An Ecuadorian court handed down a landmark verdict in an 18-year case against international oil-giant Chevron on February 14.
The company was fined US$8.6 billion for polluting the Amazonian basin, and $900 million in costs.
The case — perhaps the biggest environmental case in history — was filed on behalf of around 30,000 peasants, farmers, and indigenous Ecuadorians who have suffered the ill-effects of Chevron’s toxic legacy.
At the heart of the case is the nearly 20 billion gallons of polluted water, oil and toxic waste released between 1972 and 1990 by oil company Texaco (now a part of Chevron) into the ecosystem in eastern Ecuador.
The pollution has caused thousands of deaths, cancers, birth defects and incalculable environmental damage — poisoning animals, plants and the water table — as well as huge economic loss.
So deadly has the impact been that it has been described as an “Amazonian Chernobyl”. In some affected areas, oil still oozes out of the polluted ground.
Facing criticism, Chevron-Texaco spent $40 million dollars on a “clean-up” of the area in the early 1990s, which has been widely condemned as inadequate. Since then, however, it has denied any responsibility for the disaster, and has sought to derail the case.
The court case was initiated in 1993 in the United Sates. Chevron spent the next 10 years arguing that it should be heard in Ecuador, then renowned for its institutionalised corruption.
Having finally succeeded, it soon found itself up against Ecuador’s left-wing President Rafael Correa, who had pledged to root out corruption.
Seeking to further delay and derail the case, Chevron then tried to play its trump card; it lobbied the United States government to cancel trade deals with Ecuador.
In an August 2008 interview with Newsweek, one of the lobbyists put the company’s position point blank: “We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this.”
Chevron has also run a constant media and legal campaign, trying to demonise the communities, their lawyers, and supporters, and claiming the entire case is an elaborate fraud.
But that is nothing compared with what the locals have suffered at the hands of Chevron’s hired thugs. Activists in the campaign have been bullied, beaten, and some even killed.
Even in defeat, however, Chevron refuses to admit liability, already announcing its intention to not pay the fine. However, if Chevron refuses to publicly apologise for the damage caused within 15 days it will be liable for twice the amount.
The company has already removed almost all its infrastructure and assets from Ecuador — even taking the chairs from its offices — to prevent the government from seizing them.
For their part, the plaintiffs are disappointed with the ruling, believing that the fines and damages awarded are too small. They have announced their intention to appeal.
A court-appointed expert advised reparations of about $27 billion. More recent assessments by the plaintiff’s lawyers estimate the damages at $113 billion.
The judgment may well be too little, too late for communities in the affected region.
Emergildo Criollo, leader of a Cofán tribe in the area who lost two young children due to contaminated water, told the BBC on February 15: “You can’t recover dead people, there is no price for that.
“Our demand is to get enough money to clean up our Amazon.”
Guillermo Grefa, an indigenous Kichwa representative to the Assembly of Affected Communities who brought the case, also told the BBC: “Our pachamama [Mother Earth] is dead … the fine is not going to be enough for us to restore the forest and to fix the damage.
“We will keep on fighting.”