- Chevron oil caused a massive pollution disaster in the Ecuadorean Amazon by dumping waste oil from its wells from 1964-1992.
- The company deployed all its efforts to escape legal liability, but was eventually fined $9.5bn by an Ecuadorean court.
- Since then Chevron has not paid its fine and, instead, switched tack to sue, indict and destroy the careers of lawyers who acted on behalf of Ecuador and the communities affected.
- Number one target has been US lawyer Steven Donziger, still under house arrest at home on trumped up charges.
- This article brings up-to-date the series of articles LAB published by Linda Etchart in 2018. You can read the earlier pieces here: No1, No2, No3.
The sad history of Chevron’s Ecuador pollution disaster is dominated by a recurring narrative: individuals suffer daily harms while Chevron’s executives and lawyers enrich themselves and invent new ways to delay, derail, or even delegitimize the survivors’ fight for justice. Since the 1960s, indigenous and farmer communities in the Amazon have been exposed on a daily basis to deadly toxins from deliberate contamination. Decades after the poisoning of their environment began, multiple court cases in a variety of countries have not brought those communities a single step closer to a cleanup — nor has any corporation or nation come forward to provide them with health care.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Steven Donziger, a key lawyer who has spent the better part of his life fighting Chevron in this case, remains on house arrest for the 960th day – a punishment determined to be illegal and a human rights violation by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention under the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It’s an established fact that, while operating under its Texaco brand, Chevron deliberately dumped over 16 billion gallons of toxic oil wastewater into the Ecuadorian Amazon from 1964 to 1992. In 2011, Chevron was found liable for $9.5 billion by an Ecuadorian court in a judgment based largely on the oil company’s own evidence.
Hundreds had already died from cancer and other illnesses at that point. Eleven years later, Chevron has yet to pay a single dime to clean up, but has given hundreds of millions to its lawyers. After removing all assets from Ecuador, Chevron refused to pay the judgment and vowed instead to fight ‘until hell freezes over and then fight it out of the ice.’
Since then the oil company has waged an all-out legal war against the Ecuadorians, their lawyers, and many of their critics. While this battle rages on, Chevron continues to refine and profit from oil from the Amazon, their lawyers at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher (GDC) get richer, and the Ecuadorians remain exposed to Chevron’s oil waste pits – almost 1,000 of them. It would be a struggle for anyone to find a better example of judicial impotence in the face of corporate power.
The power of the SLAPP suit
Chevron’s key strategy to escape paying the Ecuadorian judgment was to find a way to prevent enforcement in the US. It did this by bringing a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit against Steven Donziger and some of the Ecuadorians, by using the RICO Act – a part of US law introduced to target mafia bosses and money laundering. Emails have revealed that Chevron’s legal strategy since 2009 has been to ‘demonize Donziger,’ and it has made good on that promise.
Because the evidence against Chevron in Ecuador is so damning, the company’s retaliatory racketeering suit against Donziger needed to exclude such evidence and focus only on its allegations of bribery and ghostwriting. A key witness for Chevron, Alberto Guerra, was paid $2 million in cash and benefits to provide the only ‘evidence’ of fraud. He later recanted key elements of his testimony and admitted to lying specifically to get a bigger payout from Chevron.
Despite that admission by Guerra and his obviously false testimony, Chevron won its RICO suit and was insulated from enforcement in the US. Yet the oil major and its unscrupulous lawyers at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher were not satisfied with that victory. They sought to permanently crush and discredit Donziger to prevent him from helping the Ecuadorians enforce their judgment outside the US, and eliminate the risk that others might try to follow in his footsteps.
So they demanded US Judge Lewis Kaplan, the same judge who had already permitted the testimony of Guerra, hold Donziger in contempt unless he turned over his computer, cell phone, and email passwords to Chevron. Donziger lawfully resisted and appealed the court orders, and for his effort was charged criminally with contempt of court.
When the federal prosecutors in New York refused to prosecute the case, Judge Kaplan employed an obscure rule that allowed him to appoint a private prosecutor to go after Donziger instead – and Kaplan chose a prosecutor with direct ties to Chevron and the oil industry. The obvious conflict of interest was of no concern to the judge whom Kaplan also hand-picked to hear the case, Loretta Preska.
