the ones that resided in and around cities and towns. Could oil be Ecuador’s salvation?

Texaco obtained the concession in 1964 and the oil started flowing by 1972. Over the next 20 years or so the company constructed a 300-mile pipeline that led from the oil wells in the Amazon jungle to the Pacific Ocean. Out of sight and out of mind was the guiding principal. By some accounts, over the time period of the Texaco concession, the pipeline leaked more oil into the soil and water than the entire Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Today, an area of more than 1,500 square miles may be one of the most contaminated industrial sites in the world, with high levels of chemical toxins that are associated with oil drilling and extraction. For the majority of Ecuadorians the country is still poor.

In an article in Vanity Fair, written by William Langewiesche and entitled “Jungle Law,” Langewiesche tells of a lawsuit brought by some 30,000 Amazonian settlers and indigenous people against Chevron, which purchased Texaco in 2001. It is possibly the largest environmental suit ever filed. The suit wants Chevron to “clean up the residual mess that continues.” The clean up is estimated to cost possibly some $6 billion. In 2005 alone Chevron earned $14 billion in profits. It’s expected that this lawsuit may drag on for years. The residents of Ecuador involved in this class action call themselves Los Afectados—the affected ones.

This brings us back to the Ispingo oil fields. ITT is located in the middle of Yasuni National Park, which covers some 1.7 million acres, about the size of the state of Delaware and which may be the most diverse forest on earth according to some biologists. It is also home to numerous indigenous people, who are dependent on a healthy rain forest for their survival.

But finally, according to the University of Maryland’s Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology program, Yasuni National Park could sequester possibly a half-billion tons of CO2—which in 2007 we know could be increasingly important to all of us.

To add more complexity to the ITT story the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has publicly stated that he will seriously consider not developing this oil field, even though his country is poor and most certainly can use the oil income.

Correa will postpone oil development for at least another year if the international community makes a commitment to compensate Ecuador for approximately half of the projected lost revenue, estimated to be more than $300 million per year.

The Ecuadorian president has acknowledged the environmental significance of Yasuni, but is also asking the wealthy countries to now acknowledge—in concrete terms—what Ecuador will have to give up. To put the $300 million in some perspective, the United States over a four year period has spent more that $400 billion for the Iraq war.

At the present time the Brazilian national oil company as well as the Chinese and Venezuelan governments have oil concessions in the region and want to expand their operations in order to extract even more oil.

We Americans buy some 10,000 gallons of gas a second, yet we give little thought where it comes from or what it takes to get to that pump. We become nearly hysterical when the retail price slips above $3 a gallon. Politicians demand investigations and automotive companies—and their unions—claim the technology isn't “ready” to improve fuel efficiency. The oil companies until recently told us that global warming was … well, lacking sound science. The excuses are endless. And what do we want the Chinese to do?

William Langewiesche in his article tells of a discussion he had with one of the original settlers living in the region when Texaco arrived. “This used to be a paradise. The waters were clear and full of fish. We used to see all sorts of wild animals. Birds, parrots, and everything. It was beautiful. A paradise. But then it was all gone. The oil company came.”

We know the value of oil and we know how to compute its price. Do we know the value of clean air, water and biodiversity? Is there a price to pay?

We will all become Los Afectados. We will all become the “affected” ones, perhaps much sooner than we are willing to contemplate.

Update 2012

Water is the source of life. Without clean water we can't survive.

Emergildo Criollo, leader of the Cofan people, Ecuador)

After more than 18 years, an Ecuadorian judge in February 2011 ordered Chevron to pay some $17 billion in fines and punitive damages over the environmental contamination in Ecuador.

Chevron, not surprisingly, said it would appeal the ruling, calling it “illegitimate and unenforceable.” Eighteen years before, when the suit was first filed in a New York court, Chevron fought to have the jurisdiction moved to Ecuador because the oil company claimed they could get a “fair trial there.”

Since the judgment was handed down in 2011 the case has weaved its way through the legal system with all the attending minutia. It also ended up in the International Arbitral Tribunal. For anyone interested in the legal proceedings, see “Arbitration-Ecuador” below.

Ecuadorian indigenous leaders eventually went to England to meet with the major institutional investors in Chevron corporation. At the present time even some of Chevron's supporters are now saying that, as the company's litigation prospects have dimmed considerably, its time for Chevron to reach a specific settlement. The plaintiffs themselves are now in the process of moving to seize Chevron assets in Latin America and throughout the world. It is not over but there may be a faint end in sight.

It's about an oil field named Ispingo-Tiputino-Tambococha and the people, animals and plants that have lived near it for a long time. But it's ultimately about all of us and what we're willing to do to make the necessary changes.

Coming home to America

For us Americans there are lessons as well. It goes way beyond waiting for some “new” technology to save the day, tinkering with the tax code, praying for a different type of politician, texting our colleagues, conjuring up a third party or even attempting to amend the Constitution. Of course all of these things have merit and are worthy of our time and effort.

The status quo, however, is not going to roll over and fade away and will certainly use violence if its core interests are threatened. It's going to come down to mobilization from below and organized action in the streets and within the various institutions. There is no short term, convenient fix at this point. We Americans are now Los Afectados.

Additional Reading:

Panama: Village of thedamned (indigenous people, Panama)

“They're killing us” (indigenous people, Brazil)

The Globalization of HollowPolitics  (French elections)

World Bank helps corporations with land grabs in Africa

The First Global Man (closer to what actually took place in the Americas)

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