For decades, the people of Ecuador’s Amazon region have fought a landmark case against oil giant Chevron, demanding reparations for one of the biggest oil-related environmental catastrophes in the world. In 2012, an appeals court in Ecuador upheld a ruling that requires the giant to pay $18 billion for polluting environmental and human health, but Chevron has continued, through diverse legal tactics and covert operations, to challenge the ruling and avoid paying for the enormous cleanup and remediation efforts needed in the Ecuadorian Amazon. (For more details on the history of the case, see below.) Like the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta in Wiwa v. Shell, in this landmark case five indigenous groups from Ecuador’s Amazon region have come together to hold the multinational oil company accountable for its decades of environmental degradation and disregard for human rights. Still, Chevron refuses to accept responsibility and has continued appeal in various courts. The developments of the case are being watched closely by oil companies and environmentalists alike, as the final outcome will set an important precedent for other corporations that pollute the areas in which they operate, seemingly with impunity.
US-based oil company Texaco began drilling for oil in Ecuador’s previously pristine Amazon region in 1964, employing cost-cutting methods and poor environmental practices that were already outlawed in the United States. According to Karen Hinton, a plaintiffs' spokesperson, during its three decades of drilling for oil in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, Texaco—which merged with Chevron in 2001—frequently disregarded environmental concerns, dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste waters and spilling millions of gallons of crude oil throughout the drilling process. Nearby residents claim that when Texaco pulled out of Ecuador in the 1990s, it left behind approximately 1,000 open-air oil pits filled with hazardous waste that is still affecting the area today.
The oil company’s abandoned industrial waste seeps into the rainforest’s soil, groundwater, and rivers, poisoning the water, wildlife, and people. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit have charged that local populations have suffered epidemics of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, and skin diseases as a direct result of the industrial pollution. The rainforest’s unique ecosystem has been devastated, and traditional ways of life have been destroyed, with the irreversible environmental damage undermining indigenous livelihoods and food security.
This segment “Amazon Crude” from CBS’ 60 Minutes provides an overview of the lawsuit:
The fight against Chevron is the largest environmental court case in history. It first began when a suit was filed by 30,000 indigenous people and farmers in 1993. Eighteen years later, an Ecuadorian court found Chevron—which inherited the case against Texaco when the companies merged—liable for the environmental destruction, and imposed $18 billion in damages. Still, Chevron refuses to take responsibility for the disaster, conduct a clean-up of affected areas, or pay damages, instead alleging that the case is an elaborate fraud to extort money from the company.
In fact, court documents gathered by the plaintiff's' legal team have shown that Chevron has resorted to corruption and fraud to evade justice in the case. Examples of Chevron’s manipulations include doctoring soil samples to mislead the court about toxicity levels, maintaining a secret lab to hide evidence of contamination, attempting to smear the presiding judge with corruption charges, and conspiring to bribe the Ecuadorian government to settle the case without the involvement of the plaintiffs.
In January 2012, despite Chevron’s underhanded efforts, an Ecuadorian appellate court affirmed the trial court judgment and upheld the $18 billion in damages. Then, on February 17, 2012, a panel of The Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration ordered the Republic of Ecuador to suspend the court award. Three days later, however, a court in Ecuador rejected this appeal on the grounds that it would be unconstitutional and would breach international human rights conventions. In October of the same year, a U.S. court of appeals rejected Chevron’s plea for an injunction that would have blocked from Ecuador from enforcing the judgment in the United States. Meanwhile, Chevron demanded to subpoena the private email accounts of over 100 environmental activists, former law interns, and others involved in the Chevron case, but a U.S. judge rejected the subpoena in April 2013, invoking the First Amendment rights of CoR Network ally Amazon Watch and others.
Chevron continues to contest the judgement both in the U.S. and internationally, leveling its own allegations of corruption and fraud against lawyers and judges involved in the case. With further appeals pending, which has , the legal dispute will likely go on years longer. No matter what the final outcome turns out to be, however, this case has made history—not only for the size of the award, but also because it is the first time indigenous people have made a multinational corporation stand trial in their own country for violating human rights. This sets an important precedent for environmental justice cases worldwide and sends a vital message to big oil and other extractive companies that disregarding human lives and the environment will no longer be tolerated.
Despite being handed two guilty verdicts, Chevron still seeks to avoid justice. The people of the Ecuadorian Amazon will not rest, however, until Chevron is held accountable for the environmental and human impact of their business practices.
The Cultures of Resistance Network stands in solidarity with the people of Ecuador. To see how you can join the movement to ensure that Chevron is held responsible for its crimes, check out Amazon Watch's Chevron Toxico campaign and Rainforest Action Network.