Barefoot speaker gives views to students about rain forests |

Barefoot speaker gives views to students about rain forests

Gregory Crofton

Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily Tribune/ Kevin Swift, right, talks to Douglas Vaughan, a sixth-grade student at South Tahoe Middle School on Tuesday.

His bare feet made his point.

We’re no different than the natives in Ecuador who don’t wear shoes and are losing their communities and relatives to pollution and development brought by oil exploration companies.

Kevin Swift, 30, spoke barefoot to a sixth-grade science class at South Tahoe Middle School on Tuesday about the damage to the environment he says oil company ChevronTexaco has done in the rain forest of Ecuador.

Swift, a South Lake Tahoe resident who lived in Ecuador for six months, has talked to students on the Nevada and California side of South Shore over the last several weeks about the issue of energy, pollution and the development of wild areas.

His goal is to teach them how important the rain forest is to humans and all life on the planet. And he asks for help in protesting ChevronTexaco’s resistance to clean up the mess made through the dumping of waste and crude oil and construction of roads to reach oil deposits.

After Swift talks with the students, he asks if they would be willing to write a letter of protest to David O’Reilly, chairman and chief executive officer of ChevronTexaco. Swift has about 160 letters he plans to deliver today, hopefully to O’Reilly himself, at the company’s shareholder meeting in San Ramon.

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“The Earth, folks, is you, and you are the Earth,” Swift said. “If you are dumping toxic waste into the Earth you don’t care about yourself.”

Swift held the students’ attention by including their participation in his lecture. He asked them questions and included all 30 or so of them in the discussion.

“The rain forests are the Earth’s lungs … and contain a compression of life not found anywhere else on the Earth,” Swift said. “And they are being cut down.”

Swift reported to the students that ChevronTexaco has improperly disposed of 18.5 billion gallons of toxic waste and 16.8 million gallons of crude oil in Ecuador, according to Amazon Watch, a group based in San Francisco that works with organizations in the Amazon basin to defend the environment.

In a statement on the company’s Web site there is a response to allegations about its work in Ecuador. It reads, in part:

“From 1964 to 1992, Texaco Petroleum Company was a minority partner in a government-owned oil consortium. Petroecuador, the state oil company of Ecuador, was the majority partner. Petroecuador has been the sole operator of these oil fields for the past 13 years. Following 10 years of unsuccessful litigation in the U.S., a group of lawyers has now brought a lawsuit against ChevronTexaco in Ecuador alleging damage to the rain forest. The lawsuit is now before a court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador.”

Swift said that the company is trying to free itself from liability. He knows the damage caused by the pollution because he went to Ecuador and saw skin disease, cancer and death.

“If you have clean water and clean air, it’s much less likely you’ll die of cancer,” Swift told the class. “And dying of cancer in the jungle is really slow and painful. There is no chemotherapy, no radiation and nothing for the pain.”

Carol Murdock, a science and math teacher at South Tahoe Middle School, described her students as being spellbound by Swift’s presentation.

“He seems very knowledgeable, and what he has got to say is really timely because we talk about (rain forests) all the time,” she said. “And he’s very entertaining.”

Leila Salazar, organizer of Amazon Watch’s ChevronToxico Campaign, says Swift has quickly become a valuable asset for her group.

“He’s an amazing concerned citizen, teacher and activist who has been helping get the word out about the ChevronTexaco operation in Ecuador in the Lake Tahoe area,” Salazar said. “We’re just so glad he’s taken this on.”

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at