Chevron is now trying to force the indigenous Ecuadorian rainforest communities devastated by the oil giant’s toxic waste to pay them $837,000 and possibly much more for court costs and legal fees associated with its case in the United States, according to the Amazon Defense Coalition.
The case began in 2011, when a judge in Ecuador ruled that the company owed $9.5 billion to indigenous farmers who sued for environmental contamination caused by the company in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Chevron refused to pay and countersued the American plaintiff’s attorney in the case, Steven Donziger, alleging he fabricated evidence, and offered kickbacks to win the case. A U.S. Judge sided with Chevron and overturned the judgment against the company in Ecuador in late February 2018. U.S. judge Lewis A. Kaplan imposed the $837,000 in court costs, which is being appealed, on Secoya indigenous leader Javier Piaguaje and farmer Hugo Camacho.
The Amazon rainforest where Chevron, operating as Texaco, discharged billions of gallons of benzene-laced waters into local waterways from 1964 to 1992 and abandoned roughly 1,000 toxic waste pits is now considered one of the most polluted places on earth.
Paul Barrett, the author of “Law of the Jungle” that tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador, said in an interview with NPR after the ruling that the oil still hasn’t been cleaned up.
The victims are the thousands of poor people who live very close to these massive industrial operations. Sad to say that if you try to produce oil and then allow – or even, as was the case in Ecuador – encourage people to live right next door, and you don’t have government regulation of how the industry operates, you’re going to have a problem. And that’s what developed over decades, in Ecuador.
Piaguaje and Camacho, and U.S. attorney Steven Donziger, who has advised the Amazon communities since the case began in 1993, are three of the 47 named Ecuadorian plaintiffs in the class action environmental lawsuit that resulted in the historic damages award against Chevron.
Camacho, who earns about $200 monthly farming mostly corn and cacao on a small plot of land near Chevron’s former Sacha oil field, said he had no plans to pay the company nor comply with Judge Kaplan’s orders.
“Chevron has destroyed much of our precious rainforest and still refuses to accept responsibility,” Camacho said. “For Chevron and an American judge to now demand that the very people who suffer from the company’s pollution should pay court costs is insulting and arrogant. Communities should not do business with Chevron because it respects neither the environment nor people.”
Chevron is seemingly using the costs issue to try to force Donziger from the case by forcing him into debt or even bankruptcy. Donziger has been a member of the legal team for the Ecuadorians since the inception of the case, but he says Chevron’s efforts will only backfire over the long-term. “This is a bad look for a public company that lost a litigation on the merits in the forum of its choosing,” Donziger said.
Chevron also is demanding that Kaplan order the Ecuadorians and Donziger to pay $32 million to the company to reimburse it for legal fees for the case, Several attorneys, led by prominent trial lawyer John Keker, have harshly criticized Judge Kaplan for his condescending attitude and pro-business decisions, with one calling his racketeering trial against the Ecuadorians and Donziger a “Dickensian farce.”
In reality, Chevron is using the costs issue as a pretext to try to “harass and put pressure” on its victims because the company lost the case on the merits and wishes to evade its liability, said Patricio Salazar, the lead Ecuadorian lawyer for the communities.
The Ecuadorians are represented by their non-profit coalition Front for the Defense of the Amazon, and have generated significant momentum by winning three consecutive unanimous appellate decisions in Canada, where they are enforcing their judgment against Chevron’s substantial assets in the country.
The Ecuadorians not only have won significant courtroom victories in Canada but also have attracted the support of the country’s powerful national indigenous federation, the Assembly of First Nations, as well as former National Chief Phil Fontaine and Grand Chief Ed John. The courtroom victories and increasing public support for the Ecuadorians has infuriated Chevron given that it thought the RICO decision would effectively end the case, said Salazar.
Chevron’s strategy to try to punish the villagers financially for bringing the case is nothing new. Faced with its declining prospects in Canada, Chevron recently tried to impose a $1 million costs order on the Ecuadorians in that country but failed. That was after a Chevron official threatened the villagers with a “lifetime of litigation” if they persisted in pursuing the case.
Chevron reported revenues last year of $134 billion and profits of close to $40 billion, while rainforest villagers generally cannot afford to buy basic medicines nor access potable water – a real challenge given that most natural water sources in the affected area have been poisoned with Chevron’s oil waste, said Weyler.