Ecuadorians share lessons for battling oil companies with Louisiana tribes

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For the last 17 years, five indigenous tribes from the Ecuadorian Amazon have been involved in one of the largest environmental lawsuits in history, against an oil company which dumped more than 15 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Ecuadorean rainforest over three decades. When the Ecuadorians heard about the BP oil surge in the Gulf, they initiated a meeting with the indigenous communities in Louisiana to share what they had learned from their experience fighting an oil company. Reporter David Weinberg travelled with the delegation and brings us this story.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. There'd been great hope these past few days that BP was on the verge of capping the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. But today the company announced a delay in a key test for that procedure. People in the region are getting used to delays. Of course, there are delays, and there are delays. In Ecuador, five indigenous tribes have been involved in a huge environmental lawsuit for the past 17 years. The suit charged the oil company Texaco, now owned by Chevron, with dumping more than 15 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon rainforest. A final ruling is still pending. Now, in the wake of the BP disaster, some Ecuadorian tribal leaders have visited Louisiana to share their experience with indigenous people there. Reporter David Weinberg travelled with the delegation and brings us this story from Dulac, Louisiana.

DAVID WEINBERG: In 1963 Humberto Piaguaje was a six year old growing up in [SOUNDS LIKE] Cuyabeno, a remote village in the Amazon rainforest. He remembers the first time he encountered the workers who came to his village in search of oil.


HUMBERTO PIAGUAJE: I remember when I was six years old, it was the first time that we saw helicopters land in our community. We ran to the mountains thinking it was some kind of ghost. Later we saw people arriving with their helmets and boots and we had never seen people like that. It had a huge impact on the community and on the children. They began to cut down the forest in huge segments, including the trees that we hold sacred.

WEINBERG: The Secoya people had never seen oil before it started flowing into the rivers they used for bathing, fishing and drinking. When they saw what they called ?black blankets of crude? in the water they asked the oil company workers if it was dangerous. Piaguaje says they told the people that the water was safe and that it could be used as medicine, to treat rheumatism and gastritis.


PIAGUAJE: The oil flows downstream and the children go to bathe without knowing how it will affect them. The women wash their clothes, clean their dishes, and take water from the river to cook their daily meals for the family. This has really caused a problem over all these years. And since we don't have anywhere else to turn, we continue consuming. I have seen many children die. The mothers want their children to grow and really has been extremely painful, more than anything for the families.

WEINBERG: The non-profits Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch thought Piaguaje might be able to help local indigenous groups. So they brought him and other indigenous leaders from around the world to the bayous of southern Louisiana to see the devastation for themselves. The boat tour weaves its way through the wetlands, between houses built on stilts. Piaguaje picks up a blade of marsh grass coated in a thick black goo and holds it to his nose.


WEINBERG: He says it has a familiar smell of varnish and petroleum. As the sun inches toward the horizon, the indigenous leaders gather in a community center in Dulac.

BRENDA DARDAR ROBICHAUX: As I've gotten to visit with our friends from Ecuador and if I was to hear their story and close my eyes they are sharing our story.

WEINBERG: Brenda Dardar Robichaux was the principal chief of the United Houma Nation for 13 years. The oil showing up in the nearby wetlands has crippled the fishing industry, but provides food and jobs to most of the Houma Nation. Residents here are also concerned about the effects contaminated water would have if a hurricane comes this season. No one knows how long, or if ever, people could return to their homes after being flooded with toxic water. The Houma Nation is looking to Ecuadorians like Luis Yanza for answers. Yanza is the lead plaintiff in the case against Chevron. He says that one of the most important goals during the long struggle ahead is to maintain unity as a community.


LUIS YANZA: I think it's important to document the evidence of the damages with independent credible scientists. Because when you go to court, you have to prove the damages and if you don't have strong and conclusive evidence, the company will evade its responsibility.

WEINBERG: For the Ecuadorians, this strategy has so far been successful. A ruling in the case against Chevron is expected sometime in the next few months. And many legal experts think the indigenous communities have a good chance of winning. But here in the Gulf, it's likely that these indigenous communities would face a long legal battle should they decide to take that route. For The World, I'm David Weinberg in Dulac.