Lead plaintiff Larry Bowoto began his testimony on Wednesday, 10.29.08, with high emotions. As attorney Bert Voorhees projected images of the co-plaintiffs on a screen for identification, Mr. Bowoto burst into tears before a photograph of Arolika Irowarinun–a Ilaje protestor shot dead on the Parabe platform. Unable to continue testifying, the court called for a short recess.
Mr. Bowoto returned to the stand to testify–through an interpreter–on his childhood recollections of his home village, Bowoto, in Ondo State in the Niger River Delta. While interpretation is an awkward instrument, Mr. Bowoto did his best to convey the environmental decline he witnessed in his youth as the son of fisherman.
At times, Mr. Bowoto described the village of his youth with a humble eloquence: “It was a town where if you have a metal sheet for a roof on your house, you are a wealthy man. If you have wood for the walls, you are the richest man.” Mr. Bowoto’s dignified description of life in the Niger Delta–leaving primary school to fish with his father, earning a subsistence living from the land like all his neighbors–was a striking reminder of the courage and determination it has taken to pursue this case against Chevron. This is a classic David versus Goliath story…
Mr. Bowoto’s testimony ranged across the time period leading up to the Parabe platform protest. He addressed the changes in the environment that followed Chevron’s dredging project, decribing the effects of sea incursion and increased salinity on local fishing and agriculture.
He also spoke at length about the formation of the Concerned Ilaje Citizens, the community organization which organized the Parabe protest. Formed in 1997 with the goal of seeking redress for environmental damages and increased employment opportunities from Chevron, the CIC sought and obtained recognition from the “ruler”–the traditional authority called the Olobo in Ilaje. This is a significant point, because Chevron’s counsel has repeatedly attempted to paint the CIC as a renegade group acting without community authorization and engaging in a power struggle with the community organizations–called ‘oil blocs’–with Chevron has previously negotiated. Mr. Bowoto gave an account of the CIC meetings with village elders where a series of letters requesting Chevron to negotiate were composed.
Under Mr. Vorhees’ questioning, Mr. Bowoto then testified about the planning stages and the launching of the Parabe protest flotilla. According to Mr. Bowoto, the Ilaje boats arrived at the tugboat first and raised placards with the slogans: “Concerned Ilaje Citizens, We want to speak with George Kirkland [Chevron general manager]” and “CIC: enough is enough.” As co-plaintiff Bola Oyimbo stated, the protesters’ intentions to the tugboat captain, the flotilla began singing to the tune of “Give Peace a Chance”: “All we are saying is give us our rights, all we are saying is give us our jobs…”
According to Mr. Bowoto, the protesters then boarded the barge to wait for Chevron’s reply to their request to meet with George Kirkland. They were told that Mr. Kirkland was unavailable, but that another representative would come to negotiate in his place.
Describing the activities of the protesters aboard the barge, Mr. Bowoto stated that the Ilaje fraternized with the workers, playing cards and games, and singing songs. He also stated that the military personnel working security detail on the barge were armed the entire time, but did not respond with any hostility. He noted that there were no incidents–to his knowledge–of violence or intimidation against Chevron’s employees. He also noted that someone had fallen sick and was evacuated from the barge.
Finally, Mr. Bowoto described the meetings held with Chevron representatives over the course of the following two days. He stated that on the night of the 18th, he was under the impression that a deal had been reached betweem Chevron and the elders and that the protesters would be returning to shore the following morning.
Testimony on Wednesday, October 29th stopped there.