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Lago Agrio: 259km (161 miles) NE of Quito; 674km (419 miles) NE of Guayaquil; 700km (435 miles) NE of Cuenca

Sitting on the shores of the Aguarico River, Lago Agrio, which means Sour Lake, is the main port city and access point for Ecuador's northern Amazon Basin. It is the capital of SucumbĂ­os province, and has a population of nearly 70,000. Officially known as Nuevo Loja (New Loja) because the early settlers were predominantly from Loja, the town is almost universally known now as Lago Agrio, or simply Lago. The name Lago Agrio was given to the town by Texaco oil-company workers, as the home base for this firm is in Sour Lake, Texas.

Today, Lago Agrio is a rough, dirty, and generally unappealing industrial town, and most of the forests and rivers immediately surrounding the town have been clear-cut or polluted by the oil industry. The town serves almost entirely as a necessary transportation hub for those seeking to visit the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve and the remote jungle regions farther down the Aguarico and Zabalo rivers.

Down & Dirty in the Jungle

For most travelers, Lago Agrio is simply the gateway to Cuyabeno Wildlife Refuge and some of Ecuador's remote jungle lodges. But this Ecuadorean oil town is also the battleground for an ongoing multibillion-dollar lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups against U.S. oil giant Chevron.

The suit's 88 Ecuadorean plaintiffs claim to represent 30,000 people affected by water contaminated by oil operations in the area. It accuses Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, of improperly dumping 18.5 billion gallons of wastewater into pits, swamps, and streams in the Lago Agrio area between 1971 and 1992.

Chevron claims that Texaco's Ecuadorean subsidiary, working together with the state-owned oil company PetroEcuador, operated within the local laws when it dumped oil-contaminated water. (The alternative would have been to use the more expensive process of re-injecting wastewater, as is mandated in the United States.) The company, which extracted 1.5 billion barrels of oil from the area over the course of 3 decades, points out that it paid $40 million to "remediate" oil sites when its concession expired and was subsequently given a release by the Ecuadorean government.

Environmentalists say the U.S. company cleaned up very little of the mess it made, and claim the company dumped more oil in the Ecuadorean rainforest than was spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster. They say Chevron-Texaco -- the second-largest U.S. oil company -- should spend billions to clean up the oil it left behind and provide medical care for communities affected by it.

The lawsuit was originally filed in New York in 1993, but after a decade of languishing in the U.S. legal system, an appellate court ruled that the case should be heard in Ecuador. A group of environmental lawyers consequently filed suit in Lago Agrio, Aguinda v. Chevron-Texaco, in which they hope to apply a relatively new Ecuadorean law that mandates that companies cover the cost of cleaning up their pollution.

Environmentalists believe a victory against Chevron would set an important precedent for the developing world, where big corporations often get away with mistreatment of the natural environment. Tragically, despite all the noise made about Texaco, oil companies working in the Amazon basin continue to dump wastewater into streams and rivers, even though they could easily inject it back into the earth at a cost of just a few dollars per barrel. See the websites www.chevrontoxico.org, www.texacotoxico.org, and www.amazonwatch.org for updates and information on the case.