In the Chevron Court Case, Ordinary Ecuadorians' Voices Don't Seem to Count

Chevron is reluctant to give ground to the people affected by the dumping of toxic waste. But they're not going to stop fighting for compensation.

"Their lives smell of oil." These are the words that Ecuadorian lawyer Juan Pablo Saenz used to describe the living conditions of his clients: 30,000 residents of the Oriente in the Ecuadorian Amazon who say that oil giant Texaco – since bought out by Chevron – dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste in their region. Friends of the Earth reported: "Death, miscarriages and birth defects cut a swathe through communities, threatening some indigenous groups with extinction. The destruction of the rainforest environment, noted for its biodiversity, was similarly devastating." I met Saenz when he was in London last week talking about Texaco's activities in Ecuador. Since 1993, lawyers have been representing Ecuadorians in a bid to obtain compensation from Chevron for the damage to their homes and health. In 2011, an Ecuadorian court ruled in their favour and demanded Chevron pay $19bn in restitution. Ecuador's supreme court later reduced the damages to $9.5bn but upheld the original ruling.

The Chevron case is something of a parable in two ways: first, it is a lesson about the incandescent response of multinational corporations to any questioning of them; second, it's a reminder how little the voices of campesinos (peasant farmers) and indigenous people in Latin America seem to count in the eyes of the companies that want to make use of their land.

New Yorker magazine last year noted Chevron's initial response to the lawsuit: "We will fight until hell freezes over and then fight it out on the ice." Such intransigence has characterised Chevron's entire approach: few concessions and little genuine dialogue with the Ecuadorians living near the toxic sites. In 1995, Chevron agreed to clean up the contaminated sites in return for the Ecuadorian government dropping proceedings against the company. But, according to campaign group ChevronToxico, "Chevron simply threw dirt on top of unlined oil pits that the company used to store permanently left-over oil and chemically laced production water that later leeched into the underground water supply". Chevron's obstinacy has yielded some results in the past week, after a New York court ruled in its favour. The company had filed a countersuit against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their lawyers for allegedly using bribery and corruption to secure the original verdict in the Ecuadorian courts. Chevron says it is vindicated by the outcome, but it should be noted that Judge Alberto Guerra, its star witness, has admitted that "Chevron paid him $48,000 'for physical evidence' of bribery as well as travel expenses for his and his son's families to flee Ecuador ... attorneys fees ... and committed to pay him $12,000 per month for living expenses in the US for two years". In 2008, Sam Singer – a US crisis management guru – sent a memo to Chevron spokesperson Ken Robertson advising him on how to deal with the Ecuador case. SF Gate reported that Singer had advised Chevron to portray Ecuador's court system as corrupt and to mount "counter attacks" on the plaintiffs and their legal team.

Regardless of whether the New York verdict was a just one, few deny Chevron's overarching tactics have been controversial. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as part of its offensive it has subpoenaed more than 100 email accounts, including those of environmental activists and journalists; it recently filed court documents against a political cartoonist as it was concerned by "real, immediate, and direct" injuries resulting from the Ecuadorian judgment. One could be forgiven for assuming America's third-largest corporation could withstand some light satire, but Chevron seems determined to view itself as the victim.

During his meetings in London, Saenz was keen to refocus attention on his clients: "This is about the people suffering, the destruction of the Ecuadorian Amazon. That's the central battle here; everything in New York is a distraction." It's true that international coverage of the case has centred on legal showboating as opposed to the real and daily suffering of the people. And it is fair to say Chevron's attitude has been far from contrite – in fact, it has been almost indignant – since it was first presented with the lawsuit 21 years ago. It is interesting that the company's counterclaim utilised the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Rico) Act, normally reserved for prosecuting members of the mafia. It seems to say something about Chevron's "do you know who we are" mindset: the big company is simply going about its legitimate business; the peasants wanting some form of reparation are nothing more than extortionists. One can't help but feel there's an element of "know your place" about the whole ordeal.

Perhaps the fact that this lawsuit is still going after more than 20 years is evidence that it's not only Chevron that can be stubborn. From the Niger Delta to the Gulf of Mexico, oil companies have relied upon the fact that people are too politically disenfranchised to hold them accountable for collateral damage. But perhaps in this case, Chevron is being somewhat hubristic. The last comment Saenz made about his clients? "They're still strong and they won't go anywhere."

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