Catastrophe in Ecuador

Pablo Fajardo Seeks Justice in the Amazon

 Pablo Fajardo with Cofan community members
Pablo Fajardo with Cofan community members from Lago Agrio.

When Pablo Fajardo was 14, his family moved to Shushufindi, one of a string of Texaco oil towns in the Ecuadorean Amazon.  Pablo remembers: “Whatever step you took, walking around the jungle, you would actually get soiled with oil.” The air was thick with black smoke from burning oil waste and rainwater was laced with soot.  Livestock were dying from falling into petroleum pits and Pablo’s neighbors were ill from contaminated water.  Pablo was only a teenager, but he knew he had to do something.

He became a leader of his community, started a local human rights group, and tried to get the government to act.  Officials told him that the only way to get results was to hire a lawyer.  Pablo worked as a manual laborer in the forests and oil fields to support his 12 siblings, and while working full time, earned his law degree.

Today, Pablo and two fellow attorneys are representing 30,000 Amazonian settlers and indigenous people in a lawsuit challenging ChevronTexaco to clean up 1,700 square miles of rain forest that may be one of the world’s most contaminated industrial sites.  In the 1950s the area was pristine uncharted wilderness; now it’s a mess.

After Chevron Texaco fought for years to dismiss a class-action lawsuit filed against them in the U.S., the community’s lawyers filed their case in Ecuador.

Pablo Fajardo (right) with a villager from Secoya.


The plaintiffs want a thorough cleanup of the area and an assessment of the long-term health effects of the contamination.  According to the claim, Texaco (later acquired by Chevron) dumped nearly 17 million gallons of crude oil and 20 billion gallons of drilling wastewater into the jungle.

“These companies should be held to the same responsible standards in all parts of the world,” says Pablo.  Over the 17 years that Texaco operated a pipeline stretching from the Ecuadorean oil fields to the sea, the pipeline suffered 27 major breaks and spilled eight times more oil than the Alaska pipeline did over a similar period, says a report by Vanity Fair’s William Langewiesche (Jungle Law, May 2007).

If ChevronTexaco is found liable, it will be a victory for thousands of indigenous people whose lives have been damaged by careless oil exploitation.

Pablo and the ELAW Network

“When someone is old or very poor, I do not feel above him.  When someone is apparently superior, I do not feel below him.  I realized that I was not inferior to the Chevron lawyers.
In fact, I had one advantage over them: I know the problems as they really are, because I live here. I have lived here for more than half my life. I realized that if I took the case all I would have to think about is how to tell the truth.”

 Pablo Fajardo in an interview with Vanity Fair’s William Langewiesche (Jungle Law, May 2007)

 

Pablo may be waging a lonely battle for a remote community, but he has worldwide support through the ELAW network.  From his remote office in Ecuador, Pablo is able to obtain critical legal and scientific information from ELAW advocates in 70 countries. These advocates are the world’s leading grassroots defenders and include many other Goldman Prize winners (Pablo won a Goldman in 2008).  ELAW advocates draw on each other’s wealth of experience winning victories for disadvantaged communities.

This summer, ELAW advocates from 24 countries worked together to sign an Amicus “friend of the court” brief to the court in Ecuador.  The brief explained how courts around the world have addressed some of the complex legal issues facing the Ecuadorean judge.

ELAW Fellowship

Pablo spent 10 weeks in Eugene this summer as an ELAW Fellow.  He worked closely with ELAW scientists and lawyers, studied English at the University of Oregon’s American English Institute, and spoke to University of Oregon law students.  The University’s Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics provided valuable support for his Fellowship.

Margaret Hallock, Director of the Wayne Morse Center, was pleased to have Pablo share his inspiring work with the UO Law School and community members.  Over the years she has welcomed many ELAW Fellows.

“I am quite confident that without ELAW, many of these attorneys
would have given up years ago.  With the education and networking that
ELAW provides, they have the skills and resources to continue their work.”

- Margaret Hallock
Director of the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics

Pablo Fajardo and Sting
  Pablo counts Sting (in ELAW hat) as one of many fans of his work to clean up the Amazon and defend the rights of indigenous people.

When Pablo completed his ELAW fellowship, he wrote:

“This has been my longest trip, not because of the distance but because of the amount of time I have been away from my jungle.  For more than ten years, I haven’t stayed in one place for more than five days. I have done that now, which is an achievement.

It’s been a pleasure to learn from all of you.  I have confirmed that everywhere in the world there exists people who love life and justice.  I hope that our network gets much stronger and together we can win battles for life, the environment, and justice.”

Crude: The Real Price of Oil
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Read about local voices for clean air, clean water, and the common good in the Autumn 2009 ELAW Advocate.