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Gringo view: activist lawyer (David) versus Chevron

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Erin Brockovich’s story of her advocacy against Pacific Gas and Electric Company ended with generous compensation payments to those people hurt by the company’s reckless pollution, a victory for her efforts for environmental justice, and a hugely successful Julia Roberts film.

It would be heartwarming if all environmental injustice cases ended that way. They don’t.

In 1993, a lawsuit was filed in New York on behalf of the ‘afectados’—the affected ones—indigenous people and uneducated settlers in a slice of the Ecuadorian Amazonian rainforest.

Some of them initially signed documents in the case with a fingerprint.

The suit was brought against Texaco (later acquired by Chevron) by a team of Ecuadorian lawyers led by an activist American lawyer, Steven Donziger.

Steven Dozinger. (Photo Internet reproduction)
Steven Dozinger. (Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The plaintiffs claimed damages for the harm that could be measured in cancer deaths, miscarriages, birth defects, dead livestock, sick fish, and the near extinction of several tribes.

According to an observer, Texaco’s legacy in the region amounted to a “rain-forest Chernobyl.”

The suit particularly slammed Chevron for leaving untreated hundreds of open pits full of malignant black sludge from the runoff of at least 16 billion gallons of toxic waste.

No doubt assuming that a giant like Chevron would get a better deal in Ecuador than in New York, the oil giant lobbied successfully to move the proceedings there.

Bad move.

In 2011, an Ecuadorian court ruled in favor of the ‘afectados’ and ordered Chevron to pay a whopping US$9.8 billion for environmental cleanup and compensation.

Chevron disputed the judgment, refused to pay the fine, and accused the Ecuadorian court of fraud and corruption.

Donziger is understandably proud of his leadership role and told me, “What was landmark about this event was that for the first time, a big, powerful company found that ‘afectados’, given the right resources, could successfully demand restitution for the damages they have suffered”.

That court decision was more than enough to make the petroleum giant angry. Very angry. And when giants get angry, they can turn very nasty and dangerous, Donziger said.

Over the years, the case, which is as yet unsettled and in a kind of legal limbo, has taken on a life of its own.

What might have been a straightforward legal battle, with an agreed financial settlement at the end has famously become known as the Chevron-Ecuador lawsuit, the biggest case of its kind and arguably the most bitter and drawn-out in the history of environmental law.

Photo Internet reproduction.
Photo Internet reproduction.

Through it all, Steven Donziger has waged a crusade to protect the purity of his clients’ patch of the Amazon rainforest, people he loves and respects, and not incidentally, as is usual, the chance to share in a very substantial payout if the action against Chevron is ultimately successful.

Donziger says he does not see himself as a white knight riding in to save the indigenous of the world but rather as just a lawyer who seeks justice for those unable to obtain it by themselves.

He has certainly paid a heavy price, losing his law license, a spell in prison, and more than 900 days of house arrest wearing an ankle bracelet, all resulting from seemingly trumped-up misdemeanor charges brought by Chevron-affiliated judges. One sense he is not against twisting the giant’s tail.

Is Donziger’s story unique – an activist David pitted against a super wealthy and arrogant Goliath – or is it an outlier in the seemingly endless battle between raw corporate greed and environmental wellbeing?

Donziger reminded me of an article in Intercept,” As Donziger was arguing the case against Chevron in Ecuador back in 2009, the company said its long-term strategy was to ‘demonize him’”.

Since then, Chevron has followed that strategy to the letter, waging an all-out assault, even creating a slick, dedicated propaganda web site just about the case.

It is worth asking if the ‘demonizing’ of an environmental lawyer who sues big oil or big corporate, is a unique punishment earned by Donziger for the giant judgement his team won or a new general marching order for targeted responses to attacks in the big-company corporate playbook?

If this has been an example of the warfare between environmentalists and corporate giants, there is every indication that Chevron and other large corporates will devote huge PR sums to bathe themselves in environmental credentials while aggressively fighting activist efforts to hold them responsible and liable for the damage they cause.

Or better, not make a mess in the first place.

Corporations will fund their legions of lawyers to litigate and litigate, and PR companies to polish and polish their images in an effort not to pay or at least to delay payment of judgements against them.

Is Chevron motivated not merely by fear of adverse judgments but by a desire “to destroy the very idea that indigenous people can bring an environmental lawsuit against an oil company” asks Donziger.

Early on in this avalanche of legal warfare, a Chevron lobbyist in Washington told Newsweek; “We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies like this.”
It’s an attitude problem.

Steven Donziger with Ecuadorian native clients on first day of trial against Chevron in 2011.
Steven Donziger with Ecuadorian native clients on first day of trial against Chevron in 2011. (Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Donziger has grown obsessed by the vast power of his adversary. “No matter what I do, they can outmaneuver me with money,” he complained.

The legal battle has continued in various international courts, with Chevron maintaining its innocence while leaving untreated the hundreds of open pits full of malignant sludge.

With all the trouble Chevron has caused Steven, he is remarkable for not letting self-pity cloud his vision. He says he has never felt better or stronger.

“This goes way beyond me’ he told me. “How does one man get so targeted by an oil company such that he’s being prosecuted by one of their law firms? What does that mean for other advocates?

What does that mean for environmental justice advocates and corporate accountability advocates and lawyers?”

What does it mean for all of us?

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