Eye on the Amazon

The "Real Tragedy" in Ecuador

Chevron has dehumanized the people of Ecuador in order to disregard their suffering

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Last week, Chevron held its annual shareholder meeting in San Ramon, California. Despite announcing a new CEO and massive profits, the meeting did not go as they had hoped (you can read more details about it in our press release). The company faced a constant barrage of shareholder resolutions and statements critical of its operations on everything from dangerous methane leakages to doing nothing to prevent genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar/Burma (where Chevron controls one of the largest foreign investments). CEO Michael Wirth started out politely thanking the critics for their messages and ended up letting slip a telling statement revealing what he actually thinks about the suffering caused by Chevron.

It's worth noting that Chevron shareholder meetings are unlike many other corporate AGMs. At Chevron, shareholders attending endure not only the usual metal detectors, but they must also empty their pockets and allow any documents they bring with them to be examined. In 2010, several were actually arrested. It's not a friendly place. Despite that, we entered curious to see how new CEO and Board Chair Michael Wirth (yes, he is his own boss) would treat concerned shareholders. Would he cut off the mic, rudely dismiss people, or even make racist comments about Indigenous peoples, as his predecessor John Watson did on multiple occasions? Needless to say, we did not leave impressed. But worse than that, it became clear that the decades-long adversarial relationship between concerned shareholders and management on the issue of Chevron's environmental disaster in Ecuador has completely dehumanized the people of Ecuador in their eyes.

From 1964 to 1992, Chevron, then operating as Texaco, deliberately dumped 16 billion gallons of toxic oil drilling waste into the once pristine Amazon rainforest to save a whopping $3 per barrel. After Indigenous and farmer communities sued, Chevron was found liable for $9.5 billion after years of litigation in Ecuador – the venue of its own choosing. Despite having admitted to the dumping, Chevron has vowed never to pay for a clean up and promised the communities a "lifetime of litigation" and to fight the judgment "until Hell freezes over, and then fight it out on the ice."

The Ecuador case dates back decades, and the initial pollution occured so long ago that it has apparently become "unreal" to Chevron's management. When Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, deliberately dumped the toxic waste into the Ecuadorian Amazon, it knowingly poisoned the land and drinking water of tens of thousands of people. If you were responsible for such a massive crime, you'd probably want to pretend it never happened, too. Chevron is still trying. But it has failed. In fact, it seemed caught off guard at the level of resistance at the meeting itself and the realization that its bogus RICO verdict has not "made it all go away" is starting to sink in at the highest levels of management.

As we reported the day of the meeting, 36 institutional shareholders, collectively representing over $109 billion in assets under management, recently sent CEO Wirth a letter calling on him to finally redress Chevron's toxic legacy in the Amazon. Reinforcing that call, close to a million Avaaz members wrote to one of Chevron's largest investors, Vanguard Group, in the days preceding the meeting to demand action. And a recent video message from Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters called on the new CEO to provide "justice for the Indigenous people of Ecuador." Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars Chevron has spent trying to avoid it, the issue is not going away. In fact, the movement against Chevron is only growing.

The main reason that Chevron execs believe they can claim the Ecuador issue poses no financial liability is the favorable verdict they got in their preemptive RICO SLAPP suit from shockingly-biased federal judge Lewis Kaplan (check out this other brief Roger Waters video to hear more about Kaplan's bizarre court proceedings). Chevron believes Kaplan's verdict will protect it from anything related to Ecuador, but they are sorely mistaken. First, Kaplan's verdict itself states: "The questions whether and why there is pollution in the Oriente region and whether Chevron's experts were aware of that simply have nothing to do with the case." That is critical to anyone looking to actually enforce the Ecuadorian judgment that Chevron owes $9.5 billion plus interest to clean up its damage in Ecuador. And second, the actual enforcement action is proceeding in Canada and that is where Chevron is really at risk.

Misleading its shareholders, Chevron's CEO points to the recent decision in Chevron's favor by the appeals court in Ontario as indication it is "winning" there. The truth is, no judge who has looked at the actual evidence in Ecuador has ever ruled in Chevron's favor. It's impossible to do so as the evidence condemning Chevron still sits in almost 1,000 unlined waste pits (and even those the company claimed to have cleaned have been proven to be toxic by the company's own inspections). Furthermore, the Supreme Court of Canada will review the case next, and here's the issue that will doom Chevron:

The Ontario appeals court got a major point completely backwards in its ruling. When explaining why it would not support the Ecuadorians' appeal to seize Chevron's assets it wrote: "What is really driving the appellants' appearance in our courts is their inability to enforce their judgment in the United States." In fact, the Ecuadorians never tried to enforce their verdict in the US because Chevron launched its legal attack there preemptively before the case in Ecuador was affirmed by its Supreme Court. Furthermore, Chevron's case against the Ecuadorians and their lawyer excluded all evidence of the actual crime in Ecuador and the case that it did present has since been disproven by forensic evidence and a shocking admission of perjury by its key witness. Worse for Chevron, the decision by the lower court in Ontario grants the opportunity for a hearing to evaluate what happened since Kaplan's flawed ruling – namely Chevron's chief witness Guerra's aforementioned admission of lying and the government of Ecuador's forensic evidence disproving his ghostwriting claim. That hearing will demonstrate that the Ecuadorians are in Canada not because they were "unable" to enforce their verdict in the U.S. but because Chevron used bribery, false testimony, and fabricated evidence to prevent them from seeking enforcement there.

This will make the Canadian court decision that much more critical to the issues of international comity and access to justice for Indigenous peoples and others harmed by corporations (two things already cited by the Ontario appeals when they declared this a public interest case in a ruling a few months ago). The pressure on the Supreme Court of Canada to take a stand in one of the most egregious cases of corporate crime and abuse of power will be overwhelming.

In the end, Chevron's unethical legal thuggery will circle back to bite the new CEO Michael Wirth not only because it's based on false evidence and lies, but also because it has exposed him as someone no better than the executives at Texaco who made the fateful decision to deliberately pollute the Amazon in the first place. Faced with the reality of the suffering in Ecuador illustrated by multiple representatives to the shareholder meeting, Wirth infamously responded that, "the true tragedy here is American trial lawyers who have misled people for decades." Only someone who considers the Ecuadorian people as less than human could so casually dismiss their suffering from the undisputed and intentional pollution of their Amazon home. Wirth showed his true colors, and all it took for him to reveal himself was a few comments from shareholders at his first meeting as CEO.

It's time for Wirth to wake up and realize the albatross of this case will not go away and the bad deeds of his predecessors will tarnish his tenure until he takes the rational approach and meets with the Ecuadorians to talk about how Chevron can make things right and finally clean up the Amazon.

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