Photos, video interviews, and b-roll available upon request.
Despite facing five decades of some of the world’s worst oil-related contamination at the hands of Chevron and winning a historic 28-year legal battle that has yet to result in a clean up of its toxic legacy, Indigenous plaintiffs in the case are now under legal attack from its own government. In an effort to appease Chevron and court investors for oil industry expansion plans, the Attorney General reactivated a discredited investigation accusing Indigenous plaintiffs of bribing the judge that ruled in their favor based on a preponderance of the evidence, much of which was Chevron’s own evidence showing elevated levels of soil and water contamination.
Last week, prosecutors traveled to Indigenous communities and forced named plaintiffs to testify – including a 100-year-old elder – criminalizing and persecuting the very people poisoned by the company’s drill and dump practices. Those called to testify are named plaintiffs in the historic litigation Aguinda v Chevron, and members of the Union of People Affected by Texaco (Unión de Afectados por Texaco – UDAPT). They are under investigation for the bribery of Judge Nicolás Zambrano, who issued the lower court ruling in 2013 that found Chevron guilty of egregious contamination and rights abuses.
The depositions were taken on Wednesday, September 15, and Thursday, September 16, by two police officers at the service of the Attorney General’s Office. The first took place in San Pablo, a Seikopai Indigenous community that once saw its rivers run black with crude, and who have lost thousands of hectares of ancestral territory to the oil industry, agro-industrial plantations, and colonization. Prosecutors then traveled south down a Texaco-constructed road to depose Maria Aguinda, the namesake of the litigation, whose house sits feet from a poorly remediated waste pit left by the company.
Adding insult to injury, the investigation allegedly intends to show that María Aguinda, Elías Piaguaje, Justino Piaguaje, and other members of the Indigenous Seikopai and Kichwa Indigenous nations offered money to Judge Nicolás Zambrano so that he would rule against the oil company for environmental damages – an absurd claim since the company’s own evidence showed elevated levels of contamination, and an eight-year investigation into Judge Zambrano by Chevron yielded no evidence of wrongdoing and was ordered closed by the local district attorney. Meanwhile, many of those who provided testimony have lost family members to cancer and other oil-related health impacts.
The action by the Attorney General’s Office is an overt favor to Chevron, who has refused to recognize the judgment handed down by the Ecuadorian judicial system. It’s a disturbing sign that the new right-wing government of Guillermo Lasso, seeking to bolster its reputation with investors with market-friendly policy reforms, is subverting the judiciary and the constitutional rights of its people. Especially after a decision from an arbitration panel found that Ecuador must implement measures to annul the judgment, prevent its enforcement, and pay Chevron’s legal costs and “moral damages.”
This is not the first time that the attorney general’s office has engaged in efforts to undermine the Ecuadorian plaintiffs’ right to justice. It filed briefs supporting Chevron before Canada’s Supreme Court to prevent enforcement of the judgment by communities who, with no recourse in Ecuador, were forced to pursue the oil giant’s assets in countries around the world. The office of the attorney general has also defended the legitimacy of the arbitration panel ruling before the country’s National Assembly, despite the implications for Ecuador’s sovereignty.
The audacity of Chevron and the willingness of Ecuadorian government agencies to criminalize and persecute the very people poisoned by the company – that have been denied justice for half a century – is the real crime. The Ecuadorian government is doing Chevron’s bidding in hopes of resolving the decades-long legal conflict to inspire investor confidence at the expense of its own people’s rights. These defenders of human rights, the rights of nature, and the Amazon are being victimized yet again by Chevron and betrayed by the very agency that is charged with protecting and guaranteeing the rights of Ecuadorian citizens.
Below are excerpts of testimonies provided by interrogated plaintiffs:
“The lawsuit against Chevron’s lawsuit was filed 28 years ago. I didn’t bribe anyone… I haven’t paid anyone… I freely and voluntarily give my testimony because I do not have resources for myself, let alone for paying the judge… ” said lead plaintiff María Aguinda through an interpreter.
“… we know the evidence that was presented and that there were deaths and illnesses as well as the contamination of the rivers and the death of fish. I know that very well. I don’t know the judge nor have I seen or heard that he was offered or even given money. We don’t have money, not even for our food, let alone, even worse, to offer money to other people. We are people of humble means,” shared Emilio Lucitante.
“Now that I have the opportunity, I can say we don’t have any money to collect or to offer because we are poor people… ” shared Elías Piyaghuajhe.
