Fighting for justice after what has been called one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in history, Luis Yanza and Pablo Fajardo are leading an unprecedented community-driven legal battle against a global oil giant. According to the plaintiffs, beginning in 1964 and through 1990, Texaco dumped nearly 17 million gallons of crude oil and 20 billion gallons of drilling wastewater directly into the Ecuadorian Amazon. Allegedly suffering from the health effects of the pollution, the region's inhabitants are demanding a complete cleanup in potentially the largest environmental lawsuit ever filed in the world. Yanza co-founded the Amazon Defense Front to organize 30,000 inhabitants of the northern Ecuadorian Amazon in a class-action lawsuit against Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001. The lead lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, a resident of one of the affected communities, has become the public voice of the plaintiffs.
Unprecedented Petroleum Pollution
To this day, the region's 30,000 inhabitants primarily drink water that has been deemed contaminated by experts involved in the case. According to the plaintiffs, many of the waste pits continue to pollute the rivers, streams and groundwater. In some areas, all water sources are contaminated and few fish survive in the rivers. The plaintiffs claim that prolonged exposure to toxic substances has led to a serious health crisis, and caused people living in such proximity to pollution to suffer dramatically increased incidences of skin disease, respiratory ailments, reproductive disorders and a cancer rate seven times higher than the rest of the country’s population. They also claim that the regional devastation includes more than two million acres of deforestation. Chevron, however, claims the region’s environmental and health problems are not a result of the pollution left behind by Texaco, and that they are no longer responsible.
Leading the Community to Seek Justice
In May 2003, the 30,000 plaintiffs, led by Fajardo's legal team, filed a lawsuit in Ecuador's northern Amazon, demanding that Chevron pay for a complete cleanup, including removal of all formation waters, debris and equipment; remediation of all contaminated water bodies and lands; recuperation of fauna, flora and aqueous life; and monitoring and improvement of the health of the inhabitants.
Chevron does not deny dumping formation waters or oil in the region, but says the resulting contamination has not harmed the inhabitants and it is not responsible for any cleanup. In March 2007, the plaintiffs, with the abundant evidence collected from 45 field inspections, had already proven the existence of extensive contamination, and that further delay was not necessary. The judge issued an order to begin an assessment of the damages, which was carried out by an independent expert, culminating in a report released in April 2008 citing $8.3 - $16 billion in damages. Fajardo and Yanza have been touring the country relentlessly, making the trial an issue of national dignity and sovereignty in anticipation of a final decision in 2008.
Long Term Impact
Their work entails significant risk, as well. Yanza, Fajardo, their families and a number of their colleagues have become targets of death threats, harassment and intimidation. In December 2005, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States issued precautionary measures for Yanza and Fajardo in an effort to protect their lives. Fajardo's brother was killed just months after he joined the legal team; no investigation has taken place and no one has been arrested for the homicide. Fajardo has been forced to vary his daily routine, often sleeping in a different place each night.
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