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The Rights of Nature and of Companies: Ecuador’s battle with Chevron to restore the polluted rainforest and its inhabitants

June 18, 2015

Is oil thicker than water? The Chevron-Ecuador conflict spans several decades, continents, and court cases. At first glance it seems to follow the familiar narrative of a small country exploited by a big foreign company, but neither party adheres to stay within these lines (or those of the law), and with legal, political, social, environmental, and corporate forces all at play, the issue has long-term ramifications for constitutional and legal precedents. 

By Gleeson Ryan, C’17 and W’17

The root of this complex series of events is found in a northern province of the Ecuadorian Amazon called Sucumbios, near the city of Lago Agrio. This region of Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and home to over 30,000 indigenous people. There, the American firm Texaco (now Chevron) drilled for oil between 1964 and 1990. The devastation the drilling caused in this region was enormous; when Texaco finished drilling, they simply abandoned the site, leaving pits of hazardous waste exposed and uninsulated, allowing crude oil and toxic waste to leak into the ground and water supply. Waste water was dumped into rivers rather than injected back into the ground. These practices were not only unsafe, but outdated and illegal and produced severe health consequences for nearby groups. Indigenous Lago Agrio inhabitants have continued to suffer rates of mouth, stomach, and uterine cancer many times the national average rate, and the ingestion of oil byproducts has made birth defects and miscarriages extremely common. Traditional lifestyles are also threatened, by the high death toll and low productivity rate on affected livestock.

Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, demonstrates the level of contamination in the province of Sucumbios.

 Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, demonstrates the level of contamination in the province of Sucumbios.

The oil company did in fact perform a half-hearted cleanup operation: Texaco used this to negotiate its exit from the country, in exchange for a formal release of liabilities from the Ecuadorian government. When Ecuador realized that Texaco had done little more than shovel dirt over the waste dumps, there was nothing it could do.

Thus, a group of individuals, had to bring the case to the US federal court in 1993. A group of Lago Agrio Plaintiffs (LAPs), made up of community representatives, began Aguinda v. Texaco in New York. In 2002, the case was dismissed and sent to Ecuadorian courts on a ruling that Ecuador was a more appropriate venue to have the suit.[1] In 2011, as part of an unprecedented victory, the Ecuadorian judge ordered Chevron to pay $8.6 billion in damages (small compared to the 27 billion some experts recommended[2]), with the sum doubled unless Chevron issued a public apology. This victory has been cited by many as a victory for indigenous rights and “Rights of Nature,” a new concept currently present in the Ecuadorian constitution.

Chevron appealed this verdict and began a series of evasive maneuvers by avoiding ownership of the issue, drawing out the legal process, and beginning a public relations campaign. From here, the case snowballed out of proportion, with both sides continuously bringing new evidence and accusations to the table. In order to draw out the legal process, Chevron appealed several court decisions, brought the case to international courts, and accused the LAPs of bribery, racketeering, and extortion.[3] When they demanded that the country of Ecuador pay 9.5 billion in moral damages and lost, they accused Ecuador of corruption and excessive involvement in the legal system. Much of the evidence they provided for this was itself, obtained illegally.[4] They also launched an extensive campaign to lessen the credibility of their opponents, and spent over 200 million on lobbying, political contributions, and donations to think tanks as part of an effort to change perceptions of Ecuador: mostly as an uninfluential, corrupt, socialist country.[5] Chevron even reportedly lobbied the US Government to end trade preferences with Ecuador.[6]

Losses in New York and in an international arbitration court at the Hague were hurtful to the LAPs’ cause. Unable to continue the suit in the Ecuadorian courts because of corruption charges, they took the case to other countries to seize assets held by Chevron there, up to the amount owed them. Brazilian courts were unable to complete the case because of the evidence presented by Chevron about the corruption in the Ecuadorian courts, and in Argentina, the LAPs simply lost the case. Currently, the case is being fought in Canada. If successful, the LAPs will be able to seize Chevron’s property in Canada up to the value owed them to repair the rainforest.

One of the most interesting aspects of this case is the Ecuadorian Rights of Nature. According to the Constitution of 2008, “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”[7] The fact that nature must be defended legally is a unique and original concept that changes nature’s relationship with humans, making it a productive entity rather than a possession. For Ecuador, this is a good first step away from an extractive economy. However, this provision also gives the government more control over the land than the individuals who live there, and this is a concern especially for indigenous people.

Perhaps the saddest part of this battle is what has not been done. Much of the damaged territory has not been cleaned up since it is still evidence for the trial. Chevron has been recorded saying “We’re going to fight this until hell freezes over, and then we’ll fight it out on the ice.”[8] As the case is ongoing in Ontario, there is still a possibility that this precious rainforest region and its inhabitants can be saved. With success, Rights of Nature will be proven to be feasible and enforceable.

  [1] “Foreign Corporate Immunity: Chevron/Canada against Ecuador.” Alphabetics. 10 Feb. 2012. Web. 16 June 2015. http://www.alphabetics.info/international/tag/chevrons-oil-pollution-of-ecuadorean-amazon.

  [2] Ibid

  [3] “Ecuador Lawsuit.” Chevron.com. Web. 16 June 2015. http://www.chevron.com/ecuador.

  [4] Romero, Simon, and Clifford Knaus. “Chevron Offers Evidence of Bribery Scheme in Ecuador Lawsuit.” New York Times. 31 Aug. 2009. Web. 15 June 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/world/americas/01ecuador.html?_r=1.

  [5] “Chevron, Ecuador and a Clash of Cultures.” Los Angeles Times. 29 Aug. 2009. Web. 16 June 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/aug/29/opinion/ed-chevron29.

  [6] “Foreign Corporate Immunity: Chevron/Canada against Ecuador.” Alphabetics. 10 Feb. 2012. Web. 16 June 2015. http://www.alphabetics.info/international/tag/chevrons-oil-pollution-of-ecuadorean-amazon.

  [7] “The Rights of Nature Articles in Ecuador’s Constitution.” The Rights of Nature. Web. 16 June 2015. http://therightsofnature.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/Rights-for-Nature-Articles-in-Ecuadors-Constitution.pdf.


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