Tag Archives: Ecuador

Justice, Deferred but not Denied

Big oil largely does whatever it wants around the world.  In country after country, corrupt plutocrats shill for oil companies that pollute the land, poison the citizens, and spirit away natural resources to benefit the gas guzzling denizens of the overdeveloped world.

Ecuador is a perfect example of this sad chain of events.  Since the 1970s, the US-based corporation Texaco has been drilling wells in the Amazonian jungle in Ecuador.  According to Sweden’s Umeå International School of Public Health, during this drilling, Texaco spilled more than 30bn gallons of toxic wastes and crude oil into the land and waterways of Ecuador’s Amazon basin.  Compare this with the 10.8m gallons of crude spilled into the waters of Alaska by the Exxon Valdez to gain a sense of the magnitude of this disaster.

But Texaco largely got away with this massive act of pollution.  One reason for this may lie in what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” the distended temporality through which environmental destruction plays itself out.  Unlike human rights atrocities committed with traditional weapons of mass destruction, environmental contamination often makes itself felt across generations and in ways that are not always easy to tie to the original contamination.

How then to hold polluting corporations responsible for their polluting ways?  Texaco paid $40m in the 1990s for clean-up, but then claimed that it had exhausted its obligations to the people of Ecuador.  Conveniently, the company was bought by Chevron in the 1990s, meaning that the original perpetrator disappeared in legal terms.  Similar acts of absorption have occurred in other toxic waste spills.  One thinks of the case of Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, India; the company responsible for the disaster was bought by Dow Chemical and still has not paid out substantial damages to the people of Bhopal.

This makes the decision by an Ecuadorian judge to hold Texaco responsible for $8bn worth of damages in the Amazon particularly significant.  It took eighteen years for justice to be delivered in this case.  Joe Berlinguer’s movie Crude offers a powerful account of this epic battle for justice.  This victory sets an important precedent, but it is already embattled.  Supported by the U.S. government, Chevron has already taken steps to bar enforcement of the ruling in international courts.  Nevertheless, the decision is a real milestone in holding polluting corporations responsible for their damage to the Earth and its fragile inhabitants.

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The Oil Curse

We Americans are very attached to our oil.  It’s the ultimate lubricant, greasing our dreams of limitless horizontal velocity in fast cars across wide vistas, and of unlimited vertical ascent through the rarefied cultural strata of philanthropists and socialites. Best of all, oil is both ubiquitous and virtually invisible – most of the time.

I remember watching old reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies as a kid, a show whose situational comedy derived from the immense wealth suddenly conferred on a bunch of Appalachian yokels when someone strikes oil on their land.  The joke of course was that you can take the hick out of the hills but you can’t take the hills out of the hick.  But the Clampetts are noble savages, and their lack of pretension is used to mount a scathing critique of the excesses of Los Angeles’s fleshpots, just as Montaigne had done to the ancien regime using his cannibals.

Yet the show never questioned oil.  It was simply assumed, common sense, that the discovery of oil would lead to instant and enduring wealth for the lucky proprietors of crude-rich land.  We should have known better.  Already back in 1927, Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! had shown how the discovery of black gold could tear apart not just a family, not just a community, but the entire nation, as the flow of easy crude-derived money jammed into the veins of the polity like a huge syringe, spreading decadence, corruption, and violence to all the corners of the land.

In his recent book Crude World, Peter Maass travels the world, visiting oil-blighted countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Ecuador, the violence-ridden Niger Delta, and the corrupt oil oligarchy in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Everywhere he goes, Maass finds that oil exemplifies the so-called resource curse: rather than bringing Beverly Hillbilly-style instant, uncouth wealth, it exacerbates existing problems and creates intractable new ones.  Oil has not enriched such places, but has instead brought lower growth, higher corruption, less freedom, and more warfare.  Maass comes across some graffiti in Ecuador’s Amazon region: “Más Petróleo = Más Pobreza” [more oil = more poverty].

Usually Americans don’t think much about such issues.  But oil has become all too visible of late.  The massive leak following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon has revealed all the shadowy, corrupt webs of power that sustain oil extraction within the U.S.  It is very timely, then, that a scathing critique of Chevron, the world’s 4th largest oil company, should have been published today, right in time for the annual shareholder meeting.  The report, The True Cost of Chevron, details the environmental, political, and social costs of oil production around the world.

For we should remember that, as horrifying as the Deepwater Horizon spill may be (hopefully we’ll find out the true extent of the problem one day), in many places around the world exposure to the toxic products of the petroleum industry is a normal part of life.  The images of peasants from the Niger Delta walking nonchalantly past gas flares, which burn day and night, constantly emitting toxic fumes into the air, underline the banality of this evil.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster offers us an opportunity to rally opposition within the U.S. to the “oil curse,” and to push for a just transition to a truly sustainable economy.  A good way to start would be by putting the CEOs of corporations that pollute the environment with massive oil spills or gas flares in prison.

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