British based oil traders Trafigura were catapulted into the limelight when their legal minions Carter Ruck spectacularly mismanaged their reputation by trying to gag press coverage of their gross environmental crimes in western Africa. If it wasn't for Carter Ruck's ineptitude, few people would know who Trafigura are, let alone what they've been up to in the Ivory Coast.
What even fewer people will know, in the UK at least, is that Trafigura is far from an isolated incident. On the other side of the world, Chevron-Texaco are being hauled through an Ecuadorian court where they face a $27 billion damages lawsuit for dumping toxic waste in the Amazon rainforest.
The charges relate to the activity of the Texaco oil company which operated in the Oriente (the Ecuadorian Amazon) between 1964 and 1992. During its 28 year tenure, the American oil company dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water into the local ecosystem as well as 17 million gallons of crude oil in cost cutting procedures outlawed in both the US and Ecuador. As if this wasn't enough, the landscape was also scarred by hundreds of open pits full of toxic waste which leached into the water table.
This should hardly come as a surprise. Larry Summers, director of President Obama's National Economic Council, once said: "the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable".
This economic logic, applied to Ecuador, brought with it an environmental catastrophe described as the "Rainforest Chernobyl" for polluting the fragile water system of the Oriente that thousands of people rely on daily for drinking, cooking, fishing and bathing. Stories abound of cancers, birth defects and miscarriages, with studies ascribing 1401 excess cancer deaths to the oil based pollutants.
One woman from Sacha describes the living conditions:
"We lived in a house about 20 yards away from an oil well. Another Texaco oil well was upstream from where we got our drinking water, and the water was usually oily with a yellowish foam. I had 11 children. I lost Pedro when he was 19.... He had three cancerous tumors: in his lungs, liver, and his leg.”
Another man, Manuel Salinas, has a home close to one of the open pits. He told the Chevron in Ecuador blog:
“I bought this land 25 years ago, without knowing what was beneath the surface. I started to clear away the trees and brush to grow coffee and fruit trees, because this was how I had planned to make a living. But then I discovered what I thought was a huge swamp and could only plant a few trees around it.
“We were unable to farm the land. We were unable to get clean water. We slid into poverty. But we had no choice but to continue drinking from the contaminated well. For a while, we had nothing, ni agua [not even water].”
Texaco began to cede control of the oil fields to Ecuador's state oil company, Petroecuador, in 1990 and finally ceased operations in the country in 1992. The following year the first lawsuit was filed against Texaco in New York, the state in which they're headquartered. For nine years Texaco petitioned to have the case heard in Ecuador, filing numerous affidavits praising the country's judicial system. (Remember this bit, it's important)
In 2001, Chevron bought Texaco and a year later the request for the case to be heard in Ecuador was granted, under the stipulation that any ruling against Chevron-Texaco would be enforceable in the US. In 2003, the current lawsuit was filed, with the support of some thirty thousand indigenous and campesino peoples and the arduous task of collating physical evidence and written testimony began as other multinationals watched with baited breath. Chevron could be the first US company to be ruled against by a foreign court, with implications for other unscrupulous big businesses around the world.
In 2008, an independent court-appointed expert estimated that Chevron could be liable for damages of up to $16.3 billion to pay for the clean up operation. Texaco had previously made a token effort to clean up their mess in the early 90’s, but this amounted to no more than $40 million. In November 2008, the reparations figure was revised to $27 billion in light of further scientific evidence. Chevron don't dispute the damage they have caused to the rainforest but still they try to squirm out of financial responsibility, which is hardly surprising when you consider the legal bill could cost them 20% of their market value.
As it became apparent they were going to get spanked in the courts, Chevron resorted to public relations campaigns to discredit and smear the litigators and judicial process and have asked for the case to be heard by a secret international tribunal closed to indigenous groups. This very same judiciary that received so much praise before is now painted as corrupt and under pressure from the executive branch of the government. PR firms employed to discredit the courts include Edelman, who were targeted by naked Climate Camp activists this summer for their role in E.on greenwash.
Chevron's latest defensive spasm was to reveal a secretly filmed video purportedly showing an Ecuadorian government official discussing a $3 million bribe to secure the sale of clean-up contracts to an American businessman and Ecuadorian contractor. Clearly, this questions Ecuador's credibility, however, major doubts have emerged over the video, including allegations by newspapers that the government official is actually a car salesman with no influence in authority. Also casting doubt over the veracity of the video is the accusation that the Ecuadorian contractor in the video previously worked for Chevron.
The oil giant's wretched wriggling goes on and their efforts are too numerous to list here. Perhaps most chilling was their lobbyists' efforts to get the US Trade Representative to restrict certain trade privileges for Ecuador. One lobbyist revealed some of the sentiment behind Chevron's case when he said: "The ultimate issue here is Ecuador has mistreated a US company. We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this - companies that have made big investments around the world."
It's no wonder multinationals across the globe are interested in the outcome, due by next year, which could signal a shift in the accommodation of their thinly disguised and rampant colonialism that cares not one iota for the local people and their environment as long as a quick buck is to be made.
Chevron, in all their disgustingly brazen honesty, have said they won't pay should the Ecuadorian judge rule against them, an increasingly likely scenario. According to an American lawyer advising the plaintiffs: "This could end up being one of the biggest forced asset seizures in history and it could have a significant disruptive impact on the company’s operations." This would be a truly pathetic and pitiful end to a saga that has dragged on for years whilst thousands suffer from the devastation wrought by Chevron-Toxico, a company no less foul and venal than Trafigura.
For more information, visit the ChevronToxico and Amazon Watch campaign websites.