ChevronTexaco faces Ecuador's
by Lou Dematteis and Suzana
In These Times magazine,
High-level corporate lawyers from ChevronTexaco
sat in the same packed muggy courtroom as barebreasted Amazonian
men and women on October 21, the start of what the national media
referred to as The Trial of the Century. In this ramshackle Amazonian
town, ChevronTexaco stands accused of severely contaminating the
surrounding region during 20 years of oil drilling and production
in what once was untouched rainforest with pristine rivers and
At stake is not only whether the San Ramon-based
corporate giant will have to pay more than $1 billion to clean
up pollution left behind by its oil production from 1972 to 1992,
but whether the case will bring fundamental change to the way
U.S. corporations do business around the world.
The case already has set precedent. It
was first filed in the United States in 1993 on behalf of 30,000
plaintiffs in the Ecuadorean Amazon for environmental and health
damages but bounced around until a federal appeals court dismissed
it nine years later. As part of the dismissal, the court sent
the case to Ecuador under the condition that ChevronTexaco abide
by the Ecuadorean court's ruling. "The case is historic,"
said Steven Donziger, a U.S. Iawyer representing the Ecuadorean
plaintiffs. "This is the first time a U.S. oil company has
been forced to submit to jurisdiction in a Latin American court
in an environmental case with damages of this magnitude."
No one is denying that the region is polluted-ChevronTexaco
even admits to some damage. But the company claims that any damage
caused by drilling was "minimal" and "normal for
any operation," according to company vice-president and legal
counsel Ricardo Reis Vega. The plaintiffs claim that in order
to save money, Texaco dumped 18.5 billion gallons of waste into
open, unlined pits, instead of the common practice of reinjecting
it into the ground. Now the Ecuadoreans want the pits cleaned
Reis Vega added that Texaco violated no
Ecuadorean environmental laws and that its $40 million agreement
with the government to clean up the pits released the corporation
from future liability.
According to Cristobal Bonifuz, lead attorney
for the plaintiffs, any cleanup work Texaco claimed to do was
either incomplete or not done at all. "Look," says Bonifaz,
"we think it is a fraudulent contract-fraudulent for the
simple reason that the pits were never cleaned up." Evidence
found in an hours-long trip into the countryside seems to support
Bonifaz's assertion. Pipelines snake along oil-slicked roads,
and dark pools of oily waste are easy to find. Some of Texaco's
pits are covered with dirt, but digging down a foot or so brings
oily deposits gurgling to the surface.
Farmer Benigno Martinez agrees with Bonifaz,
who had a Texaco waste pit outside his house near Lago Agrio.
"I complained for a long, long time, and six years ago Texaco
finally came and covered the pit with dirt. But they didn't take
the oil away," Martinez says, pointing to oil seeping from
the dirt-covered pit and polluting a nearby stream. "I've
lost eight of my nine horses from drinking the polluted water."
And that's not the worst part. Hydrocarbon seepage contaminated
the household's water, making his wife, Maria Villasis, chronically
A crowd of hundreds that included members
of several Indian tribes, peasants and environmentalists marched
to the courthouse the first day of the trial and held a rally
on the steps.
The crowd represented an impressive social
movement that worked 10 years to transform Ecuador's laws so they
respected citizen rights and protected the environment. Most important
is the Law of Environmental Management, passed in 1999. This law
offers a process by which citizens can gather as a class and demand
that their constitutional right "to live in a clean environment
free from contamination" be upheld. The Amazon Defense Front,
the indigenous-peasant organization that represents the plaintiffs,
is the first to file a suit under this law.
A victory would set precedent. "Bringing
a case of this magnitude before the Ecuadorean courts deserves
to be watched closely," says Alejandro Garro, an expert in
Latin American law at Columbia University in New York. "If
the courts were to determine the existence of liability and the
ensuing remedies were to meet standards of fairness expected in
a globalized economy, then the ensuing judgment would amount to
a real breakthrough." He added that the plaintiffs would
be quick to go the United States to enforce the judgment.
A decision in the case is still a ways
off. Testimony for the plaintiffs and the defense ended October
29. The judge still must inspect alleged damage and can ask for
additional testimony and evidence. Experts predict a verdict in
about six months. Expected appeals to the Ecuadorean Superior
and Supreme courts could take an additional two or three years.
Any positive judgment likely will come
too late for Villasis. Like many in the region, she has been diagnosed
with cancer as a result of hydrocarbon exposure. "The doctor
says I am totally contaminated. It's the oil," she says.
"This case is an attempt to globalize
justice," says Bonifaz. "If justice were globalized,
people wouldn't be so against globalized trade." The lawyer
believes that global justice will be achieved when its standards
are raised worldwide. "Protection must come from within,"
he says, noting Ecuador's recently passed Law of Environmental
Management. "We want to open the eyes of Latin America and
the world to create better tort and environmental law to better
deal with problems and provide true justice."
Bruce Rich, a senior attorney for Environmental
Defense, also sees larger implications in the trial. "A victory
for the plaintiffs would increase the worldwide perception of
potential liability for environmental negligence by multinational
corporations. And it will be an incentive for greater environmental
and social diligence."
Already that is the case in Ecuador. As
a result of the lawsuit, no oil company is polluting the environment
at the rate Texaco is charged.
Bonifaz believes their chances of winning
are excellent: "I have total confidence in the transparency
of the court and its ability to rise to the occasion. We're going
to win the case."
Writer/photographer Lou Dematteis has
published two books: Nicaragua: A Decade of Revolution (Norton,
1991) and A Portrait of Viet Nam (Norton, 1996) . Suzana Sawyer
is a professor of anthropology at U.C. Davis and author of Crude
Chronicles: Conflicts Over Oil Development to be published this