Canadian Indigenous leaders witnessed first hand this week the devastation and pollution left behind by oil companies in Indigenous lands in Ecuador.

"What we've witnessed here is tragic...shocking," said former Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leader Phil Fontaine, speaking from Quito via telephone.

Leaders travelled to Quito, Ecuador to visit with Indigenous tribes in the Amazon whose lands and waterways have been severely affected by pollution.

Tribes in the Lago Agrio region have been fighting oil giant Chevron in court for more than 20 years over environmental and social damages from hundreds of abandoned, unlined waste pits and the dumping of billions of gallons of oil waste into local waterways.

The plaintiffs in the case represent over 30,000 Indigenous people living in the region who estimate that a 50,000 sq km area of land has been poisoned by disregarded oil and toxic waste.

"The corporate interest have no interest in the Indigenous People and their way of life," said Fontaine. "These people have occupied their lands and territories for thousands of years. The toxic waste on their land and in their waterways is compromising their very long and sacred connection to the land."

Fontaine, along with Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Grand Chief Edward John, are organizing an alliance with the 60 Lago Agrio area tribes to help pressure Chevron to pay owed damages.

Chevron denies responsibility

However, Chevron denies responsibility altogether, saying via a statement on its website that it has never operated in Ecuador. It says Texaco Petroleum (TexPet), a subsidiary of Chevron that operated in Ecuador before being acquired by Chevron, played a minority role in an oil-production consortium in Ecuador along with the state-owned oil company, Petroecuador.

"After TexPet turned its remaining share of the oil operations over to Petroecuador in 1992, pursuant to an agreement with Ecuador, TexPet conducted a remediation of selected production sites while Petroecuador committed to perform any remaining cleanup," reads the statement.

"The government of Ecuador oversaw and certified the successful completion of TexPet's remediation and fully released TexPet from further environmental liability. Petroecuador, however, failed to conduct the cleanup it promised and has continued to operate and expand oil operations in the former concession over the past 20 years."

An Ecuadorian court awarded the affected tribes an $18 billion judgment that was reduced to $9.5 billion in 2011, rendered against Chevron for contamination due to crude oil production in the region.

Chevron refused to pay the settlement and went on to fight the case in the United States court system, receiving a ruling by the court of appeals that the Ecuadorian judgment was the product of fraud and racketeering activity, finding it unenforceable.

"The only fraud in that case was Chevron's fraud," alleged Steve Donziger, the lead American lawyer representing the Lago Agrio tribes, claiming the oil giant was doing everything it could to counter-attack the tribe's legal team in order to avoid responsibility for the issue at hand. 

"Chevron thought it would bribe its way to victory in Ecuador but it didn't work, so now it is refusing to pay. The damage award of $9 billion has been approved by all levels of courts in Ecuador."

Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Grand Chief Edward John

Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Grand Chief Edward John speaks with affected tribal members in Ecuador Wednesday. (Karen Hinton/Submitted)

Bringing the fight to Canada

The tribes have now moved their fight to the Canadian court system in the hopes Canada will order Chevron to pay the $9.5 billion - which, after accrued interest is now worth $12 billion - with its Canadian-held assets.

Fontaine, who has sparked controversy for previous financial ties to pipeline company TransCanada, said he was not in Ecuador to support development or major corporate interest. However, it was about forming political alliances to support the Indigenous nations there.

Fontaine parallelled similar struggles faced by Indigenous groups in Canada over resource development on Indigenous territories.

"We will do all we can … to bring justice to our peoples in Canada and in Ecuador," he said. "We saw the evidence that destructive behavior [by Chevron] and the consequences of their behavior has on the people, the land and the water. We are equipped in Canada to help bring justice to our Brothers and Sisters here in Ecuador."

Chevron is partnering with Woodside Energy International Limited on the proposed Kitimat LNG natural gas project. The pipeline would cross through Indigenous territory in B.C. which includes Chief John's homelands.

John said he is allying with the Lago Agrio tribes after witnessing the damages caused by Chevron in their territories.

"The story is simple. There has been extensive damage to your water and land and your food source," said John to tribal leaders gathered at a press conference Tuesday in Quito.

"The courts in Ecuador have confirmed the damage award on behalf of the Ecuadorian Indigenous people. When Chevron pays the damage, it will be a rare example of when Latin American Indigenous have been successful against oil companies. It is a proud day to be Indigenous, which is why we are here today from Canada.

"We support the court order to enforce the damage award in Canada. Our Brothers and Sisters here in Ecuador are right. Their standard needs to be applied and enforced for all Indigenous. We stand with the Ecuadorians."

Environmental disaster

The co-founder of Greenpeace, Rex Weyler, also joined the delegation and describes the scene in the Amazon as the worst environmental disaster in history.

"They've lost their farms, homes and have had to move on," said Weyler. "There's a cancer epidemic here, babies being born with birth defects and other effects of pollution. It's quite tragic and sad to see."

But he isn't surprised that Chevron is refusing to remediate the situation.

"It seems to be a pattern if you look at oil companies and Chevron specifically, they appear to use whatever methods they can get away with this.

"They've lost their farms, homes and have had to move on. There's a cancer epidemic here, babies being born with birth defects and other effects of pollution. It's quite tragic and sad to see." - Rex Weyler

"The waste dumping that they did in Ecuador, they would not be allowed to do that in Canada or the United States or Europe. But they went to a region that is occupied by poor Indigenous people and they seem to think they can get away with it."

The trial to enforce the judgement will continue in Canada's court of appeal in Toronto on Oct. 10. "Chevron is trying to delay the process, but the company ultimately will be forced to defend itself in Canadian courts," said lawyer Steven Donziger.

Fontaine has invited tribal Indigenous leaders from Lago Agrio to the AFN meeting in December, where he says they can share their plight with First Nations leaders.

Corrections

  • The original story suggested that Chevron liquidated its assets in Ecuador after the company was ordered to pay a court-ordered settlement in 2011. In fact, the assets had been liquidated before the settlement. It also stated that 30,000 people are affected by the action and an estimated 50,000 sq km area of land was involved. The story has been updated to attribute this information to the plaintiffs. Chevron says these numbers are unproven.
    Oct 07, 2017 10:25 AM ET