Wednesday, February 16, 2011

30,000 Indigenous Amazonians Take on Big Oil

A must watch trailer of Crude, an award winning documentary that follows the Lago Agrio lawsuit.
For anyone unfamiliar with the court case, Crude provides vital background information and
integral visuals that precede this blog post.

An Ecuadorian court earlier this week ordered Chevron Oil to pay $9 Billion in environmental damages for dumping toxic waste and crude oil into Amazonian waters.  Even after winning one of the largest environmental lawsuits ever, indigenous Ecuadorians are demanding more for the destruction of vulnerable rainforest lands, countless deaths, chronic illnesses, and irreversible economic losses.  On behalf of the 30,000 people in the class-action lawsuit, lawyers are filing an appeal, seeking an unprecedented $113 Billion in retributions.

Between 1964 and 1990, Texaco, which was bought buy Chevron in 2001, deliberately poured and leaked out over 30 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and crude oil into areas surrounding the Lago Agrio Oil Field (Comparatively, Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons and BP/Deepwater Horizon spilled 205 million gallons).  In order to lower costs (by not adhering to environmental standards or responsibility), Texaco dumped unusable waste without treatment.  The savings helped raised profit margins $3 per barrel.  When Texaco left Ecuador in 1990, they left behind a legacy of hundreds of open pits filled with hazardous waste.

But even in face of the court’s ruling earlier this week, Chevron continues to muscle its own stance, publically stating its refusal to adhere to Ecuadorian law and that the oil giant will not pay the $9 Billion requital.  If Chevron fails to publically apologize for its role in pollution surrounding Lago Agrio within 15 days, the fine doubles.

The Lago Agrio Oil Field lawsuit displays the worst spectacle of international law. The case frustratingly bounces around court systems on three continents.  After 17 years the litigation process still drags on.  Last week, as Ecuadorian judges were ready to condemn the oil company, a Manhattan Federal District Court and an international arbitrator called for Ecuador “to suspend or cause to be suspended the enforcement or recognition within and without Ecuador of any judgment.” This was not based on poor evidence or corruption; the delay provides time for international courts to verify if the Ecuadorian trial violates a trade pact with the US.  Although in 2004 a US court unanimously ruled that Chevron could not shift the blame (and any losses) to the Republic of Ecuador because the 1965 Joint Operation Agreement was never signed by any members of government or the state petroleum company.  Needless to say, the indigenous plaintiffs are furious over the international orders they contend were “issued by a private arbitration panel that prohibited the Ecuadorian plaintiffs from presenting their case.”  Chevron now wants all appeals to move back to the US or the Hague.

The charade is nothing new.  From day one, the Lago Agrio Oil Field case has been marred by public relations meddling, false accusations, impeding bribery, and refuted scientific studies.  Studies have shown that inhabitants of the effected Amazonian area have elevated cancer rates 150% higher than controls.  But Chevron scientists horrifically campaign to disassociate polluted ground water from cancer.  They claim that the hydrocarbons (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) found in the ground water cannot be sufficiently isolated in studies so as to rule out with 100% certainty that other environmental sources don't cause the debilitating diseases.  Chevron scientists call studies that link the contamination and cancer “the product of fraud and is contrary to the legitimate scientific evidence.”

Additionally, the smear campaign against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs led to a new racketeering suit against the plaintiffs and their legal team – again, not a surprise tactic from Chevron.  In 2009, Chevron won a ruling of mistrial when they provided video evidence of a man bribing the presiding judge.  The man speaking to the judge in the video was found to be a “long-time Chevron contractor,” who is currently living in the US.  Before disappearing from public light, this unnamed contractor claimed on tape to have “enough evidence to ensure a victory by the Amazon communities if Chevron failed to pay him what he was promised.”  The man has not spoken out and Chevron currently provides the contractor with an undisclosed amount of paid living expenses.

The Lago Agrio fiasco is the epitome of a nauseating fight between indigenous populations and an oil company with bottomless pockets.  The indigenous are constantly strong-armed with legal technicalities and manipulation of the court systems.  While many facts remain sealed under court order, the mockery of international loopholes remains apparent.  How can transnational corporations be held accountable if they refuse to recognize the constitutional law in the countries in which they operate?   For an extra $3 a barrel, Texaco/Chevron destroyed a region and damned generations of its inhabitants.  Even in the face of legal battles, Chevron continues to show that it is above the law, morality, and human rights.  In a statement issued after Monday’s ruling, Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson signaled the oil giant’s corporate stance: “The Ecuadorian court’s judgment is illegitimate…Chevron does not believe that today’s judgment is enforceable.”