Culture

Brad Pitt, Chevron and a Small Nation’s Battle for Environmental Justice

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has started the ‘Chevron’s Dirty Hands’ campaign to draw attention to a disaster that the giant oil company refuses to pay for

As part of the 'Chevron 's dirty hand' campaign, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa holds up his oil-covered hand during a September 2013 visit to the Aguarico 4 well. The oil is part of the toxic waste left behind after oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Credit: Cancilleria Ecuador. CC by SA-2.0.

As part of the ‘Chevron ‘s dirty hand’ campaign, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa holds up his oil-covered hand during a September 2013 visit to the Aguarico 4 well. The oil is part of the toxic waste left behind after oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Credit: Cancilleria Ecuador, CC-BY-SA 2.0

What does the President of a small and impoverished nation do against the global influence of a Hollywood star? Take to Twitter, of course. That is exactly what Rafael Correa of Ecuador did recently, reaching out to Brad Pitt with the hash tag #BradDoTheRightThing after the latter’s production company, Plan B, bought the rights of a book presumably to make it into a film. George Clooney was the other bidder.

The book, The Law of the Jungle, by an American business reporter, Paul Barrett, takes potshots at fellow American Steven Donziger, a lawyer representing 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians in a class-action lawsuit against the oil giant Chevron over one of the world’s worst oil-related environmental disasters.

Between 1964, when Texaco started prospecting and then producing oil in a remote Amazonian forest in Ecuador, and 1992, when it left the country, about 680,000 barrels of crude oil were spilled overground. An estimated 16 billion gallons of toxic water used in oil prospecting and production were dumped into unlined shallow pits.

There are almost a thousand of these pits, many of them the size of football fields. This carcinogenic liquid seeped into water streams and rivers, destroying an area the size of Rhode Island and threatening the survival of ancient indigenous people. With unintended foresight the first oil field was baptised as ‘Bitter Lake’ (Lago Agrio)

Technology existed at the time to avoid this ecocide. The “formation water” used in drilling is re-injected into deep pits in the United States to prevent it from polluting the water table. Texaco apparently decided against it as it involved spending around $4 billion. Laws in Ecuador were lax at that time and the company had powerful friends among the ruling military junta.

Environmental activists have labelled the Ecuadorian oil spill as the “Rainforest Chernobyl”. It is 30 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spillage off the Alaska coast and even bigger than the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Louisiana coast, for which British Petroleum (BP) had to spend more than $26 billion on compensation and clean-up.

Without alternative water sources, the locals have to bathe in the polluted rivers and drink the poisoned waters. Childhood leukaemia rates are four times the national average and miscarriage levels are significantly higher in the region. As they breathe the vapours in the air from the pits, they also suffer from endemic skin and lung problems.

In 1993, thirty thousand rainforest dwellers organised themselves for a lawsuit in a New York court, helped by Donziger, who had earned a law degree from Harvard and played basketball alongside Barack Obama. Chevron took over Texaco in 2001 and called for the case to be heard in Ecuador. A U.S. court agreed and in 2003 the trial was returned to the Latin American nation, but the outcome was not one the company had expected. In 2011, an Ecuadorian lower court judge ordered Chevron to pay $19 billion towards clearing-up costs and damages. Ecuador’s Supreme Court upheld the judgment but halved the amount.

By that time, Chevron had no assets in Ecuador. Although it had praised the Ecuadorian justice system in the past, it claimed in 2013 that the Ecuadorian judgment was the result of corruption and applied for the trial to be moved back to New York. It  counter-attacked with RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, used more commonly against mobsters and drug-dealing biker gangs. Rico in Spanish signifies rich man.

The company claimed that Donziger’s team had bribed the lower court judge to ghostwrite the judgment. The company’s sole testimony came from an Ecuadorian judge who himself admitted to corrupt dealings in the past. He was shifted to the United States by Chevron and maintained there — house, car, monthly stipend and all — by the company. Forensic computer tests have since found that the judge had written the ruling on his own computer and no foreign material was introduced, as Chevron had claimed.

In March 2014, a U.S. judge struck down the Ecuadorian ruling, saying it was an attempt at extorting and defrauding Chevron because of its deep pockets. He ruled that no money could be obtained in U.S. territory from Chevron. The company was allowed access to Donziger’s personal diary and his email correspondence. In return, Chevron did not have to share any of its private information with the plaintiffs.

When the court ordered Joe Berlinger, who had made a sympathetic documentary on the issue in 2009, to hand over 600 hours of outtake to Chevron, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Associated Press submitted an amicus brief to the court against the ruling. The same judge dismissed these concerns. The oil giant is now suing Donziger for the costs of the RICO trial and is even seeking damages from the Ecuadorian government at an international tribunal for allowing the original trial to go ahead.

It has been an unequal struggle. Chevron’s lawyers have promised to keep up with the lawsuits “until Hell freezes over, and then… fight it out on the ice” and not to let “little countries screw around with big companies like this”. It is said to have employed some 2,000 lawyers and legal assistants and 150 investigators while the other side often has had to fall back on volunteers. The oil giant has gone after five different lawyers representing the Ecuadorians, three of their funders, a scientific consultancy firm and now the rainforest dwellers.

As more of the original plaintiffs keep dying while the trial drags out for more than two decades, other multinational companies are looking with interest at Chevron’s scorched earth legal strategy. The judgment raises serious questions if victims of any future environmental disaster will have legal means of challenging multinational corporations based in the United States.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) deals being negotiated in secret will make it even less possible for national governments, let alone individuals or social groups, to hold the global corporations to account. It also threatens to destroy the First Amendment constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.

Brad Pitt seen here in this 2012 photo visiting one of the areas contaminated by Chevron in Ecuador. Photo: El Telegrafo

Brad Pitt seen here in this 2012 photo visiting one of the areas contaminated by Chevron in Ecuador. Photo: El Telegrafo

President Correa has started the ‘Chevron’s Dirty Hands’ international campaign to draw attention to this neglected environmental disaster. He has gained wide support on the continent, from environmentalists as also OPEC and from Hollywood celebrities such as Mia Farrow. Brad Pitt and his wife Angelina Jolie saw the scale of the disaster when they visited Ecuador in 2012 but whether they will, or can, reflect it on screen should they make the film is quite another question.

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