A delegation of indigenous and community leaders from Ecuador is visiting Louisiana this week at the invitation of the United Houma Nation, a tribe in coastal Lafourche and Terrebone parishes that has been hit hard by the BP oil catastrophe. The Ecuadoreans have come to share lessons they've learned dealing with another oil disaster: U.S. oil companies' dumping of toxic waste in the Amazon rainforest.
From 1964 until it pulled out in 1992, Texaco -- which merged with Chevron a decade ago -- dumped some 17 million gallons of crude oil and 20 billion gallons of drilling waste water into waterways and pits in the Ecuadorean Amazon. The contamination has seeped into water supplies, where it's killed fish and is blamed for health problems among local residents, who suffer from elevated rates of cancers, reproductive disorders and respiratory ailments.
At a town hall meeting set for Thursday, July 1, in Dulac, La., the delegation will discuss a report about their experiences back home. Titled "The Lasting Stain of Oil: Cautionary Tales and Lessons From the Amazon," it offers advice for holding polluters accountable and planning for long-term recovery after severe environmental contamination.
"Although BP says that it plans to take full responsibility for the damages caused by its spill and restore the Gulf Coast to the way it was before, the experience in Ecuador shows that oil companies do the right thing only when compelled to do so by a combination of political, financial, media, and community pressure," according to the report, which was prepared by the Asamblea de Afectados por Texaco (Assembly of Those Affected by Texaco), along with Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch.
Among the members of the visiting delegation is Luis Yanza, a 2008 winner of the prestigious Goldman environmental prize for his efforts to help 30,000 people affected by Texaco/Chevron's contamination file a class-action lawsuit against the oil giant. He will share his ideas about how Gulf Coast residents can pressure an oil company to take responsibility for the damage it caused.
The other Ecuadorean delegates are Emergildo Criollo, a leader of the Cofan tribe who traveled to the U.S. earlier this year to present Chevron's CEO with 350,000 letters from people around the world demanding clean-up and compensation for affected communities; Humberto Piaguaje, a representative of the Secoya, one of six indigenous tribes in the rainforest region devastated by oil drilling; and Mariana Jimenez, a grandmother whose home is surrounded by oil contamination and whose husband -- a Texaco employee -- died of cancer.
Besides the Houma, whose traditional fishing culture and economy are being devastated by the oil spill, the delegation has also visited with the Atakapa-Ishak tribe in Louisiana's Grand Bayou Village. The culture of the Atakapa-Ishak people is so tied to the water and fishing that their oral history says they came from the sea.
While it may still be too soon to draw firm conclusions about the BP oil spill's environmental health effects on Gulf Coast residents, the spilled oil and contaminants are known to contain chemicals harmful to human health. Louisiana has reported at least 143 illnesses related to exposure to pollution from the oil spill -- 108 in cleanup workers and 35 in the population at large.
And toxic contamination is not the only damage the Houma and Louisiana's other coastal residents have suffered at the hands of oil companies: The industry is responsible for as much as half of the severe coastal erosion problem facing Louisiana, which loses a chunk of land as big as a football field to the sea every 15 minutes.
Because of that accelerating land loss, the bayous of southern Louisiana where the Houma and other indigenous people have long lived are disappearing, with high tides now bringing seawater into yards and families forced to flee farther and farther north whenever a tropical storm approaches.
The flooding in the region has gotten so severe that the neighboring Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe recently announced they would abandon their ancestral homeland to escape inundation.
But United Houma Nation Chief Michael Dardar says that's not an option for him, even in the wake of BP's disaster.
"People say just leave," Dardar told a community meeting last week in Dulac. "Ain't gonna happen, unless you take me out in a box."
(The photo above is a still from a video documenting the first day of the Ecuadoreans' visit to the Gulf. To watch the full video, click here.)