Ecuador’s fight against Chevron’s impunity

For environmental and human damages caused over decades, Chevron was sentenced by the Court of Sucumbíos in Ecuador to pay 9,5 billion dollars in compensation to the members of the Association of Victims of Texaco-Chevron. But Chevron did not just manage to evade justice. If that wasn’t enough, it brought forward a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian state with the help of an arbitration court under the auspices of the World Bank. That’s how Chevron received 112 million dollars in compensation from Ecuador in July 2016. Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer who has historically fought for the Amazon peoples against Chevron, warns about the absence of mechanisms to bring transnational corporations to justice. He also supports the idea of a “binding treaty”, an initiative from a United Nations working group to stop corporate impunity.  “The heart of the matter is not about economic reparations. It is about the environmental damage, it is about the indigenous peoples”.

 

The curse of black gold

 

After the cycles of banana and cocoa monoculture for export in the first half of the 20th century, Ecuador’s economy has essentially depended on oil extraction and sale since the 70s. The province of Sucumbíos, the northernmost province of the country, has its capital in Nueva Loja, also known as the “oil capital of Ecuador”. The oil fields of Lago Agrio, located in Nueva Loja, started their operations in 1965 at the hands of Texaco and Gulf Oil. Since 1992, these oilfields have belonged to the state company PetroEcuador. Texaco was acquired by Chevron in 2000, and after a short period in which the new company used the ChevronTexaco, it returned to being called Chevron in 2005.

In 1993, Pablo Fajardo (1) and other lawyers brought forward a lawsuit against Texaco in the Court of New York, representing 30.000 people from the provinces of Orellana and Sucumbíos who had been affected by water contamination. This contamination was a consequence of the oil operations of Texaco-Chevron in Lago Agrio between 1964 and 1990.

In Sucumbíos alone the oil extraction affected five different indigenous nations, without even considering that the indigenous peoples are not the majority in this region. In fact, most of those affected are settlers (2): oil workers, but also traders, farmers, etc. They, and their descendants, have been the biggest victims of Chevron’s contamination. In Sucumbíos and Orellana, the number of people who fell victim to cancer due to the environmental contamination caused by Texaco-Chevron has risen to 1.041.

The lawsuit against Texaco-Chevron reflects the struggles of grassroots organizations, made up of peasant and indigenous Kichwa, Secoya and Cofáne, in defence of the environmental rights of the Amazon rainforest. Under the lawyers’ initiative, the “Front for the Defence of the Amazon” was formed in 1994 in the north-east of the country, grouping together twenty grassroots organizations. One of its founders and also president was Luis Yanza, a renowned environmental activist. In 2001 this organization made way for the Association of Victims of Texaco.

On February 14th 2011, in Nueva Loja, the Provincial Court of Sucumbíos ruled against Chevron, ordering it to pay damages amounting to 19 billion dollars. The ruling detailed which chemical substances, used in the extraction process, had had an environmental impact, for example hexavalent chromium. Besides the environmental damage caused to the Amazon by oil drilling and extraction, there had also been systematic sexual attacks committed by Texaco-Chevron workers against women (3).

 

Media lies at the service of a “sister”…

 

The Amazon communities were denouncing one of the historical “Seven Sisters” of the oil industry (4)… This negative image threatened to compromise the interests of this multinational corporation. During a television broadcast in early 2014, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa explained that, in order to escape punishment, Chevron had orchestrated a series of media manipulations based on communication studies: “Chevron fought for a decade to have the trial away from New York, where its headquarters are located, so that it took place in Ecuadorian courts. And it praised the Ecuadorian courts, calling them the best in the world… (…) Since they could not buy Ecuadorian justice, when they saw the ruling going against them because of the evidence presented, they embarked on a campaign to discredit the Ecuadorian justice system and government. They made a whole analysis, they hired experts. They asked “what are Ecuador’s weaknesses?”. It’s that it has a leftist government. And saying “leftist government” is anathema in the United States, it’s a terrible insult. “Correa is a leftist”… to them it means that one is corrupt, a dictator, inhuman, criminal… This campaign is an example in which they started persecuting the plaintiffs’ lawyers.”  (5)

 

Therefore, faced with criminal responsibility, Chevron had no issues in bankrolling campaigns to deny its responsibility in the events. According to Pablo Fajardo, “when Chevron realised that the trial in Ecuador was serious and that all evidence pointed towards them, they decided to attack the justice system and the victims. Chevron has, for the last six years, worked to frame those affected as criminals and the corporation as the victim.” (6)

 

But the main problem is an economic one: “Chevron has more than 2000 lawyers on its payroll to litigate against us and against Ecuador. It’s an army of well-paid lawyers fighting to keep the corporation from paying for its crimes and to ensure that its crimes remain in total impunity” – Pablo Fajardo stresses. And this culture of impunity is based primarily on corruption: “With its money, Chevron has bribed and blackmailed many people around the world, among them lawyers, experts, investors, governments, former judges, etc. It’s an economic abuse of power to achieve impunity.”

 

From “free trade” to “international arbitration”: a battle beyond borders

 

President Correa analyses the evolution of the dispute between Chevron and Ecuador, recalling that “on one hand there is the private lawsuit brought by the Amazon communities against Chevron (…) On the other there is the lawsuit brought by Chevron against us, supported by the treaty concerning mutual protection of investments in the Hague”. Correa denounces that the court in the Hague declared itself competent to handle the case by considering it a trial between private parties, even though it is a dispute between the Ecuadorian state and Chevron. “This is a judicial monstrosity” – Correa says – “but the biggest absurdity is that Texaco stopped operating in the country in 1992, and this treaty is from 1997. (…) These courts serve the most powerful, not those who are right. And Chevron’s money is the most powerful.”

