By Lauren Smelcher
In April 2010, when British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded off the coast of Mexico, the world sat up and took notice. In 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled 40.9 million litres of oil in Alaska, we watched in horror as Prince William Sound was polluted. Yet few know that in 1964, Texaco (now Chevron) began extracting oil in Ecuador and, on withdrawing 20 years later, left behind a gargantuan toxic mess. And few know that a battle to remedy its consequences is still being fought in the courts – and on the ground in Ecuador – and Zoë Tryon is in the thick of it.
The Hon Zoë Tryon (her mother was the late Lady Dale Tryon of Melbourne and the UK) studied anthropology at the University and, after graduating, she was invited to San Francisco for an environmental sustainability conference, led by influential US fundraiser and environmental activist, Lynne Twist. Twist runs Pachamama Alliance, an organisation dedicated to preserving the Amazonian rainforest by empowering its traditional custodians. At Twist’s behest, Tryon quit her job, sold some shares and set off for South America.
After returning to San Francisco with Twist (where she raised $US1.25m for the Alliance), Tryon was asked to go back to work with the Achuar, a community of around 6000 people who live in isolation on the border between Ecuador and Peru. It was an easy decision, she says. “I fell completely in love with the rainforest. When I was asked to return to work with the Achuar, who live three weeks’ walk from the nearest road, I leapt at the chance!”
Tryon was drawn to the Achuar, she says, because, “They still live as their ancestors did, but they are going through a transformation as they have to deal with incursions from the outside world. They are reorganising themselves. Their vision is to protect their land and culture for future generations.”
Returning to Achuar
Going back was not simply about anthropology, however. It’s about Big Oil. In Ecuador, the Achuar and their land have been systematically poisoned by toxic oil spills over the past 40 years and, in 1993, a class action suit was filed against Texaco by 30,000 Ecuadorians. (Chevron inherited the case in 2001, when it merged with Texaco.) The plaintiffs, counselled by lawyer Pablo Fajardo, allege that 18 billion gallons – nearly 70 billion litres – of poisonous water has been dumped into the marshes and rivers of Ecuador. The environmental impact is colossal, but the repercussions to health are even worse.
Tryon says that seeing the devastation of the world’s greatest rainforest is reason enough for Chevron to be held accountable, but adds, “Nothing can really prepare you for the emotional impact. Seeing the physical impact on the environment is challenging enough, one can feel so hopeless and impotent in the face of such devastation – the contamination is in the ground water, earth, rivers, animals, people, everywhere. But it is the personal stories of those living with the effects of contamination that are the most heartbreaking and harrowing – mothers who have had miscarriage after miscarriage, only to have children die as a result of bathing in and drinking contaminated water.”
After working with Amazon Watch – with indigenous people across the Amazon – and for which she is now an ambassador, Tryon launched Toxi Tours three years ago. On each tour, Tryon leads a group of filmmakers, photographers, journalists and socially and environmentally aware “names” – including Daryl Hannah, Trudie Styler, Bianca Jagger, Caroline Kennedy and James Cameron – to see for themselves the true extent of the devastation on a journey that charts the lawsuit against Chevron. There are visits to the lawyers who work on the case, and to the courthouse where the battle has been waged. Most importantly, they visit some of the 953 open, unlined pits of toxic waste and crude oil. Chevron built these pits for waste from nearby oil wells. Plaintiffs claim, however, that not only did Chevron dump maintenance waste, drilling muds, production oils and crude into the pits, but also that they were designed to eventually drain excess waste into connecting streams, to prevent overflow. In 1996, Chevron promised to remedy the affected areas, but simply covered the pits with soil.
At what cost?
When she first visited the region, Tryon says she was, “Ashamed that we could treat others so poorly and with so little regard in the pursuit of money. I had been living with the Achuar in pristine, primary rainforest for many months so it was hugely shocking to see the jungle so lacking in life. I felt deeply ashamed that my life, like most people who live in the modern world, was awash with oil, that I too was partly responsible for this.”
Toxi Tours is one way to raise awareness of the Ecuadorians’ plight. “The more exposure the case gets, the more pressure there is on Chevron to do the right thing and clean up the mess they left behind. I bring people on tours who can be a voice for the voiceless.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint the worst oil-caused problem, she says. “There’s massive deforestation and contamination. Indigenous peoples have lost their lands; their cultures have been deeply impacted and in some cases destroyed. There are extremely high rates of cancer and skin and intestinal issues as a direct result of people bathing in and drinking contaminated water, because they have no other option. Food and water are contaminated. This is happening to people living in extreme poverty who can’t afford basic medical treatment, let alone treatment for cancers.”
The lawsuit against Chevron – now in its 17th year – is finally drawing to a close. In 2008, a court-appointed independent expert recommended, in a 4000-page report, that Chevron pay up to $US27 billion in damages. The court is not required to follow the expert’s advice. The case has been dragged out for so long that each new judge who takes over has about two years’ reading to do before he or she can begin. Still, Tryon is confident that there will be a judgement in the coming months, and that Toxi Tours has helped people understand Chevron’s accountability.
Sending a message
“This is the biggest environmental lawsuit in history, so it is incredibly important, if only to warn other multinational corporations that violating human rights and destroying the environment is unacceptable and that unless they operate with high environmental standards they will pay for it dearly.”
Meanwhile, Tryon is focussed not merely on publicising the problems Ecuadorians face at the hands of Chevron, but also on reminding people why these places and people are worth fighting for.
“I remember the Australian Aboriginal leader Lilia Watson saying, ‘If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’ We in the modern world have a great deal to learn about life, each other and how to treat our planet from people whose worldview is entirely informed by the environments in which they live.”
Click on a thumbnail to enlarge
- Helping local children in class
- Pollution outfall from one of the 953 open, unlined pits of toxic waste and crude oil
- Zoë Tryon with an Achuar elder
- Kids in the nearby Achuar village
- Tryon with lawyer Pablo Fajardo and the documents relating to the landmark 17-year lawsuit
- 40 years on, the soil pits continue to leak and pollute
- Leaking oil and drainage pipes tower over the villagers, contaminating the environment
- Polluted water is an unavoidable fact of Achuar life