By Dwight Tael

ECUADOR – The global campaign against Chevron’s destruction of indigenous lands in the Amazonian rain forest has been strengthened by the support of the largest private sector union on Turtle Island. Paul Meinema, the National President of UFCW Canada and the Executive Vice President of UFCW International – an organization representing over 1.3 million members, including 250,000 members in Canada – and Victor Carrozzino, Vice President of UFCW Canada visited Ecuador from January 11 to 16, 2015.

They were there as part of a fact-finding mission to directly witness one of the largest environmental catastrophes in human history. For near 30 years, Texaco (acquired by Chevron in 2001) engaged in an unprecedentedly damaging process of oil extraction in the Amazon. They left wells uncapped and dumped toxic oil and byproducts into the rivers and jungles of Ecuador and created a vast toxic oil spill in order to save money and maximize their profits.

Hundreds of people – predominantly indigenous peoples still living traditionally – were killed by Texaco’s extractive processes, and vast parts of the Amazon and untold numbers of the biologically diverse life forms within it were killed. There are still thousands of abandoned oil pits where the water is poisoned and thousands of sick people. According to the local population and a ruling from the Ecuadorian Court Supreme Court, the oil contamination is the cause of the shockingly high rates of cancer in the local population and animals.

According to UFCW Canada National President Paul Meinema “The evidence is still clear that there’s been a great amount of environmental damage. The personal testimony of today shows the human impact…. I believe that the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada that says that the affected people have the eligibilty to pursue this matter in Canada is very positive.”

The UFCW has been supporting the Chevron´s Dirty Hand Campaign which seeks to hold Chevron accountable for its actions in Ecuador. The UFCW officials arrived in Ecuador using their own initiative and resources, and came to witness and evaluate the situation first hand. The Ecuadorean government provided transportation to the site, the same as it provides to all other international delegations seeking to visit the area affected by Chevron.

The UFCW predominantly represents workers in grocery and retail sectors as well as in food processing and meat packing industries. The union has the highest percentage of members of under the age of 35 in any union in North America and takes on social justice issues as well as improving the conditions of work for its members at their place of employment.

The issue of Chevron’s refusal to take accountability for its actions in the Amazon has gained increased scrutiny in Canada due to the fact that the case has been taken to Canadian courts, and that the company, given the Public Eye award for their awful history of human rights abuses, is also involved in a conflict with the Unist’ot’en people on the west coast as it seeks to push a pipeline through their traditional territory without permission.

More recently, Onkwehonwe people belonging to several different Iroquoian clan families met repeatedly in 2015 with representatives of the Ecuadorian government and social justice groups to discuss the Chevron issue, the building of direct indigenous to indigenous relations, and the addressing of Onkwehonwe concerns in their homeland.

With mainstream unions such as UFCW now starting to take a position on these matters, it may be that the tide is turning for supporters of indigenous rights everywhere. Certainly, the kinds of international alliances that are being made in supporting indigenous rights and holding multinational corporations accountable for their misdeeds is a step in the right direction.