Monday, March 7, 2011

Will Belizeans let history repeat itself?

A court in Ecuador has found Chevron Corporation guilty of crude oil pollution in the Amazon. Chevron have been ordered to pay US$8.64 billion in damages to residents of the Amazon. Yet, the residents have appealed the verdict stating that the amount awarded is not enough to repair the vast environmental damage inflicted by the oil giant.

The landmark ruling finds Chevron guilty of what has been dubbed ‘Rainforest Chernobyl’. During oil extraction 18 billion gallons of toxic waste were reportedly dumped into unlined pits and rivers. Cancer rates amongst the local people have been seen to increase as they were forced to drink from contaminated water sources, bathe in polluted rivers and breathe in toxic vapours. Four times as many children in the area have leukaemia as elsewhere in Ecuador, with children as young as a few months dying from the disease.  

An unlined waste pit filled with crude oil left by Texaco -  Lou Dematteis
In Belize, Government is making moves to allow another oil firm into an area of huge biological significance. Prime Minister Barrow declared“the Government has no intention in stopping the exploration process, especially not in the Sarstoon-Temash Park… US Capital energy, which is the company that has the concession, I think is no more than 6 to 9 months away from actually beginning to drill. And certainly when they reach that point drill they will.”

Since the case against Chevron began, the Government of Ecuador have strived to avoid further drilling in the area. In an innovative move, President Correa appealed to the international community to subsidise a decision to cease further exploitation. Their proposal was that Ecuador would not allow extraction of their largest oil field in the Amazon if compensation would be given.

The quantity of oil in the area, known as the Yasuni National Park, is estimated at 850million barrels and is worth a possible US $7,000million.  Correa asked for compensation of US$350 million to be given each year for 10 years. The proposed 50% profit margin to be given to the Government of Ecuador is an excellent return on the oil. Had Correa instead formed a contract with an international oil firm, it is likely that a smaller fraction of the profits would have been received.

Correa’s proposal for the world to “share in the sacrifice” of Ecuador in the fight against global warming and to preserve the biodiversity of the Earth was commended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. It offered the country the economic benefits of oil exploration without damage to the environment and with no further human cost. 

During the Aguinda v ChevronTexaco case, experts testified that oil exploration cost local people their livelihoods as crops were destroyed and animals killed. Photographic and video evidence was shown in court of the vast crude oil pollution such as toxic waste swamps and ignored oil spills. Health specialists concluded that increased cases of cancer are a direct result of oil related contamination.

Old oil barrels - Kayana Szymczak
In Ecuador, lessons were learned. The more recent innovation of Correa’s Government proves that there can be a solution to the economic, environmental, social and cultural concerns that energy development brings. As an alternative to oil drilling it sets a precedent.

For now there will be no further oil exploration in the Ecuadorian Amazon. This offers little respite for the Aguinda that have been fighting for 18 years for reparation from Chevron and the clean up is yet to begin. Described by campaigners Amazon Watch as “an environmental and public health catastrophe”, the damage caused to their lives and land by oil firm Texaco, who were bought out by Chevron, is irreversible. 

Even the multibillion payout awarded by the court in Ecuador is deemed as insubstantial. Luis Yanza, speaking on behalf of the Assembly of those Affected by Chevron said “eight billion dollars does not represent a significant amount to repair the environmental damages”.  The plaintiffs are appealling the verdict, as are Chevron, claiming it “contrary to the legitimate scientific evidence”. A date for the appeal is yet to be set.

In Belize, preparations are going ahead for oil exploration in the Sarstoon-Temash National Park. This is in despite of oil exploration being declared “illegal” by numerous organisations including SATIIM and APAMO. Previously, SATIIM successfully took Government to court on contention of this issue. The court ruled that seismic testing could go ahead in the park as ‘scientific research’ only if an Environmental Impact Assessment took place.  Greg Ch’oc, Executive Director at SATIIM is adamant that “at no point did this judgment allow for drilling to take place in STNP, even for exploratory purposes.” Yet the Government progresses with its oil development plans.

Sarstoon-Temash National Park
It was back in 1994 that the 50,000 acres park was dedicated a protected area, a contract legally bound under the National Parks Systems Act. The area is home to 38 Mayan communities who have respected the area as protected and refrained from utilising the land and its resources for the past seventeen years. It contains plants species and ecosystems found nowhere else in Belize and is home to endangered species such as the jaguar and manatee.

An ecological disaster of the scale of that in Ecuador would have catastrophic consequences for the area considered the most biologically diverse in the country. The lives of the Mayan people, who rely on the land for food and shelter, would be gravely affected. Repair would take years at best and may even be impossible.

The voices of multiple organisations are calling for the public to stand up and join a national debate on oil exploration in protected areas such as the Sarstoon-Temash National Park. They are campaigning for alternative and sustainable development solutions that do not pose a risk to our natural heritage or to the culture of indigenous people.

The historic success of  the 30,000 inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest is unprecedented.  According to Amazon Watch it is the first time indigenous people have sued a multinational company in the crime where the crime was committed and one. They hope that it “sends a loud and clear message”.  The Mayan people of the Toledo region can but hope that this message reaches the people of Belize. Let Belize not make the same mistake as Ecuador.

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