Eye on the Amazon

Us and Them: Affected Peoples vs. Chevron in Canada

The latest chapter in the decades-long struggle seeking justice for Chevron's crimes in Ecuador is taking place in Canada right now. Unfortunately, as the years grind by the issues being debated get further and further away from the substantive problems of environmental contamination and human suffering, and the process becomes stuck in a legal quicksand of Chevron's design. The hearings before the Ontario Court of Appeals this week were a perfect example of that.

Amazon Watch continues to bear witness to this ongoing perversion of justice, both because we ourselves are a target of Chevron's attacks, and also because the cynical strategy the oil giant employs is a real and present danger to corporate accountability work everywhere. For that reason we attended the hearings in Toronto this week along with artist and activist Roger Waters, founding member of Pink Floyd. Waters spoke to the media to express his outrage at Chevron's endless legal maneuvers to escape justice for its crimes.

"It's a fundamental question of whether corporations like Chevron ... should be allowed to use their financial muscle to destroy people with an absolutely vital claim to reparations for damages that were caused to them over many years," Waters said before the hearing. "The way Chevron has behaved here is against everything that any of us might believe society ought to be like."

This week was supposed to see the beginning of the appeal of the previous decision in this case - which was mixed (upholding corporate separateness but granting the Ecuadorians the right to a trial to challenge Chevron's completely unfounded allegations of fraud). Instead the Ecuadorians were forced to confront Chevron's demand that the communities come up with almost $1 million as a security fee for the appeal to proceed. This is yet another legal delay tactic from Chevron in their never ending hope that the people they harmed will either give up, run out of funds, or simply die off before they can force Chevron to pay up.

In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that the Ecuadorians could seek enforcement of the $9.5 billion verdict in Canada. Chevron's Canadian subsidiary, Chevron-Canada, holds approximately $15 billion in assets and since Chevron famously fled Ecuador with its assets to avoid paying (and invented an elaborate lie about fraud and bribery so they could countersue in the U.S. to make enforcement there very difficult), the Ecuadorians have been forced to pursue Chevron to Canada like a fugitive deadbeat.

Try to wrap your mind around this: the third largest corporation in the U.S., after spending billions to drag out a cut-and-dry case of deliberate environmental contamination for decades, is now demanding the the Ecuadorian communities pay $1 million for the right to an appeal which could finally permit seizure of their assets to pay for a clean-up.

To quote The Dark Side of the Moon: "And if your head explodes with dark forebodings, too..." yeah, that's an appropriate reaction at this point.

The lead lawyer for the Ecuadorians, Alan Lenczner, pointed out quite clearly that this was nothing more than a stunt by Chevron, stating that, "Chevron is one of largest companies in the world with over 1,500 subsidiaries, $225 billion in annual revenue, which is $1 billion a day for each working day, with a profit of $25 billion annually, working out to $1 million per DAY is hardly in need of protection!" In fact, just counting Chevron and Chevron-Canada's legal team in the room this week, there were at least twenty lawyers and their staff. The cost for their travel and billing right there is more than the security fund itself! That alone proves this is nothing but a punitive legal subterfuge, to our eyes.

But the hearing this week also had a new element which has previously played only a minor role in the several years this case has dragged on in Canada. The introduction of Peter Grant, a renowned Canadian aboriginal rights lawyer who recently helped to win a major case before the country's Supreme Court, had a profound impact on the proceedings. Peter made it clear to the appellate panel of Justices Hoy, Cronk, and Hourigan that this entire exercise was fundamentally an issue of access to justice for indigenous peoples. Grant, who had recently visited the Ecuadorian Amazon to witness the contamination along with Canadian indigenous leaders Phil Fontaine and Ed John and Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler, spoke with firsthand experience of what effect this order would have on the people still suffering today. This has even more resonance considering that Canada recently signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and there is much more respect in Canadian political discourse for indigenous peoples.

And that's the genuine issue that not only the Canadian appeals court but Chevron and its lawyers should be made to face every single day. People are still dying from the deliberate contamination caused by Chevron in the Amazon. This is not an historic case about reparation for past harms, but a very real and urgent need for clean-up today. Every day Chevron evades paying for that clean-up, more people in the region risk sickness and death. It must end here. As Roger Waters said, "if Chevron can go on fighting this for another twenty years, and they will if they can, what does that say about us as a human race, that we would allow such a thing? It says that we've lost our grip on the reins of civilization."

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