By: Nadashree M.K.
Many may not be familiar with the person Steven Donziger but his fight for a long period for the indigenous people of Ecuador against corporate giant Chevron is something that we must not let slip from our minds. So, how did this all start?
A Long Battle
How long can someone fight a legal battle? A few weeks or months. Steven R. Donziger- an American advocate and lawyer of indigenous rights, human rights and corporate accountability is fighting a legal battle against Chevron– a multinational American energy corporation for more than 25 years. The case against Chevron was brought to Donziger by the indigenous people and farmers of the Latin American country Ecuador. The case grabbed public attention when Chevron polluted the Ecuadorian Amazon with a huge amount of oil and pollutants. The dumping of large volumes of toxic wastes in the Amazon led to mass displacement, leaving people dying and suffering from fatal diseases, also affecting the growth of children.
Foam appeared in Amazon river due to pollution (Image source: iStock)
While Chevron took the responsibility of the “Amazon Chernobyl”- dumping gallons of oil and hazardous substances to the ecosystem, they refused to take legal responsibility for the issue and also blamed PetroEcuador- the Ecuadorian public oil company for the contamination. With limited resources, fighting against a hulk-like Chevron by the Ecuadorian indigenous people was not an easy task. In 1993, thousands of villagers of the affected region filed a class-action lawsuit, led by Steven Donziger.
The same year, Donziger along with other attorneys filed a lawsuit against Chevron, representing tens and thousands of people of Ecuador. Since the company is based in the USA, the case was filed in New York. Things started to get an interesting turn which was a surprise for Chevron. The judges were sympathetic towards Ecuadorians and their land which are historically exploited for corporate benefits. Plaintiffs hoped for something positive when Raphael Correa, a left-wing economist became the president of Ecuador in 2006. When Correa visited regions affected by pollution, he openly demanded that both Chevron and PetroEcuador be accountable for the plight.
Being the frontrunner of the “Amazon Chernobyl” case, Donziger helped the indigenous community to win the case against Chevron. According to Donziger, the illegal dumping of waste helped Chevron to save billions of dollars in operating costs. In the investigation, it was found that Chevron created damages worth $27 billion. Finally, in 2011, an Ecuadorian court asked the company to pay an amount of $9.5 billion for the damages created. Chevron immediately pulled out its all assets from Ecuador and left the country from facing enforcement. The company has yet to pay the amount to the plaintiffs.
The South American continent is unique and diverse in many ways. Being a land of vast diverse biodiversity and rich resources, particularly the Amazon, the region is vulnerable to the exploitation of international corporate companies. Chevron is just one among them. Due to the increased exploitation of its ecosystem, advocates have been demanding environmental rights in the region. South America is one of the dangerous places in the world for environmental advocates and rights activists. Recently, the continent has seen a drastic surge in wildfires and extreme weather conditions. The foremost reason is the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which covers eight countries of South America.
Wildfire engulfing Amazon rainforest (Image source: iStock)
Though Brazil- the country with the largest Amazon rainforest cover was able to limit the spread of wildfire in the 2000s, recent development projects in the rainforest region increased the risk. In 2020, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia witnessed the most destructive and furious wildfire. The environmental crisis not only killed species but also led to the displacement of indigenous people and massive pollution. Followed by the wildfire, Paraguay and Bolivia announced a state of emergency due to the worst pollution and drastic temperature rise.
Vast areas of Amazon are being cleared for large development projects such as hydroelectric power, mining, agriculture and even cattle rearing, as well as illegal marijuana cultivation. Due to high global demand, production of palm oil has accelerated, failing the sustainable standards and possessing a high-level threat to the ecosystem. In 2016, an African palm oil corporation, Empresa Reforestadora de Palma de Petén SA (REPSA) was accused of grave human rights violation, ruling it as a revolutionary ‘ecocide’ case. It is predicted that in the coming years, the momentum and intensity of damage caused by wildfires in the region would be extensive.
As the Fight Continues…
Now you might have got a picture of how undefended Amazon is and how crucial was the legal battle between Chevron and Donziger. A total of 150 judges from Ecuador, Canada and the USA were part of the case, but it took eight years to come to a final verdict. Rather than settling the case immediately, Chevron dragged the case for several years. The company soon launched a counterattack on Donziger and the indigenous community by violating the rule of law. In a little while, Donziger was designated as an “immediate threat” to the state. In July 2021, Donziger was found guilty of criminal contempt of court based on a case filed by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, New York on 31 July 2019, blaming him for fabricating evidence against Chevron. Donziger surrendered himself in October last year and was placed under house arrest for six months.
The arrest of Donziger does not erase the fact about corporate exploitation of vulnerable regions, especially the global south. The victory of indigenous people in the Chevron case is an inspiration for others facing similar risks from the corporations to launch successful campaigns to protect their rights and land.
Steven Donziger (Image source: The Intercept)