George Byrne, Quito
Green Left Weekly, 22 January 2010
Since 1993, oil giant Texaco, owned by Chevron since 2001, has been fighting an ongoing legal and publicity battle against an unlikely adversary.
Thirty thousand indigenous people of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest have accused the oil giant of massive and intentional environmental devastation from 1964-1990, leading to elevated cancer levels, unusually high numbers of birth defects and miscarriages, and many other health issues.
In the face of an impending verdict, Chevron continues to use increasingly manipulative tactics to delay, if not avoid, paying up to US$27 billion in reparations.
During almost 30 years of exploration and extraction in the Oriente region of Ecuador, Texaco built 916 open-air, unlined waste pits in the forest floor and dumped billions of gallons of toxic, highly saline waters into rivers, systematically exposing communities to toxins from a variety of sources on a daily basis.
Yet, Chevron is not attempting to rectify the damage. Instead, company lawyers and spokespeople deny that the risk of cancer has risen in oil-producing areas. It attributes other health issues to “poor sanitation”.
Now, in a small court in the jungle town of Nueva Loja, Judge Nicolas Augusto Zambrano Lozada is painstakingly reviewing 16 years of evidence in the biggest environmental lawsuit an oil company has ever faced.
Throughout the trial, Chevron has claimed a $40 million clean-up agreement, made between the government and Texaco in 1998, released them from liability. This “remediation” was little more than a whitewash, covering toxic waste pits with soil and claiming others had been “remediated” when, in reality, they had not been touched.
The fraudulent clean-up has led to the indictment of seven government officials who worked closely with Texaco during the remediation.
As traditional legal strategies have failed, Chevron has used a less conventional approach, promising the plaintiffs a “lifetime of litigation”.
The corporation began a major lobbying effort in Washington, pushing Congress and the US Trade Representative to threaten Ecuador's trade preferences under the Andean Trade Preferences Act, in the hope that the Ecuadorian government, headed by leftist President Rafael Correa, would intervene in the private lawsuit.
In an uncharacteristic admission, Chevron representative Kent Robertson said, “If we were able to call a timeout and make the lawsuit disappear, then this entire issue disappears”, according to Chevrontoxico.com.
The lobbying has been accompanied by an equally aggressive and suspicious internet-based media campaign.
Despite being the second-largest oil company in the US and spending millions of dollars every year on public relations, Chevron has become more and more reliant on bloggers and social networking sites as propaganda tools.
As well as paying for bloggers to visit Ecuador and taking them on tours of carefully selected “remediated” sites, Chevron has also used the internet to cast doubt on the legal system of Ecuador, despite having insisted the case be transferred there from New York in 2003.
In August 2009, a few months before the verdict was expected, Chevron released a collection of hidden camera videos, filmed in June, showing Judge Juan Nunez in meetings with two men, one Ecuadorian and one from the US.
In the tapes, Nunez is explaining the judicial system of Ecuador to the two men and Chevron claims that at one point he is asked by the US man if Chevron is guilty. Nunez responds off-camera “Si, senor” — yes sir. Those defending Nunez claim that it is unclear what he is responding to, due to the other man’s broken Spanish.
According to Amazonpost.com on August 31, Chevron executive vice president Charles James has said: “No judge who has participated in meetings of the type shown on these tapes could possibly deliver a legitimate decision.” Nunez claimed it was a trap on the part of Chevron, but he was forced to resign, delaying the verdict by at least three months.
Chevron denies any connection to the video, but it has been revealed that the Ecuadorian man appearing in the tapes, Diego Borja, has been connected to, and employed by, the company. The Ecuadorian government is investigating both the allegations of corruption and the legality of the video tapes themselves.
Whatever the outcome, Chevron has achieved its goal of buying time and delaying a verdict.
Now, in the build-up to the final hearing before a verdict is passed, Chevron is attempting to file a parallel international arbitration case in the Hague, Holland. The allegation that Ecuador’s judicial system cannot fairly adjudicate the long-running oil pollution litigation is another attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the case brought against Chevron.
[For more information, or to sign a petition demanding Chevron deals appropriately with the situation, visit Chevrontoxico.com.]