October 16, 2013

Ecuador's Chevron trial goes on trial, as plaintiffs' lawyer faces RICO allegations

IMG_3479One of the hemisphere’smost contentious and longest-running environmental trials is going on trial. On Tuesday, a New York judge will begin hearing testimony that a $19 billion judgment against Chevron for polluting Ecuador’s Amazon decades ago was the product of fraud.

The oil giant claims that Steven Donziger, a lawyer for the Ecuadorean plaintiffs, engaged in racketeering by manufacturing evidence and bribing judges in the Andean nation to win the record-setting verdict.

Donziger and his legal team say Chevron is trying to evade its responsibility. Since it couldn’t win the pollution trial on its merits, they say, it’s going after the lawyers.

The case has dragged on — in one form or another — for 20 years, has produced more than 200,000 pages of evidence, spawned documentaries and television programs, and dragged celebrities and politicians into its wake. Movie star Daryl Hannah has dipped her hands into oily muck for the cameras, and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has called the case a matter of national honor and asked for a Chevron boycott.

Read the full story here

August 05, 2013

An experiment in Amazon conservation faces economic reality


I recently returned for Ecuador where I was working on this story about one of the most innovative and ambitious conservation plans ever attempted.

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative was designed to leave more than 846 million barrels of crude oil untouched, in perpetuity, beneath Yasuní National Park — rioting with unknown species and tribes living in voluntary isolation.

In exchange, the government asked the world to cover just half of the crude’s $7.2 billion market price.

Environmental groups praised the plan as a novel way to slash greenhouse gases. In 2010, the United Nations threw its support behind the project, setting up a trust fund to receive and manage donations. There were hopes that crowd-sourcing conservation might be a model for other developing nations.

But six years after its launch, those goals are proving elusive. The plan has raised less than 10 percent of the $3.6 billion it’s seeking. Ecuador’s government says it has received $116.7 million and has pledges for an additional $220 million — some of it in non-cash cooperation. The United Nations trust fund has just $9.8 million in the bank.

The shortfall is driving speculation that Ecuador might be forced to drill for crude in the ITT oil block (short for Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini), which it says holds 20 percent of the nation’s reserves.

“We want to keep 400 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere,” President Rafael Correa told a crowd in April. “But if the international community doesn’t help share the responsibility, we have to make the best decision for the Ecuadorean people.”

Correa and his cabinet held a meeting about the fate of the project in June and are expecting to meet again in coming weeks. Officials say drilling the ITT is on the table.

In the balance is one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. The ITT block is among the most isolated areas of Yasuní National Park, a 2.4 million-acre U.N. biosphere reserve, which holds about one-third of all of the Amazon’s amphibian species, even though it represents just a small fraction of the total area. In any given two-and-a-half acre plot of the Yasuní — roughly the size of a soccer pitch — there are more species of trees than in the United States and Canada combined.

An entomologist from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History told me that 85% of all the insects he collects in Yasuni are unknown to researchers. 

PHOTO: Santiago Serrano

See the full story here. 

Interested in supporting the cause? You can donate as little as $2 though the UNDP website. 

April 28, 2011

Colombian snow, waterlogged roses

IMG_3968 Snow in Bogota is extremely rare, but that's what was on the ground on a recent weekday just outside of the city. 

This has been a season of strange weather in the Andes. The La Nina weather phenomenon has coincided with the rainy season to produce record amounts of precipitation in Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia.

Here, the weather has caused at least 418 deaths, damaged or destroyed 140,000 homes and affected three million people over the last several months.IMG00256-20110423-1200

Over the Easter weekend, the country's flower industry was hard hit. This comes just as the sector was gearing up for its crucial Mother's Day exports.

I talked to one flower company (Don Eusebio Flowers) that has been completely surrounded by water.

They've had to buy three boats to ferry their 250 workers onto the farm and move their carnations and roses out. 

For many of the workers it was the first time they had ever been in a boat.

The national weather service expects the rains - and the flooding - to continue through June. 


April 22, 2011

Ecuador Chevron case more than meets the eye


I recently  wrote about the ongoing lawsuit against Chevron for the role its predecessor payed in polluting the Amazon. It's a complex and confusing trial that has dragged on for 18 years, generated over 200,000 pages of evidence and burned through six Ecuadorian judges.

I thought the movie above captured one of the recurring themes of the visit: nothing is quite as it seems. In this clip, Donald Moncayo, who works for the plaintiffs, steps out onto what seems to be a solid field of ferns that is actually floating on a former Texpet oil pit. It's the remediation of these pits that is at the center of the case. 

Both sides accuse each other of dirty dealing and trying to derail the process.

In February, Ecuador's courts awarded the plaintiffs $9.5 billion. Chevron has appealed the ruling and launched its own RICO complaint against the defendants' legal team, saying they have colluded with the courts to try to extort the company. On Wedenesday, Chevron filed an ammended complaint as it said it found errors and irregularities in the judgement that appear to come from non-public files of the plaintiffs and their legal team.

"There is no apparent explanation as to how the judgment would have incorporated these errors and irregularities without cooperation between the Ecuadorian court and the plaintiffs' representatives," R. Hewitt Pate, Chevron vice president and general counsel, said in a release.  "This is another instance of the fraud and corruption that have permeated the Ecuadorian judicial proceedings."

The plaintiffs say Chevron is simply trying to discredit the entire process to evade paying the record-breaking environmental judgement.

Meanwhile, some 30,000 villagers who are defendants in the case - and many who claim their health has been damaged by the practices of Chevron's predecessor - are waiting for a resolution. 


February 08, 2011

Colombia's goldrush comes with a steep price tag


IMG_3165Just got back from an interesting trip to Colombia's gold-mining region. The government here is concerned that the FARC, ELN and criminal bands might be trying to horn in on the gold boom to finance their activities. You can read that story here.

What I didn't get into is the environmental concerns that many have about the industry.

We watched miners handle mercury with their bare hands, empty chemical-laced water into open drains, and reuse empty vats of cyanide.

One of the rivers in the area has been used for dumping cyanide-sodden dirt for so long that everyone calls it La Cianurada. I was asking old timers if they knew its proper name, but nobody could recall what it might be.

The gentleman in this picture was trying to convince us that the water in the region is some of the cleanest in the country and is fit to be bottled. 

That could very well be true, but I just couldn't get past the drum that was being used as the basin.




jim wyss

Inside South America is written by Jim Wyss, the South America bureau chief for the Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers.

Feel free to send a story suggestion. Read Jim's stories at MiamiHerald.com.

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