MLG Exclusive: United, Chevron Victims Rally at Annual Shareholder Meeting
They came from near and far, victims one and all of Chevron’s rapacious pursuit of petroleum and profit. Each one of them had their own individual tale of anguish and loss– the Nigerian tortured for standing up to the rape of his environment, the Native Alaskan whose culture and livelihood have been decimated by toxic dumping, the Ecuadorean whose parents perished from pollution-induced cancer– but all were united in their resolve to hold one of the world’s largest corporations accountable for its appalling disregard for all things living. They rallied today under a granite sky in the sleepy San Francisco suburb of San Ramon to show the world the truly staggering scope of Chevron’s crimes against our shared planet.
Chevron, the world’s sixth largest petroleum company, operates in 180 different countries, leaving its oily fingerprint wherever it sets up shop. And while Chevron hauled in an astounding $19 billion in 2010 profits and paid CEO John Watson a whopping $16.3 million last year, those unfortunate souls who unlucky enough to live where the firm does its dirty work scratch by with little more than table scraps. What they do reap is death, disease and environmental destruction by the barrel.
I didn’t get the chance to hobnob with Watson or any of his inner circle today, but I did meet plenty of his victims. These are their stories.
Suanu Bere was a member of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), protesting the expansion of a Shell pipeline in the oil-rich Niger Delta, when he was arrested by state security forces that protected the interests of multinational corporations over the wellbeing of their own people. “They are sponsored by companies like Chevron,” Bere told me. “They pay them a lot of money.” Bere says he was tortured in the name of protecting oil companies’ profits. “The whipped me, and burned my back with a piece of hot iron,” he said, wincing as he finished his sentence.
Emem Okon is also from the Niger Delta. She attended the Chevron shareholders meeting “representing the women of the Niger Delta.” She is particularly concerned with gas flaring– the gas that is burned when it comes out of the earth during oil extraction– and its negative environmental and health impact. According to The True Cost of Chevron, for every barrel of oil produced in Nigeria, 1,000 standard cubic feet of gas is also produced, and the flaring of this gas causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa. The Niger Delta, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots but also a region gushing with oil, has been especially hard-hit by Chevron’s disregard for anything but profit. Thanks to this shameless pollution, life expectancy has plummeted and half the region’s inhabitants have no access to clean water.
“I asked Chevron to tell me so I can tell back to the women [of the Niger Delta] when Chevron will end gas flaring in the Niger Delta region,” Okon told the crowd gathered outside the goon-guarded entry gates to the sprawling corporate campus. “It was so frustrating,” she continued, “because Chevron admitted that they had no plan to end gas flaring in Nigeria. John Watson admitted that it was difficult and challenging to end gas flaring in Nigeria.”
Meanwhile, the people of the Niger Delta continue to suffer from the horrific effects of gas flaring. Even the food they eat is often toxic. “Because of the pollution, the yam and the cassava that we eat is no good,” Suanu Bere told me.
Further south in Africa, Chevron is destroying the livelihoods of many communities that have made their living from the sea for centuries. “In Angola, people can no longer fish because our seas are privatized by Chevron, they are Chevron’s property,” said Angolan Elias Mateus Isaac. “People are impoverished. We are talking economic justice. We are talking about social justice. We are talking about environmental justice. That’s what we want Chevron to understand. It’s not just a matter of making profits, it’s not just a matter of making the shareholders feel happy about their money.”
Thomas Evans is a subsistence hunter and fisherman from the Native Alaskan village of Nanwalek, 150 miles south of Anchorage on the Cook Inlet, the only coastal body of water in America into which billions of gallons of industrial waste are legally dumped each year. As you can imagine, this wreaks havoc on the ecosystem that many Alaskans depend on for their livelihoods. “In that waste is a lot of heavy metals, PCBs and other toxins that end up in our food source.” Evans, who attended the Chevron shareholders’ meeting, says he asked CEO John Watson “if they could have zero discharge and if they would stop killing people,” but he got no response.
Evans says 75% of his village’s fish catch tested too toxic to eat. Chevron’s solution? Catch a flight to the nearest Safeway, across the Kachemak Bay in Homer. “When the people ate the food from the store, they started getting high rates of heart disease and diabetes and people started to die. The people realized this and they said, ‘If we’re going to die, we’re going to die eating our own food.'”
“I came here with a message from my tribe,” he continued. “There’s 250 of us in Nanwalek, and we live on the very edge of Cook Inlet, so anything dumped into Cook Inlet ends up in our front yard, our beach… It makes me really sad to listen [Chevron’s] rhetoric and hear them say everything’s being taken care of– bullshit!”
Perhaps the saddest Chevron victim I met today was Servio Curipoma, an Ecuadorean who lost both of his parents to the effects of toxic pollution. “My mother and my father died because of Chevron’s contamination and Chevron’s cancer,” he said, choked up with tearful emotion. “This is our struggle for the Amazonian people in Ecuador,” he declared. “But I am telling you I will never kneel in front of anyone, and we will continue fighting to stop the suffering in Ecuador. Chevron drilled for oil in the Ecuadorean Amazon for 26 years… what they left behind was utter environmental devastation. I will never give up. The people of the Ecuadorean Amazon are strong and they’re united… and they will never give up the fight. My parents who died because of Chevron’s contamination started this fight, and I will continue it for them… until the end.”
Closer to home, residents of Richmond, California turned out to tell their stories. Chevron operates a massive oil refinery that is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state in Richmond. This refinery spews cancer-causing and other nasty toxins into the air, resulting elevated death rates from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. According to Antonia Juhasz of Global Exchange, Richmond’s rate of hospitalization from female reproductive cancers is more that double the county average. A Brown University study found that the air inside Richmond’s homes is actually more toxic than the air outside because of trapped pollutants from the Chevron refinery.
More than 25,000 people live within three miles of Chevron’s Richmond refinery; 85% of them minorities. Homes, businesses, an elementary school and a playground are all located within a mile of the toxin-spewing refinery.
Here’s Reverend Kenneth Davis of Richmond discussing Chevron’s destructive impact on his community and the wider world:
As I prepared to head home after an emotional day of protest, I asked Jessica Tovar of Communities for a Better Environment to help sum it all up for me. “Chevron is the poster child for injustice around the world, in violation of human rights, earth rights and climate justice,” she said. “They are the poster child for profits over people. They’ve desecrated the environment all around the world, and Richmond, California is a fine example of exploiting poor people, mainly poor people of color, profiting off their health and their environment… and that’s why we’re out here today.”
And we’ll be out there again for next year’s shareholder meeting too, as long as Chevron keeps raping and pillaging our one and only planet earth.
(Trailer from Crude, a 2009 documentary about Chevron’s environmental and humanitarian crimes in the Ecuadorean Amazon):
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