 

On April 24th 2015, an international indigenous delegation from across the continent, including in its ranks people like Carlos Viteri, member of the Ecuadorian National Assembly or Guatemalan activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, travelled to the United States to call out Chevron’s responsibility and defend the cause of the victims of Texaco. The protest rally (7) took place in a square close to the headquarters of the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a private court created by the World Bank (8), which has as its main mission the settlement of disputes between states and American multinational corporations.

The ruling on Chevron’s case against Ecuador ended up favouring the corporation. In June 2016 Chevron received 112 million dollars in compensation from Ecuador (9). Pablo Fajardo takes stock of the ruling: “when we looked at it, we realised that the problem is the international system of justice. Unfortunately, there is no international court where corporations can be prosecuted. There are courts where corporations can sue states. But when there are human rights problems caused by corporations there are no instances to appeal to. In many cases, and in this one in particular, the state is a victim of the corporations”.

 

In the meantime, the Association of Victims of Texaco-Chevron is hoping the company will answer to Ecuadorian justice in countries where it has assets. Cases have been presented to courts in Canada, Brazil and Argentina to demand that Chevron pays up what it owes the peoples and nations of the Amazon. Fajardo warns: “Our struggle continues, and we expect favourable decisions. But should we lose a case in one country, we will have no problems in looking for another jurisdiction.”

 

Globalizing resistance to the neoliberal order

 

At the end of October 2016, Pablo Fajardo met in Geneva with social movements and progressive political forces from around the world, as he participated in a week-long event dedicated to stopping multinational corporations’ impunity (10). Their concrete goal? “Our goal is to have, very soon, a binding instrument to prosecute corporations and an adequate structure for these proceedings. We cannot accept that humanity keeps having this juridical vacuum” . However, the approval of a binding agreement would not affect the case of the victims of Chevron against the company: “laws and treaties are not retroactive” – Fajardo points out.

 

But his concern goes much beyond his case, which is why he rues the fact that up to now only progressive movements have been pushing for this international binding juridical instance: “it seems to me that people in the European Union, the United States, and elsewhere, have not understood that this is also their responsibility. It is their corporations, often with complicity and protection from their governments, that violate human rights all around the world.”

 

Finally, Fajardo highlights the convergence of peoples interests in favour of human and social rights, as opposed to the economic interests of a tiny minority: “The citizens of Europe cannot remain complicit, by remaining silent, with these corporate crimes. These corporate abuses are not exclusive to the countries of the global South. For example, a few days ago, American company Caterpillar fired more than 2000 workers in Belgium. Humanity needs a binding juridical instance to put a stop to the abuse and impunity of multinational corporations.”

Even though the dispute between Chevron and Ecuador was decided in favour of the former, it should not be forgotten that Chevron remains sentenced by Ecuadorian courts thanks to the lawsuit it faced from the Amazonian organizations. This battle can pave the way for other creative struggles with the goal of creating an alternative to neoliberalism.

 

Notes:

  1. Lawyer Pablo Fajardo became known to the international media as the legal representative of the 30.000 affected in the Texaco-Chevron case. His work has gotten him plenty of death threats, to such an extent that the UN International Commission for Human Rights appealed to the Ecuadorian government for his protection. See also : Magazine El Mundo, June 1st 2008.

    http://www.elmundo.es/suplementos/magazine/2008/453/1211976633.html

  2. This is why the closest city is called Nueva Loja. Loja is a city in the South of the country, in an agricultural area. After a drought, a large number of residents went North to colonize the Amazon and reap the benefits of the oil boom.

  3. The references can be found in the work “Las palabras de la selva”, by Dr. Carlos Beristan, and they were cited by Joan Martines Alier in the article « El caso Chevron Texaco en Ecuador: una muy buena sentencia que podría ser un poco mejor »,  published on 16/02/2011 in www.alainet.org

  4. “Seven Sisters” was an expression popularized in the 1960s. According to wikipedia, it was created by Enrico Mattei, father of the modern Italian oil industry and then president of ENI, to refer to a group of seven companies that controlled the oil business since the beginning of the 60s. Mattei used the term ironically, to imply that these companies behaved like a cartel, protecting each other instead of allowing for free market competition, and thus making life more difficult for new companies in the oil industry.

  5. Interview with President Rafael Correa, Canal Uno live, January 21st 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03lET9w0ZyI

  6. Interview with the author, 28/10/2016

  7. “North-South american indigenous peoples unite in Chevron fight”, TeleSur English, 23/04/2015http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/North-South-American-Indigenous-Peoples-Unite-in-Chevron-Fight-20150423-0003.html

  8. For more details visit the official page icsid.worldbank.org

  9. Watch the documentary “The Empire Files: Chevron vs. the Amazon – Inside the Killzone” http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&itemid=74&jumival=17027#newsletter1

  10. Week of peoples mobilization in Geneva, under the campaign “Dismantle Corporate Power” http://www.stopcorporateimpunity.org/

Cover Photo: Humberto Piaguaje, Presidente of the Unión de Afectados por Texaco-Chevron.
All rights reserved. Reproduced with the kind permission from Letty Fajardo (UDAPT).

Translated from spanish by Ricardo Vaz

Source:  Journal de Notre Amérique 19, November 2016 (in French)

 

Alex Anfruns is a lecturer, journalist and editor-in-chief of independent media outlet Investig’Action in Brussels. In 2007 he helped direct the documentary Palestina, la verdad asediada. Voces por la paz” (available with catalan, spanish, english and arabic subtitles). Between 2009 and 2014 he made several trips to Egypt and the occupied Palestinian territories. He has edited the monthly Journal de Notre Amérique since january 2015. 

This article is also available in : French