Preska held Donziger on house-arrest pre-trial, convicted him of contempt, and sentenced him to the maximum sentence of six months in prison. Thankfully, Donziger only served 45 days in prison and was allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence on house arrest due to the Covid-19 pandemic. When his sentence ends in April, Donziger will have been confined for 993 days. Prior to this case, the longest sentence ever imposed on a US lawyer for criminal contempt was 90 days house arrest.
Judicial abuse fuels international outrage
During this period, public outrage grew as the attacks on Donziger forced many to take a new look at the case for justice in Ecuador, which had appeared dead after Chevron’s RICO victory. First, a few members of the European Parliament wrote to their counterparts in the US Congress asking for an investigation into Donziger’s confinement. The momentum quickly grew to include 68 Nobel Laureates, eleven US Representatives, two US Senators, dozens of artists and celebrities, and the world’s largest human rights and environmental organizations, including Amnesty International and Greenpeace, all demanding Donziger’s release and an investigation into the blatant judicial abuse and retaliation against a human rights lawyer fighting for the rights of those harmed by the deliberate acts of one of the most powerful corporations in the world.
Despite the massive global movement and influential voices demanding justice for Donziger, US President Biden has remained completely silent. The Justice Department has so far ignored letters from Congress, and the State Department has not responded to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Even the Administrative Office of US Courts ignored a direct request from US Senators to respond to questions about the unusual judicial process in the criminal contempt of court case against Donziger. But the Biden administration’s effort to bury its head in the sand hasn’t hindered the growing movement to hold Chevron accountable. It has achieved the opposite.
This month an international campaign led by Amnesty International and signed by over 100 organizations called on Biden to pardon Donziger. New campaigns have been launched exposing the actions of Chevon’s law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher as a firm abetting ‘human rights violations by multinational corporations the world over’, and a nationwide group called Law Students for Climate Accountability have organized a ‘Done with Dunn’ boycott campaign against the firm, with protests in March at GDC offices in San Francisco, New York, and Washington DC. Over 200 organizations recently signed a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee asking it to block the nomination of GDC partner Jennifer Rearden to the federal bench.
In October 2021 the Oversight Committee of the US House of Representatives held a hearing grilling several oil company CEOs, including Mike Wirth of Chevron. congressman Rashida Tlaib introduced a new report entitled ‘Chevron’s Global Destruction‘ into the Congressional Record, detailing over $50 billion Chevron owes to communities it has harmed globally and governments whose laws it has violated. Congress directly named Chevron’s routine practice of environmental destruction, human rights violations, and legal attacks when Tlaib challenged Wirth asking him when he was going to ‘write the check’ to pay for the harm his company has done around the world. Since that hearing, Wirth has refused to respond to follow-up questions and will likely face tough shareholder questions at the Annual General Meeting in late May, as these facts are detailed in one of many shareholder resolutions challenging management.
Donziger has paid a price: bank accounts frozen, law license unfairly stripped from him, 960 days of house arrest, and 45 days in prison. But for that price, Chevron has lost its multi-million dollar PR battle pretending that the Ecuador case was ‘a fraud.’ The extreme persecution and demonization of Donziger has exposed the clear evidence of Chevron’s scheming and renewed calls for justice in Ecuador, including demands to end the obvious judicial and governmental corruption that has allowed Chevron to escape justice. Chevron’s legal strategy, once called ‘a new playbook to go after corporate gadflies’ by the pro-corporate Americans for Tort Reform, is actually a blueprint for institutionalized environmental racism that invalidates the rights of communities of color and exposes the extreme depths of the corporate power which has captured the courts and silenced the White House.
In a few weeks, Steven Donziger will walk into a US correctional facility and officials will remove his ankle bracelet, but that will not be the end of his persecution, nor the end of the fight for justice in Ecuador. Since his confinement, the list of allies to the people of Ecuador has grown exponentially.
As Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said after Donziger’s arrest: ‘That an internationally respected human rights lawyer sits in prison right now while Chevron avoids billions in judgments for intentionally destroying the rainforest is an outrage that highlights just how critical our fight against corporate greed is to our future.’ Activism for the climate and for Indigenous rights is sorely needed, as the world experiences escalating climate chaos. But our collective future is in the hands of the people Chevron tries to silence.
Paul Paz y Miño is Associate Director at Amazon Watch and has worked closely on the campaign for justice for Ecuador for 15 years.