Priscilla Queen of the Dessert, the bio-diesel bus, is whizzing down the freeway in the drizzle. About 20 activists in sopping fleece jackets sit inside on lumpy cushion seats that have probably carried protesters since the late 1960s. It’s about 7:30 a.m. and they sip coffee, pass around dried mango slices and sign over-sized cardboard petitions that, in a few hours, will hit the desks of Chevron’s top executives. Emergildo Criolo, who sits shoulder-to-shoulder with activists from Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch, has been up for three hours.
Criolo is an indigenous man visiting California from Ecuador’s rainforest. He woke early to dress in his tradional Cofan garb and to paint his face with customary red markings. Then he sat and thought about his responsibility representing four Amazonian tribes. “I wanted to think about what we were going to do and make sure I was in the right head space,” Criollo says through a translator. He says oil drilling in Ecuador’s rainforest from 1964 to 1992 killed two of his sons and nearly took his wife.
Partnered with an Ecuadorean oil company called Petraecuador, Texaco left 17 million gallons of crude oil spills, 917 unlined crude pits and dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste, according to ChevronToxico, an environmental campaign for justice in Ecuador. Over the years, Texaco and Petraecuador produced about 1.7 billion barrels of oil. When Chevron bought Texaco in 2001, the company inherited the burden of tens of thousands of Ecuadorians claiming their water supplies are poisoned and more than 1,400 of their people dead because of the oil mess.
Today Criollo is going to the home of Chevron’s new CEO John Watson to deliver a petition with over 325,000 signatures of people from 150 countries urging Chevron to clean up the oil giant’s toxic legacy. John Watson took over the position at the beginning of this year. As part of his new job, Watson must also deal with the largest environmental lawsuit in the company’s history. Thirty-five thousand Ecuadorans filed a $27.3 billion lawsuit against Chevron, but the oil company begrudgingly disputes this as a corrupt figure. Chevron recently produced information showing that, “the author of a report recommending that Chevron be ordered to pay $27 billion in damages is the majority owner of an oilfield remediation company that stands to gain financially from a judgment against Chevron.”
“It’s been 16 years of legal process,” Criollo told San Francisco Chronicle. “People are still dying. They’re sick. So we’re really hoping this new CEO takes a new position.”
Criollo exits the bus in Lafayette, CA and makes his way to the intersection of Deer Hill and Happy Valley Roads for a photo opportunity. A videographer from Rainforest Action Network and members of the press photograph a stoic yet unassuming Criollo as he stands in a cotton shirt and pants at the signpost in the light rain. The documentation is important so that Criollo’s people can witness his actions, one activist explains. But, critics argue these types of “camera-friendly” events are more stage shows than substance.
A swarm of activists and the press follow Criollo as he walks for about a mile over the wet road to deliver his message to Watson’s home. He rings the intercom doorbell at the CEO’s front gate. He stands for 15 minutes at the front gate, telling the intercom system of the havoc Chevron wrecked on his home.
To little surprise, Watson doesn’t invite Criollo in for a cup of coffee. By the time Criollo leaves a few voice messages, two cop cars speed onto Watson’s property and politely tell the group to leave.
Criollo was six years old when Texaco came to Ecuador. “They arrived in these big helicopters that looked like big birds,” he says. “We hid because we didn’t know what they were.” About three months later, young Criollo remembers walking into a Texaco worker’s camp while selling jewelry. He greeted the American senior oil executives and the oil drillers. They responded by lifting the flap of the traditional wrapping he wore around his waist in order to check his gender. From then on, Criollo gave up dressing in the customary garment and started wearing pants. This was his first encounter with the oil giants.
It’s approaching 10:00 a.m. and Priscilla is loaded up again and driving the few miles to Chevron’s headquarters in San Ramon, CA. Han Shan of Amazon Watch says he’s proud of the people on the bus. “I’m inspired by people like Emergildo and those from Ecuador’s rainforest who’ve sounded the alarm to ask for solidarity from us,” he says.
“We’re trying to build a grassroots movement of support for something that ultimately rippled out of California,” Shan says of America’s responsibility in outsourcing oil drilling. “We need to take responsibility for this California company.”
By quarter after ten, everyone’s lining up in Priscilla’s center aisle to exit the bus. Armed with a loud speaker and big colorful photographs of Ecuadorans impacted in their oil-saturated rainforest, the activists are ready to take on Chevron.
Criollo, his interpreter Mario Ramos and Mitch Anderson from Amazon Watch are the last to get off the bus and they make their way to Chevron’s entry kiosk. Chevron has been expecting the group. Through the glass, the security guards are busy making phone calls and lots of exaggerated gesticulation.
Only Criollo and the two others are allowed into the headquarters’ main building to talk with top officials. Security keeps everyone else outside. Meanwhile, the activists form a semi-circle on a grassy patch in front of the headquarters’ entrance. They make cell phone calls to the executives inside, read off the names of petition signers and impacted Ecuadorean. Several belt their manifestos into the loudspeaker as passing cars honk in support.
Later, after returning from the trip inside, Mitch Anderson describes the Chevron executives’ “disingenuous” empathy during the meeting. After Criollo told his story, Anderson says Chevron said his problem was with Petroecuador and that Chevron had already cleaned up its portion of the mess “They won’t say Texaco did a bad job in Ecuador. Texaco was supposed to clean 40 percent of the spill because they owned 40 percent of the drilling operation. But they did a remedial job of covering oil with dirt.”
Chevron didn’t respond to several requests for comment, but here is the section of their site that addresses their role in Ecuador and here is a video on Chevron’s YouTube channel indicating a $3 million bribery scheme implicating the judge ruling over the lawsuit in Ecuador.
Summing up Chevron’s ethics and litigation strategy about the $27 billion environmental lawsuit, last May Chevron spokesman Donald Campbell told reporter John Otis that, if Chevron loses, they would appeal. “We’re going to fight this until hell freezes over,” he said. “And then we’ll fight it out on the ice.”
The lawsuit is playing out in an Ecuadoran court in Lago Agrio and the judge is expected to have a ruling by the end of the year.