First Person

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? Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+