“I am a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Chevron because this company contaminated the Aguarico River… from this moment on, the people of our community continued to die… my daughter died of cancer… death is still among our relatives in the community… it is a lie that our community has offered money to the judge,” shared Luis Payaguaje.
Delfín Leónidas Payaguaje Payaguaje, San Roque Parish, Shushufindi:
“I saw a lot of crude oil coming down the Aguarico River, but also in the Shushufindi River there was a greater amount of crude oil, so I stopped fishing because the fish were dying. I don’t know him. I only heard that he was an authority. I have not seen any money given or offered.”
Emilio Martin Lucitande Yaiguaje, farmer, San Roque Parish, Shushufindi Canton:
“I am also a named plaintiff of the Chevron-Texaco case… on the knowledge of the bribery case of the former Judge Nicolas Zambrano, in reality, I did not know him nor have I met him, nor have I heard that any person of my nationality or any external person paid or offered him any money, this is new to me, nor do I know what “bribe” means… don’t have any money to collect or to offer because we are poor people.”
Luis Agustin Payaguaje Piaguaje, San Pablo de Katesiaya:
“… I am a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Chevron because this company contaminated the Aguarico River… from this moment on the people of our community continued to die, as a result of this contamination by Chevron my daughter died of cancer… death is still among our relatives in the community … it is a lie that our community has offered money to the judge.
Javier Piaguaje Payaguaje, San Pablo de Katesiaya:
“I am a signatory for my nationality, the SIEKOPAI. We do not have the economic resources to pay anyone – none of us. We have always shown exactly what has happened with the contamination inside the communities, at no time did we know or hear that we, members of the community SIEKOPAI have paid anyone. I mean, where are we going to get the money to pay? We are poor people. Besides, I do not know Judge Nicolas Zambrano and what they say is a lie. It is worth mentioning that we have suffered from some illnesses such as cancer and leukemia because of the contamination… “
Benancio Freddy Chimbo Grefa, Cuyabeno Canton, Tarapoa Parish:
“…all the disaster of oil pollution was in the streets, in the streams, and all that flowed into the Aguarico River. We thought that those fish that I fished would not cause harm, we fed on fishing. Then I moved to live in the San Roque Parish, a community of San Pablo de Katesiaya, where I observed that the entire river was awash in oil; there, I observed that the whole river was full of oil, it made me sad to see that the people bathed in the river; we drank from that water, we saw the dead fish, the animals that drank the water began to die, the people began to die from cancer… that’s why we thought about filing a complaint regarding the contamination. Yes, I was one of the people who signed the lawsuit.”
Gloria Lucrecia Tanguila Grefa, farmer, Parish Union Milagreña:
“…that’s why we filed a complaint against Chevron Texaco, because of the consequences of our community members who have died of cancer” “Yes, I signed the lawsuit against Chevron Texaco… we don’t even have enough to eat… “
Francisco Matias Alvarado Yumbo, farmer, Unión Milagreña Parish:
“The land is contaminated, it does not produce our crops, the plants grow and die before the fruit is ripe(… ) because of the water of the Quichayacu River, we have white spots on our bodies, fungus on our feet, the waste pits that Texaco left behind are still contaminated, in the estuary, the oil is still there. We have not given any money to anyone.”
Victoria Maria Aguinda Salazar, housewife, Dayuma Parish, Rumipamba:
“For some time now the contamination has been the same, but it has become more complicated and everything that is part of the water, going towards the river, is totally contaminated; there is no way to catch fish, all the crops that are near the estuary dry up and die. When that contamination gets wet with that rainwater, we get pimples and spots on our skin. This lawsuit [against Judge Zambrano] was only two years ago and it has been followed up today (referring to the lawsuit against the former judge), but the Chevron lawsuit was 28 years ago.”
Lidia Alexandra Aguinda Aguinda, public employee, Dayuma Parish, Rumipamba:
“… Chevron is lying and telling the State Officials that we Amazonians do not live in a contamination zone; back then we lived all this in the flesh, and saw the pollution (… ) it affects our health, food, crops and economy (… ) we are suffering (… ) we ask the Ecuadorian State and the Judges for Chevron to remedy the damage caused to the Amazonian territory. We are poor people, we don’t have enough, let alone pay a lawyer or judge). I haven’t even ever met the judge.”
Catalina Antonio Aguinda Salazar, farmer, Dayuma Parish, Rumipamba:
“The representatives of Chevron have not yet faced up to the damages caused in our communities. There are people whose health is affected, the animals are dying because of the consumption of water. We have not given any money to anyone, on the contrary, we don’t even have money for our food.”