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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 November 2007, 14:41 GMT
Amazon natives sue oil giant
Greg Palast
By Greg Palast
Reporting for Newsnight

Natives
The locals are preparing for a battle against the oil giant

BBC Newsnight has been able to get rare footage of a new Cofan Indian ritual deep in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest.

Known as "The Filing of the Law Suit," these natives of Ecuador's jungle, decked in feathers and war paint and heavily armed with lawyers, are seen presenting their official complaint seeking $12bn from Chevron Inc - the international oil giant.

I stepped, somewhat inelegantly, into a dug-out log canoe to seek out the Cofan in their rainforest village to investigate their allegations. There I discovered stinking, leaking pits of old oil residue leaking into drinking water - and farmers whose skin is covered in pustules.

Texaco-Chevron

The Cofan's leader, Emergildo Criollo, claims that when Texaco Oil, now part of Chevron, came to the village in 1972, they told the natives rubbing crude on their arms would relieve aches and pains.

He blames the death of his three-year-old son on oil contamination. "He went swimming, then began vomiting blood," he said.

Chevron deny all these claims.

On the other side of the Andes volcano rising above the forest, is the capitol, Quito. There lies the other side of the story.

"It's the largest fraud in history," says Chevron lawyer Jaime Varela of the Cofan law suits.

Chevron-Texaco, he says, cleaned up all its contaminated oil pits when it abandoned the country nearly 15 years ago except those pits it left in the hands of Ecuador's own state oil company.

What about the Indian kids dying of cancer?

Alberto Acosta
Chevron is responsible for environmental and social destruction in the Amazon.
Alberto Acosta, President of the Constitutional Assembly
Texaco lawyer Rodrigo Perez asks, "And it's the only case of cancer in the world? How many cases of children with cancer do you have in the States, in Europe, in Quito? If there is somebody with cancer there, they have to prove it was caused by crude or by petroleum industry and second they have to prove that it is OUR crude - which is absolutely impossible."

He added: "Scientifically, nobody has proved that crude causes cancer."

Tongue-lashing

Even if the Indians can prove their case and win billions for the jungle clean-up, collecting the cash is another matter. Chevron has removed all its assets from Ecuador.

But, this week, the political planet tilts toward the natives as Alberto Acosta takes office as President of Ecuador's new Constitutional Assembly.

I spoke to Acosta - and he gave Chevron a tongue-lashing. "Chevron is responsible for environmental and social destruction in the Amazon. And that's why they're on trial."

But Little Ecuador is not much of a match against big Chevron - whose revenue exceeds the entire GDP of the Andean nation. Except that, behind little Ecuador is Huge Venezuela - and it's larger-than-life leader, Hugo Chavez.

"Acosta," complains one local pundit, "loves - LOVES - Chavez." And apparently, the feeling is mutual.

Toss-up

That is, Chavez sees in Ecuador's new government - which won the election campaigning to the tune of the Twisted Sister hit, "We're Not Gonna Take it Anymore" - a new ally in his fight with George W Bush over control of Latin hearts and minds - and energy.

Chevron, whose largest new reserves are in Venezuela, is now vulnerable.

Suddenly, the David-versus-Goliath story of Indians versus Chevron is becoming part of the larger conflict between Uncle Sam and Uncle Hugo.



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