LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador (CN) - While pressing ahead with her country's campaign, "The Dirty Hand of Chevron," Ecuador's environmental minister has been facing friendly fire from the same plaintiffs who took on the oil giant in the Amazon.
Environmental Minister Lorena Tapia has a long resume, mixing private sector and government. She earned a master's degree in business at the Universidad Católica de Chile and studied law at the Universidad Católica Santiago de Guayaquil.
With a political trajectory spanning 19 years, Tapia studied with a previous Ecuadorean environmental minister before taking her current position in 2012. Tapia's office space reflects these two worlds, a spacious, soft-tone and decidedly corporate environment with a green cotton rug made to look like grass.
She said her selection for the ministerial post reflects President Rafael Correa's commitment to appointing women to public office, illustrated by the fact that there is an "equilibrium" between genders in his support and executive teams. Official and private media statistics show that the Correa administration has more women in its ranks than local officials in Ecuador.
In a one-hour interview, Tapia defended the Ecuadorian judiciary's finding that Chevron should pay $9.5 billion to clean up oil pollution in the Amazon, an award that a New York federal judge recently ruled fraudulent. She also talked about Ecuador's decision to approve oil exploitation in the ecologically sensitive Yasuní region of the rainforest, and her own office's actions shutting down the environmentalist group, Pachamama.
By far the oldest of these controversies, Chevron's fight with Ecuador stems from its predecessor Texaco's drilling in the Oriente region between 1972 and 1992. A group of indigenous Ecuadoreans and farmers sued Texaco a year later in New York.
In 2001, Chevron acquired Texaco and asked for the case to be transferred to Lago Agrio, where the drilling occurred. The oil giant always has argued it remediated its share, and that Ecuador's state-run oil company, Petroecuador, is responsible for the rest.
Calling Petroecuador's record "alarming," Chevron claims that the state-run company had a record of more than 1,400 spills adding up to more than 4.4 million gallons of oil between 2000 and 2008, after Texaco's exit.
Tapia called Chevron's argument that Petroecuador bears the blame "una gran mentira
" ("a big lie").
"First of all, if they had applied most of the reactions you need to apply to prevent environmental damage, you would not have had the need to repair the damage," she said, referring to technologies such as wastewater re-injection.
Chevron's critics have said that the company held the patents for this method of minimizing damage, involving pumps to put "produced water" into the ground.
The Lago Agrio plaintiffs alleged in their lawsuit that Chevron dumped 18 billion gallons of oil in the waters by neglecting to use this process.
Denying the harmful effects of "produced water," Chevron insists that reports of cancers in the Amazon have scant documentary support.
Tapia acknowledged that it is "clear and true that it's been hard to prove the direct causality of this source of contamination with the problems that people have now," but she blamed that on historically poor maintenance of medical records in the Ecuadorean Amazon.
She said the Correa administration started the initiative Sistema Nacional de Indicadores de Pasivos Ambientales y Sociales
(SIPAS) to collect the data, which Ecuador hopes to use in Chevron's litigation at The Hague.
"If Texaco insists on saying that this is not the cause for these health issues, then they should allow us to research and go deep into finding the cause of different cases, with all the information we need to actually prove it," Tapia said.
Ecuador calls its press initiative against Chevron a response to its arbitration at The Hague, where the oil company wants the republic to pay for its court's multibillion-dollar award.
"Remaining silent would have us becoming accomplices to all these dirty policies and politics that this company has been applying here and in other parts of the world," Tapia said.
Chevron cast it as a pressure campaign to get the company to pay for a fraudulent judgment. Procurador
Diego Garcia, whose role in the Ecuadorean judiciary is similar to a U.S. attorney general, asked The Hague tribunal to make Chevron drop its own press campaign against Ecuador.
If granted, the public relations ban would reach both parties, he said.
Chevron has not replied to a request for comment on whether it rejected such an offer.
Tapia cited improvements since Texaco's time in minimizing harm associated with oil drilling in the Amazon. One constant concern is the mountainous terrain and equatorial climate of the rainforest, which always carried the danger of earthquakes, landslides and other natural disasters damaging the sote,
"Back in those times, there wasn't much information about this, but with time, we have developed ways to measure the risk that oil infrastructure can be submitted to, and we can try to prevent that as much as possible," Tapia said.
She said that Ecuador's decision to give rights to the Earth provided a legal tool for environmental preservation.
Donald Moncayo, the leader of the "Toxi-Tour" of the Amazon, said in an interview in Lago Agrio that Petroecuador made improvements from Texaco's day, such as water re-injection and better truck maintenance.
Unlike Texaco's, Petroecuador's spills have been accidental, Moncayo said.
Seen in Joseph Berlinger's documentary "Crude," Moncayo has transported visitors around the Amazon's many oil pits since 2003, the onset of the Lago Agrio litigation. He also appeared in the New York court to defend the legitimacy of the ruling against Chevron.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan demanded in court that Moncayo turn over his computer after his testimony, for Chevron to look for evidence of fraud, or face criminal penalty.
Speaking in Spanish, Moncayo said that all the company found was "photos of the contamination," and that he was not afraid of the judge's warning because he "told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" on the witness stand.
Despite Chevron's allegations that Ecuador and the Lago Agrio plaintiffs represent the same interests, Moncayo is hardly a fan of Ecuador's state-run oil industry. He showed up at the interview wearing a shirt that declared: "Lo Que Pasa Aquí, No En Yasuní
" ("What Happened Here, Not in Yasuní") - with a red Texaco emblem inside an "O."
He wore it to protest reports that Ecuador is pursuing a deal to drill in the Yasuni region, one of the most biodiverse stretches of rainforest on the planet. Other prominent figures from the Lago Agrio trial resisting the project include Humberto Piaguaje and the nonprofit organization Amazon Defense Front, known here as the Frente de la Defensa de la Amazonia
The Ecuadorean government shut down an environmental group called Pachamama
, allegedly for protesting the plan with violence, a charge the group denies.
Although Tapia described the photographic evidence as "very exhaustive," Amazon Defense Front member Ermel Chávez said that photos captured only an indigenous protestor's lance accidentally tapping a visiting dignitary. Chávez said that nobody was injured, and that the image had been "manipulated" to justify the closure.
Interviewed with Moncayo, Chávez drew a parallel between Texaco's drilling and the plans for the Yasuni region. He said that two indigenous groups, the Teetetes and the Sansahuaris, disappeared when Texaco started drilling in then-pristine jungle.
The Yasuni drilling would also threaten two groups, the Tagaere and the Taromenane, Chávez said.
In his weekly address, Correa called the initiative necessary to lift people out of "misery" by providing roads, health and education, and he mocked his critics as seeking the Disneylización
, or "Disneyfication," of the jungle.
Tapia said she "was not particularly glad" about the decision to drill in the area, but that it provided a "very important challenge for us ... to prove at this moment that this time is different."