Oil and the Amazon: Corporate Accountability, Legal Struggles, and Community Organizing


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In a fine showing of the power of collective action, four Harvard organizations: the Human Rights Program, the Harvard University Center for the Environment, HLS Advocates for Human Rights, and the Environmental Law Society, joined forces to sponsor an event titled, “Oil and the Amazon: Corporate Accountability, Legal Struggles, and Community Organizing.”

The talk, which took place last Monday in Pound 100, included speakers Prof. Judith Kimerling, who holds joint appointments as a professor at the CUNY School of Law and the Political Science department at Queens College, and Mr. Moi Enomenga, the current Vice President of the Organization of the Huaorani Nationality of the Ecuadorian Amazon (ONHAE), the governing body of the Huaorani, one of the indigenous peoples of the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. Mr. Enomenga was also the main character in the book Savages by Joe Kane among a number other journalistic and documentary works.

The talk focused on the social and environmental impact of oil politics and economics in Ecuado. It opened with historical commentary by Prof. Kimerling. She described the ecstatic nature with which the country embraced the discovery of oil in the 1960s and the ensuing push in the ’70s and ’80s to integrate Amazonia into the broader national framework via “internal colonization” designed to facilitate the penetration of the Amazon for oil exploration. She also outlined the devastating toll that lax operating procedures at oil companies like Texaco and limited government regulation took on the indigenous populations through deforestation and contamination of freshwater sources by industrial waste among other factors. Local misinformation about the dangers of oil production was so rampant that, according to an anecdote she recounted, workers were using crude oil as a cure for balding.

These realities led to the eventual publication of her book, Amazon Crude, lauded by the New York Times as the “‘Silent Spring’ of Ecuador’s increasingly aggressive environmental movement,” in 1991. At least partly in response to information about the oil industry exposed in her book, class action suit was brought against Texaco, Inc. in New York federal court in 1993. The case, Aguinda v. Texaco, Inc. was dismissed in 2002 in favor of litigation in Ecuador, with the court citing forum non conveniens (a doctrine that allows an appropriate forum to divest itself of jurisdiction if for the convenience of involved parties another appropriate forum is available). Prof. Kimerling contended that the ruling was based on facts that were questionable, if not clearly false, such as the notion that, in the past, claimants in Ecuador had received damage awards. However, as a result of the publicity received from the litigation, many oil companies now at least profess adherence to some form of “green standard,” though recent research done by Prof. Kimerling raises doubts as to the veracity of such assertions.

Mr. Enomenga, who has been traveling the country speaking with IMF and U.N. officials and at universities and schools, spoke next. With Prof. Kimerling acting as a translator, Mr. Enomenga spoke of his people, the Huaorani, whose remaining population of roughly 3,000 has been reduced by illness from a population that at one time exceeded 10,000 and is spread over three provinces. Disillusioned by NGOs that claim to speak for the indigenous peoples while providing them little representation, the Huaorani, along with other indigenous groups, have been taking matters into their own hands. Mr. Enomenga’s group is pushing for the recognition by the Ecuadorian government of their rights as indigenous peoples and increased dialogue and influence with the government and oil companies prior to encroachment on their lands. They are also seeking restoration and compensation for damage already done by oil companies and implementation of safeguards to prevent further degradation to the environment and the native peoples.

Based on his denunciation of current practices relating to oil production, Mr. Enomenga was asked whether he saw any way to coexist with the oil companies. He expressed some skepticism at their ability to change, based on years of history that would suggest otherwise. However, he was pragmatic enough to realize that the complete ejection of oil companies from the Amazon was unlikely, and the path that he and his group were pursuing was one of prevention and preservation. Perhaps the best representation of the spirit of the talk was Mr. Enomenga’s challenge to those in attendance, as the next generation of lawyers and activists, to come up with “a new dialogue, a new way of thinking” that allows people and civilizations, not just in Ecuador but around the globe, to live in balance with the environment. Such a challenge is made all the more poignant because, once lost, some things can never be regained.

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