I grew up on wide, leafy street in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Now, I’m on a wide, leafy street in the Amazon. Ecuador is no Iowa. The pork chops here are sub par and, for fun, they like to watch guys in tights kill bulls. It’s impossible to find good peanut butter, but there is guinea pig roasting in the restaurant next door. Also, lucky for Iowa, the only black gold anybody’s ever found below their feet around Mount Pleasant is the soil. Strangely enough, amid the yells of the matadors and the crunch of teeth on well-done rodent, the biggest difference between home and here is oil. Otherwise, the people here might as well be my neighbors on Main Street.
Something happened to the small town of Nueva Loja, Ecuador forty years ago. Then, there was only a grand expanse of green between Quito, the capital, and the tiny settlement. After Texaco (now Chevron) arrived, there was a road and a pipeline. The road brought roughnecks and the pipeline whisked oil away to tankers, to a gas station near you. Nueva Loja became Lago Agrio ("Sour Lake"), named after Texaco’s first base of operations. When Texaco pulled out of Ecuador in the early 90s, they left thousands of pools of pure crude oil in the jungle. Pushing a little dirt on top of the more conspicuous pools rendered them "inhabitable." The others were left to ooze into the surrounding streams, the same streams used for bathing and drinking water.
Cancer rates are three times higher in the drilling area as compared to other areas in Ecuador. Hundreds have died and countless have lost their means of subsistence as a result of the contamination. But, these are like those unfathomable numbers on the nightly news. 822 American soldiers died last year in Iraq and the number became the story because there was no time for 822 stories before dinner. The numbers are unbelievable here as well, but the dying has been slower and there is even less time for slow things on Fox News.
Justice is always slow in coming; at least that is what Chevron is banking on. Thirty thousand Amazon dwellers filed a lawsuit against them in 1993, demanding a full cleanup, estimated at $6 billion dollars. Fifteen years later, the suit continues. The longer Chevron can postpone a judgment, the longer their $6 billion can accumulate interest. At an interest rate of two percent per year, the company can afford to spend over $100 million annually on lawyers without any effect on their net worth. And what hope can there be against one of the largest companies in the world? The answer: Community. People like Pablo Fajardo, the plaintiff’s lead Ecuadorian counsel, who grew up with nothing, became a lawyer and a few weeks ago won a CNN everyday heroes award.
Ecuador is far away, but a sense of small town community is not. Community is when we build a new school. Community is when we cheer for our football team on Friday nights. Community is when we give what we can to those in need on Christmas. In Ecuador, community is standing up to one of the largest companies in the world. So, do what you can for your neighbors in Ecuador: find a new gas station, ride a bike to work, file another billion-dollar lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco. Most importantly, when you hear of a crisis in a far off place, of pools of oil in people’s backyards, imagine that that oil is in your backyard. I imagine Mount Unpleasant and understand the world a little better.