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."