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Grannies with Gumption: Standing up to Corporate Giants in Canada and Ecuador

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Chevron didn’t stand a chance before the ire of indigenous villager Maria Aguinda. Enbridge quailed before the determination of Saik’uz First Nation Chief Jackie Thomas.

Both women, 4,300 miles apart, refused to take no for an answer. They stood up to two corporate giants and won. Aguinda, 61, spearheaded rural Ecuadoreans’ fight against Chevron, accused of polluting the Amazon for decades, and helped them win a $9.5-billion judgment against the company. Thomas, 47, was instrumental in beating back Enbridge’s attempts to get several Canadian First Nations to sell rights of way for a pipeline to send oil from the tar sands to the Pacific coast. As the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day on March 8, these two women, both grandmothers, continued their respective fights for their people's right to live on clean, productive land.

"Before I die they have to pay me for the dead animals, and for what they did to the river, and the water and the earth," 61-year-old Aguinda told AFP, according to a February 23 story from the wire service. Chevron is appealing the ruling. She spoke from her home in remote Rumipamba, the Amazonian Ecuadorian town that’s drowning in oil residue from 30 years of drilling. Her home, AFP said, sits near marshes tainted with oily muck.

More than 4,000 miles away in Calgary, Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation of British Columbia fought against one of Canada’s own—Calgary-based Enbridge—refusing flat-out to accept the company’s financial incentives.

"I value my fish and water more than I value money," she told Canada’s Financial Post in an interview. "The door is closed."

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Enbridge, Canada’s largest pipeline company, has been pushing for years to get federal approval for its proposed $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, which would run between the oil sands of Alberta, and Kitimat on the west coast.

The bookkeeper and mother of four leads this community of 1,000 Saik’uz (which translates to “people of the sandy creek”) and has been fighting the 745-mile pipeline since its proposal in 2005, the Financial Post reported. Thomas’s community is one of British Columbia’s poorest First Nations: Unemployment is at 60 percent, and annual income on average doesn’t top $10,000. Survival, in fact, often depends on the very forests and waterways that Enbridge wants to run a pipeline through. Thomas fronts a consortium of 90 First Nations protesting the project, many of them, the Financial Post said, “matriarchal communities guided by 31 female chiefs with long memories, long outlooks and big patience.”

The Saik’uz belongs to the Yinka Dene Alliance, which rejected Enbridge’s offer of $1.5 billion worth of cash, jobs and business opportunities, plus a 10 percent stake, over 30 years.

Chevron offered no such stake to 30,000 villagers in the remote Amazon province of Orellana. Buying Texaco in 2001, Chevron inherited the messy legacy of operations that spanned 1964 to 1990. From 1972 through 1992, when Texaco left, it partnered with Petroecuador, the country’s state-run oil company.

Aguinda’s name tops the list of complainants in the initial filing, whom AFP said were initially seeking $27 billion. The judgment, handed down in mid-February after a 17-year fight, was considered potentially precedent-setting, and certainly a first.

The Amazon Defense Coalition said Texaco dumped 18.5 billion gallons of oil-reservoir waters into Amazon tributaries and left 916 pits of toxic sludge across the region before handing the mess off to Petroecuador in 1992. The damaged area, Amazon Watch told AFP, is the size of Rhode Island.