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Amazon oil struggle still bubbling

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Humberto Piaguaje, leader of the Secoya people in Ecuador. Photo by Coco Laso/Oxfam America
Humberto Piaguaje, leader of the Secoya people in Ecuador. Photo by Coco Laso/Oxfam America

I sat down on the couch last night and turned on 60 Minutes to find a story on the court case against Chevron brought by the Amazon Defense Front and 30,000 people from Ecuador’s northeast Amazon region. This case has been dragging through the courts—first here in the US and then in Ecuador—for over 10 years. When I was in that area of Ecuador in 2004, I interviewed many of those affected by pollution that Texaco (now owned by Chevron) generated while drilling in the rainforest from 1964 to 1990. I had two particularly poignant conversations—one with local indigenous Secoya leader Humberto Piaguaje and another with attorney Pablo Fajardo of the Amazon Defense Front.

Over the years there has been more oil spilled in this part of Ecuador than was spilled in Alaska by the Exxon Valdez. You can still see the ponds full of oil and toxic waste water next to the sources for drinking water in places like San Carlos. Visiting here is like a glimpse into someone else’s nightmare. Everyone I spoke with was fighting cancer or mourning a dead relative. One man said one of his daughters was born with deformed legs and can hardly walk. “The doctor in Quito said it was half due to pollution, half lack of calcium,” he told me. “We brought together 20 kids one time, all with the same problem.”

So I was happy to see this story on 60 Minutes. Since it is a struggle between one of the biggest corporations in the world and some very poor people, many of them indigenous people, it is easy to communicate the injustice, and the drama. I have always thought it should be exposed to a wider audience, like the one 60 Minutes can command.

But where were the farmers, the indigenous people? 60 Minutes focused on US attorney Steven Donziger, who has been working on the case all along, and is really good on camera. They did make a point of visiting a Secoya community, but only paraphrased Humberto Piaguaje, and hardly showed his face for a moment. They did not interview anyone from the Amazon Defense Front, whose members won the prestigious international Goldman Environmental Prize last year.

My colleague here at Oxfam Chris Jochnick agrees that CBS missed an opportunity. He traveled with Steven Donziger to Ecuador in 1993 to work on the original lawsuit. He spent eight years there supporting Amazon communities at the human rights organization Center for Economic and Social Rights. “This lawsuit is so much more than what’s happening in the courts; it has helped sparked a whole movement driven by Amazon communities, linked to NGOs, academics, politicians and northern investors,” Jochnick says. “The use of ‘rights’ and laws to mobilize and connect people is in some ways a much more interesting and important story, and that piece was completely neglected.”

Why do we always seem to take a story about something important overseas and twist it around to make it a story about someone from the US? (This is not a criticism of Donziger, who has done a lot to help keep this case going.) With the right approach a story can be told through someone from another country, and I think smart people have the capacity to understand and care about important stories that don’t involve someone from the US. CBS and others should give it a try.

People are fighting for their rights all over the world and achieving great things. Why aren’t we telling these stories?

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  1.  avatarjoseph

    The Chevron spokesperson was so obviously insincere I was embarassed for her. Petroecuador inherited Texaco’s entire drilling infrastructure which was based on the concept that poor Third World rainforest residents have less value than US residents, otherwise US industry norms would have been applied by Texaco in Ecuador. The 40% “remediation” Texaco carried out involved simply bulldozing over the toxic waste pits to allow the poisons to leach into the water table over time – an environmental and human rights crime if ever there was one. So even if one takes Chevron’s 40% “clean up” responsibility as valid, there is clear proof that even this was not performed ethically. This enormously profitable corporation has built its wealth upon the misery of the disenfranchised and the poor. The bill is 16 years overdue.

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  2. Chris

    Hi Joseph, thanks for these comments
    I agree there has been an injustice against people in the Amazon, so why are we not hearing their voices in the media in the US? To use your same logic, if we applied the same norms to covering this story as we would in the US would we not be interviewing people affected by the pollution?

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  3.  avatarJenny

    Blame it patriotic narcissism. We don’t hear their voices the same reason why we only keep count of US soldier fatalities and not civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. I like 60 minutes’s insightful reporting, but just like all mainstream media outlets they have an agenda and corporations whose money and influence powers these agendas (it’s the same reason why news of the Tennessee sludge spill is no longer covered).

    On the other hand, if 60 minutes continued to see this through US prospective, I’d argue they ought to see that all Americans are somewhat responsible for the plight of Equador’s indigenous people due to our dependence on foreign oil. And if we continue on the same path, stories like the equadorians will be more repetitious.

    But to answer your question from another angle, media in general tends to focus on the negative by watching Goliath beat David senselessly. I do agree though w/ your point about Americans wanting to learn more about other cultures, and it’s the same reason why I watch Worldfocus on PBS (I try to watch it more than Nightly news or even the Newshour). However, I am optimistic though that mainstream media will ultimately be forced to change w/ the influence of the blogosphere taking down many newspapers (which may be why Worldfocus often takes reports from bloggers living in the middle of news events).

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  4.  avatarCaroline W.

    It sounds as if the Sixty Minutes piece was simply focusing on a very specific subset of the people affected by this case: those who belong to the ruling class who will ultimately decide the outcome of this case. The people of Ecuador whose homes and families are destroyed by this plague are for all purposes excluded by the rich and powerful in the playing grounds of the legal system of the United States. Our government supports corporations, not the people of Ecuador. Attorney Steven Donziger may have the interests of the Ecuadorian people in his mind, but he still has to fight a system rigged to support large multinational corporations like Chevron. In the end we might ask ourselves, how important really are the stories of the Ecuadorians to the US legal system?

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  5. Chris Hufstader

    Since this case is not being heard in US courts the legal standing of Ecudorian citizens in the US legal system is not the issue. I think that the people of the Oriente are doing a lot to stand up for their rights and should be recognized for their struggle. What I always seem to see instead is the story being told through a North American, with the community in the foreign country out on the margin of the story. People are taking courageous stands to defend their rights every day, but Americans never seem to hear about it unless an American is involved in the story. I think this reinforces negative stereotypes and misses important stories. An exception: the new movie Crude now out, which I recommend:
    http://www.crudethemovie.com/

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