MILAGRO, Ecuador (CN) - Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa vowed Tuesday to investigate why an elderly man who inspired his relocation project away from oil-exploitation areas nearly eight years ago now says he lacks medical care and a wheelchair.
"What's certain is that our fellow citizens have suffered the consequences of contamination from the petroleum company, and the state has an obligation to them," Correa said, referring to Texaco. Correa affirmed his country's obligation to those harmed by oil contamination in answer to a question from Courthouse News.
Now owned by Chevron, Texaco drilled in Ecuador's oil-rich Oriente region between 1972 and 1992, leaving both companies in environmental litigation for more than two decades.
In 2007, the then-newly elected Correa gave his first public expression of support for the indigenous and campesino
plaintiffs in a tour that took him to the home of Manuel Salinas. The elderly man complained of stomach pains allegedly caused by pollution to his well, a claim that Chevron denies
His tale inspired Correa to commit $30,000 toward the construction of Shushufindi Central, a town to relocate Ecuadorean citizens who were living in petroleum-drilling areas. A government plaque now shines on the facade of the new Salinas home, where the 78-year-old complained
in a recent interview that his persistent and undiagnosed medical problems have taken a turn for the worse.
Informed of this Tuesday at his weekly conversatorio
, Correa pledged to take swift action.
"If there are problems with people who have been relocated, I will send someone to see what has happened," he said at a press conference. "They were victims of something that the government allowed to happen, and we will investigate it."
He emphasized that the priority was "first to relocate them from the worst pollution incident in our country's history."
"Medical assistance and aid for the disabled" is the next step, he continued.
Correa also hailed Ecuador's program for people with disabilities as being on the "vanguard of Latin America."
"This is not charity," he said. "This is their right ... to ask for what they need from the institutions of government, for example, for a wheelchair ... for the people who have suffered the consequences of the contamination."
Correa's weekly conversatorios
with the press move to smaller cities, towns and cantons that government officials did not typically visit in the past.
Salinas could not immediately be reached in remote Shushufindi for a reaction, nor could Cofán activist Donald Moncayo, who arranged for an interview with the elderly man during his "Toxic Tour" of the Amazon.
Chevron's Latin American spokesman, James Craig, urged Ecuador to focus its energies on a 1995 remediation agreement that the country's prior administration signed with Texaco.
"If the government of Ecuador really wants to help its citizens in the Oriente, it should meet all of its environmental and social obligations in that region, rather than try to shift that responsibility to others," Craig said in an email. "Texaco Petroleum Company met its remedial obligations in that region in the mid-1990s, and Chevron never operated in Ecuador. The only parties responsible for current conditions in the region are the Republic of Ecuador and Petroecuador."
The Ecuadorean government has long held that its prior administration's agreement did not, and could not, prevent its citizens from seeking redress under its constitution. An arbitration panel in The Hague is hearing this dispute after recently handed down a preliminary ruling in Chevron's favor.
Chevron has alleged that the Ecuadorean government tipped the scales of the Oriente trial its citizens' favor, and then denied this to the press as part of its citizens' trial strategy.
Indignant, Correa replied: "The most surprising thing is that they have involved the government of Ecuador, without any proof."
Correa also defended his vocal support of the plaintiffs. "We have expressed our opinion that, yes, Chevron had polluted the forest," Correa said. "We weren't involved in the legal proceeding against Chevron, but we can have an opinion on the case. Just as we can have an opinion on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico."
Milagro, the site of Tuesday's conversatorio
is about an hour's drive away from Correa's home city of Guayaquil.
Correa chose Milagro, which is now celebrating its centennial anniversary, for this week's conference because candidates from his party Alianza País won elections here last month, and the city is in the process of upgrading steam trains to bring transportation and tourism to the area, a government spokeswoman said.
According to legend, Milagro takes its name from the "miracle" that early resident Miguel de Salcedo encountered after his wife Maria fell ill in 1784. Both prayed to San Francisco de Asís for help, and they later met Indian who cured her with medicinal leaves. The devout Salcedo credited his wife's renewed health to the saint's assistance, rather than indigenous man's medicine.
The tale resonated in the religious Catholic nation, and it also fits a land whose indigenous population relies on the rainforest's flora for their health and customs.
Journalists from private, international, and state-run media outlets circled the roundtable Tuesday to question Correa on topics such as the recent election in which Correa's party, Alianza País, suffered well-publicized losses.
The format requires each reporter to first provide a broad outline of his topic to avoid overlapping inquiries and maintain a strict one-hour schedule.
Correa had sharp words for U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, the Manhattan jurist who recently negated a $9.5 billion judgment that an Ecuadorean court entered against Chevron three years ago.
Writing that the Ecuadorean verdict was "procured by corrupt means," Kaplan agreed with Chevron that lawyers for the Ecuadoreans violated federal anti-racketeering law through bribery and extortion.
Bristling at these findings, Correa said, "This was a great infamy and abuse against the humble campesinos
"The judicial proceeding in New York is not against the government of Ecuador; it's the people against Chevron," he said. "Chevron lost, all that money [$9.5 billion]. Then they brought to judgment the lawyers for the campesinos
. Chevron then, in a line in their document, referred to the lawyers for the campesinos
as a mafia."
Correa proposed a similar thought experiment he made during his presidential address two weeks earlier.
"Now imagine what would happen if a judge in Ecuador rendered judgment on lawyers in the United States?" he asked, laughing at the notion. "How would the United States and the whole world take it? They would call us immoral. They would call us unjust and immoral."
He added later: "Really, it's a case that will go down in history as on of the great arbitrarities, the great abuses, of imperialism."
Meanwhile, lawyers for the Oriente's residents continue to deny any misconduct in the Ecuadorean trial, and they filed an emergency motion for a stay to New York's 2nd Circuit just hours before Correa's press conference.
"This court's decision in this case is without precedent," the motion states. "It seeks to preemptively undermine the judicial decree of a foreign sovereign nation and, in so doing, to let Chevron Corporation off the hook for decades of deliberate pollution in the Amazon rainforest. Along the way, it sidesteps jurisdictional hurdles, runs afoul of fundamental norms of international comity, and contravenes multiple decisions of the Second Circuit arising out of this same long-running controversy."
In responding to the filing, Chevron took aim at the New York lawyer whom it named as the lead defendant in its fraud case.
"This is yet another attempt by Steven Donziger to evade the court's well-supported findings and avoid taking responsibility for his actions," a statement from spokesman Craig states. "During the seven-week trial, Chevron presented largely undisputed evidence detailing the extent of the corrupt and fraudulent acts undertaken and directed by Mr. Donziger and his associates."
Donziger, who testified in his own defense at the New York trial, adamantly denies misconduct during the Ecuadorean trial and released a statement predicting his vindication in the 2nd Circuit.
"It is our belief that Judge Kaplan's decision is wrong on the law, wrong on the facts, and resulted from a skewed legal proceeding that violated the due process rights of the defendants," Donziger said in a statement, referring to those who were the plaintiffs here in Ecuador not long ago.