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The Other L.A.

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The Other L.A.

There’s no glitz or glamor in Lago Agrio, Ecuador

The hot and humid impoverished region of Lago Agrio has unusual
tourism traffic these days. Its renowned Toxic Tours have attracted
many American journalists, politicians and celebrities, including Daryl
Hannah, Bianca Jagger, Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, and most recently,
Robert Kennedy’s daughter, Kerry. The other L.A. has been spotlighted
in both American newspapers and in Joe Berlinger’s documentary Crude.

Ecuador’s
L.A. is indeed a real-life drama. Thousands of crude oil spills have
taken place in the Amazonian region, and there’s no end in sight. Lago
Agrio’s residents live surrounded by heavy oil and 60% of them make $2
a day or less, so they are unable to cover their basic needs or to
relocate. The whopping poverty rate has remained unchanged and the
government has provided little aid during the last decade, despite
Ecuador having more than tripled its oil income since 1999. Oil riches,
exclusively located in the Amazon, fuel 40% of the national budget and
represent half of all exports.

Many environmental activists
blame the American oil company Chevron for L.A.’s environmental
devastation. But the giant has had no operations or assets in Ecuador
since the 1990s. Between 2000 and 2008, state-owned oil company
Petroecuador caused 1,415 oil spills—that’s one “accident” every other
day. Petroecuador officials are so corrupt that they have purposely cut
the oil pipeline to grant private companies remediation contracts, as
acknowledged by Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. Despite this,
Petroecuador’s oil spills are not mentioned in the $27 billion
environmental lawsuit, which blames Chevron-Texaco exclusively for Lago
Agrio’s fate.

The largest environmental suit in history—equivalent to half of Ecuador’s GDP—began
in the other L.A. in 1993. Led by a group of American lawyers,
representing 48 plaintiffs, the Lago Agrio lawsuit attempts to apply
the 1999 Environmental Management Act retroactively, issued one year
after Texaco was granted a clean bill attesting that its remediation
measures were successful. Ecuador’s Minister of Mines and Petroleum,
and Petroecuador president, released Texaco from any further
environmental liability in the future.

Incredibly, this
legal outrage is backed by Correa, who joined Hollywood stars on a
Toxic Tour. After his visit, he demanded Ecuador’s attorney general
begin a criminal investigation against Texaco’s clean bill signatories.

Correa’s
interference in the judiciary system had an echo. Attorney General
Washington Pesantes fulfilled his request in August 2008. Yet that
wasn’t the first time that Pesantes investigated the same case. In
September 2007, as district prosecutor of Pichincha, he interviewed
witnesses and concluded that Texaco’s actions were not criminal. More
recently, Pesantes asked Judge Juan Nuñez—in charge of the Chevron
lawsuit—to recuse himself from the case, after the oil giant released a
series of videos implying that Nuñez would rule against the company. So
Nuñez resigned. The recusal was seen as a victory for Chevron, which
has argued that the Ecuadorian judicial system is too corrupt to render
a fair verdict in the environmental lawsuit.

Corruption is
indeed a common practice in Latin America. According to Latinobarómetro
2009, an annual survey of 19,000 interviewees, 69% of Latin Americans
agree that their public officials are corrupt. In Ecuador, the distrust
climbs to 75%—and for good reason. A few weeks prior to the release of
the controversial videos, Correa’s brother, Fabricio, had to rescind
$80 million worth of government oil contracts; Ecuadorian laws forbids
relatives of the president from receiving these binding agreements.

Besides
Chevron, Correa has also railed against other foreign firms, from oil
and telecommunications companies, to private banks and multilateral
lenders. The most recent example is French oil company Perenco, which
refused to pay $327 million after the government unilaterally raised
the 50% windfall profits tax to a ridiculous 99%. The firm won in
international arbitration, but the government seized its production
facilities, denouncing the World Bank’s International Settlement of
Investment Disputes as a “colonialist.”

In September,
Chevron requested the United Nations Commission on International Trade
Law intervene in its struggle with the government of Ecuador. Whoever
wins the arbitration, the $27 billion environmental lawsuit already has
one big loser: the residents of Ecuador’s L.A. Their future looks dark
and murky, like the hundreds of crude oil spills that sit on open wells
surrounding their hamlets. Their fortunes can improve only when the
Ecuadorian government, instead of joining Hollywood stars for photo ops
or seeking “colonialist” scapegoats, begins to address and remediate
Lago Agrio’s environmental disaster.