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Reversal of Fortune

The jungle outpost of Lago Agrio is in northeastern Ecuador, where the elevation plummets from the serrated ridge of the Andes to the swampy lowlands of the Amazon Basin. Ecuadorans call the region the Oriente. For centuries, the rain forest was inhabited only by indigenous tribes. But, in 1967, American drillers working for Texaco discovered that two miles beneath the jungle floor lay abundant reserves of crude oil. For twenty-three years, a consortium of companies, led by Texaco, drilled wells throughout the Ecuadoran Amazon. Initially, the jungle was so impenetrable that the consortium had to fly in equipment by helicopter. But laborers hacked paths with machetes, and, eventually, Texaco paved roads and built an airport.

Today, Lago Agrio feels squalid. The buildings look thrown together, as if no one had believed that the boom might last. Stray dogs prowl the dusty streets, and a slender oil pipeline snakes alongside each major road, elevated on stilts, waist high, like an endless bannister. The Colombian border is ten miles to the north, and drug traffickers and paramilitaries have infested the Oriente, as have sicarios--paid assassins--who post ads online and charge as little as twenty dollars. In 2010, in a single month, the bodies of thirty murder victims were found along a stretch of road near the border.

One day last February, a judge in Lago Agrio, presiding over a spare, concrete courtroom in a shopping mall on the edge of town, issued an opinion that reverberated far beyond the Amazon. Since 1993, a group of Ecuadorans had been pursuing an apparently fruitless legal struggle to hold Texaco responsible for environmental destruction in the Oriente. During the decades when Texaco operated there, the lawsuit maintained, it dumped eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste. When the company ceased operations in Ecuador, in 1992, it allegedly left behind hundreds of open pits full of malignant black sludge. The harm done by Texaco, the plaintiffs contended, could be measured in cancer deaths, miscarriages, birth defects, dead livestock, sick fish, and the near-extinction of several tribes; Texaco's legacy in the region amounted to a "rain-forest Chernobyl."

By the time the judge, Nicolás Zambrano, issued his decision, the case had been going on for eighteen years. It had outlasted jurists on two continents. Zambrano was the sixth judge to preside in Ecuador; one federal judge in New York had died before he could rule on the case. The litigation even outlasted Texaco: in 2001, the company was subsumed by Chevron, which inherited the lawsuit. The dispute is now considered one of the nastiest legal contests in memory, a spectacle almost as ugly as the pollution that prompted it.

Chevron, which operates in more than a hundred countries, is America's third-largest corporation. Its annual revenue, which often tops two hundred billion dollars, is nearly four times as much as Ecuador's economic output. The plaintiffs, who named themselves the afectados--the affected ones--included indigenous people and uneducated settlers in the Oriente; some of them initially signed documents in the case with a fingerprint. They were represented by a fractious coalition of American and Ecuadoran lawyers, most of whom were working for contingency fees. An environmental lawsuit against a major corporation can resemble a war of attrition, and in 1993 few observers would have predicted that the plaintiffs could endure as long as they did. But, on February 14, 2011, their persistence was rewarded. Judge Zambrano ruled that Chevron was responsible for vast contamination, and ordered it to pay eighteen billion dollars in damages--the largest judgment ever awarded in an environmental lawsuit.

It was an extraordinary triumph, particularly for one of the plaintiffs' lead lawyers, a tenacious American named Steven Donziger, who had been a key figure in the case since its inception. Donziger speaks Spanish, and for years has shuttled between Ecuador and New York. "This trial is historic," he has said. "This is the first time that a small developing country has had power over a multinational American company."

Chevron categorically denies the charges made in the lawsuit, insisting that it bears no responsibility for pollution in the Amazon and that Texaco's operations were "completely in line with the standards of the day." A Chevron spokesman told me that "there is no corroborating evidence" of adverse health effects related to oil development in the Oriente, and blamed "trial lawyers" for "perpetuating false information."

In recent years, Chevron has invested millions of dollars in remolding its public image. Elegant television commercials, narrated by the actor Campbell Scott, emphasize that the company aims to "practice and espouse conservation." A print advertisement features a photograph of two smiling African women, and the caption "Oil Companies Should Support the Communities They're a Part Of." This fall, at a breakfast discussion on "Business and Human Rights," in New York, Chevron's manager for global issues, Silvia Garrigo, said that the company makes "social investments" wherever it operates, noting, "We're in countries for the long haul."

In the courtroom, however, Chevron has been far less conciliatory. Not long ago, after the company successfully defeated a lawsuit seeking to hold it responsible for the shooting deaths of protesters on an offshore oil platform in Nigeria, it tried to compel the impoverished Nigerian plaintiffs, some of whom were widows or children, to reimburse its attorneys' fees. (No fees were awarded, and a judge admonished Chevron for trying.) "That's how they litigate," Bert Voorhees, one of the Nigerians' lawyers, told me. "The point is to scare off the next community that might try to assert its human rights."

Chevron has been especially defiant in the face of the Lago Agrio accusations, which its lawyers have labelled "a shakedown." In addition to defending itself in Ecuador, it has fought the case in more than a dozen U.S. federal courts, hiring hundreds of lawyers and producing what its own attorneys have called "an avalanche of paper." Donziger has maintained that Chevron is motivated not merely by fear of an adverse judgment but by a desire "to destroy the very idea that indigenous people can bring an environmental lawsuit against an oil company." In 2008, a Chevron lobbyist in Washington told Newsweek, "We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this." One Chevron spokesman has said, "We're going to fight this until Hell freezes over--and then we'll fight it out on the ice."

[Source: By Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker, 09Jan13]

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small logoThis document has been published on 02May13 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.