Nov. 10 marks 25 years since Indigenous and Campesino communities of the Ecuadorean Amazon began an uphill legal battle against the United States-based oil company, Texaco (now Chevron).
Around 30,000 residents of Lago Agrio, in the province of Sucumbios, have waged a relentless fight for justice for over two decades. The odds seem stacked against them.
Texaco, now a subsidiary of Chevron, began drilling for crude oil in the region in 1964. Three years later, the corporation began extracting millions of dollars worth of oil until 1992, when it left Ecuador leaving behind billions of gallons of oil-laced toxic waste.
The damage has been catastrophic. Many residents have died or suffered health issues due to cancer, birth defects, and other pollution-related ailments. In November 1993, the affected people, including settlers and Indigenous Cofanes, Secoyas and Kichwas from the provinces of Orellana and Sucumbios, filed a lawsuit against the company -- first in the U.S. and then in Ecuador in 2003, after the Court of Appeals of New York sent the case to Ecuador under pressure from Chevron.
The complainants accused Chevron-Texaco of contaminating the environment and affecting the health of the people due to the inappropriate disposal of waste during its operations.
“A recent study by Accion Ecologica (Ecological Action) showed that in the areas affected the rate of cancer is three times greater than the national average,” Alexandra Almeida of the environmental organization said in a statement.
During the previous government of President Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s foreign ministry launched the campaign “The Dirty Hand of Chevron,” to raise international awareness on the 1,000 pools of toxic waste which impacted the health and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.
These efforts have not been supported by President Lenin Moreno’s government.
Based on thousands of pages of evidence, Ecuador’s Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling by lower courts in 2011 and ordered Chevron to pay US$9.5 billion in damages and cleanup costs in 2013, but the oil giant refused to comply, dragging out the lengthy court battle.
Since 2015, Steven Donziger, the lawyer leading the case in international courts, has been trying to enforce the Ecuadorean judgment in Argentina, Brazil, and Canada, but has lost these attempts. A Gibraltar court even ruled in favor of Chevron.
In July, 2018 Ecuador’s Constitutional Court rejected Chevron’s request to revise a national court ruling that sentenced it to pay US$9.5 billion in environmental and social reparations to the communities affected during its operations in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Today the victims are fighting against a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The court ruled in favor of Chevron and declared Ecuador guilty of violating a bilateral investment treaty signed with the United States in 1997, withholding justice from the company, and for not providing Chevron with “just and equitable” treatment.
The court also ruled that Ecuador will have to pay economic compensation to the corporation that dumped 16,000,000,000 gallons of toxic wastewater into waterways and open pits in the Ecuadorian Amazon between 1964 and 1992.
“Ecuador doesn’t have to pay for the crimes of a private company … We all know that the system of international arbitration is designed to protect corporations, to favor foreign investments,” said Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer for the affected Indigenous and Campesino communities.