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For Nompraseurt, the prime issue in Richmond is that Chevron is not following the law when it comes to disclosing its true plans through the environmental impact report process. "Chevron told its shareholders one thing, and they told the local community something else," he said. "For me, it is really about the principle that all projects need to go through the [environmental impact report] process, whether one is Chevron or a homeowner making a change to their own house. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, one has to disclose what the applicant is proposing to do. That's just the law."
While activists appear to be gaining ground in Richmond, immense challenges remain. The Asian Pacific Environmental Network, in particular, faces some unique organizing obstacles due to cultural factors. "Many Laotians do not believe that they can tell the government what to do," Nompraseurt added. "In fact, the majority of the 10,000 Laotians who reside in Richmond also have a fear of corporations. They think money and power equals corruption. They sense Chevron has had so much influence on the Richmond City Council, they don't think they can change anything."
While Richmond is a prime focus of Bay Area activists, controversies involving Chevron span the globe, from Angola, Chad, and Iraq to the Philippines. Ecuador is the hottest spot. There, Amazon Watch, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to protecting the health and human rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon River basin, has been embroiled with Chevron in a dispute over the oil company's liability for past operations that have had devastating consequences for indigenous peoples.
Chevron appears on the verge of being handed a judgment in Ecuador next year that could total as much as $27 billion. The ruling is a response to practices of its Texaco operations dating back to 1984, which Chevron assumed liability for during the 2001 merger.
Amazon Watch filed a lawsuit against operations then owned by Texaco in Ecuador in 1993, and first raised the issue of Chevron's potential liabilities in Ecuador when Chevron subsequently purchased the assets of Texaco. Amazon Watch maintains that pollution from oil operations in Ecuador "is one the largest environmental and social disasters on the planet," claiming that 18 billion gallons of toxic wastes have been dumped in an area the size of Rhode Island, threatening the livelihood of 30,000 indigenous peoples belonging to five different tribes. Critics claim Texaco employed primitive exploration and production practices in order to save $3.50 per barrel of oil sold to global markets. As a result, untreated wastes flowed directly into local waterways. Waste pits were simply covered over with soil, locations then re-inhabited by villagers.
Chevron points to its $40 million investment in cleanups in Ecuador as a good faith effort, but in reality, the potential for massive pollution problems in the future still exists. And while a deal with PetroEcuador, the nationalized oil company, allegedly left Chevron "off the hook" for future liability, this agreement did not, in the view of Amazon Watch lawyers, apply to the individuals still harmed by pollution.
Perhaps the biggest irony of Chevron's woes in Ecuador is that Chevron fought to move the trial from the United States to this South American country, where it has historically had a cozy relationship with the government. However, when left-leaning Rafael Correa Delgado was elected the new president of Ecuador in 2007, this strategy backfired. Chevron claims it will take this case about legacy issues it inherited from Texaco to some sort of unspecified international tribunal, but lawyers working on behalf of Amazon Watch say no such venue exists.
"It would have been a lot cheaper to settle back in 2001, when we were only asking for $1 billion to $3 billion," said Amazon Watch Executive Director Atossa Soltani. "They've lost face and an opportunity. They now look like they are out of step with today's values."
Indeed, the core message of the Amazon Watch campaign is that the handling of Ecuador represents a crisis in management. "What they did in Ecuador is indicative of deeply rooted symptoms of a company whose values are out of sync, especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area." She ridiculed the fact that Chevron points to its $40 million invested in cleanups in Ecuador as a sign of goodwill, when CEO David O'Reilly received a $50 million bonus in 2008 after the company boasted record profits of approximately $24 billion.
Juan Carlos Quiroz, a policy analyst and Ecuador specialist for the Revenue Watch Institute, expressed some sympathy for Chevron. "Chevron does make some valid points," Quiroz said, highlighting the difficulties foreign companies face when governments change hands rapidly and cultural factors beyond their control impact their image. Is it really Chevron's fault that large portions of the revenue it creates for host governments may be mismanaged, asked Quiroz.
"You have to understand that the government of Ecuador has been very unstable," he said. "The country has had ten presidents in twelve years." Consequently, Ecuador has lacked a coordinated plan for distributing revenues from oil operations. Regions that are the poorest are getting less revenue than regions that are better off, according to the Revenue Watch Institute's analysis.
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