Ecuador: Chevron's 'rainforest Chernobyl' – victims fight for compensation

Pablo Fajardo and Denis Rogatyuk.

It won't come as a surprise to many readers that Chevron is not the most honest or law-abiding company in the world. In Australia, the International Transport Workers Federation has exposed over $35 billion in unpaid tax revenue for its offshore gas operations, while the Maritime Union of Australia has repeatedly protested the company's exploitation of immigrant labour.

Across the world, in Latin America, the company is guilty of a far greater crime – the pollution of vast swathes of Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and devastation of thousands of indigenous and peasant communities in the area. The victims of Chevron have united into the “Union of those affected by the petroleum operations of Texaco-Chevron”, who have been fighting one of the longest-running legal cases for justice and compensation since 1993. Chevron bought out Texaco in 2001, thus assuming responsibility for its 28-year history of operations in the country.

One of the leaders is Pablo Fajardo – a humble 42-year old lawyer of Cofán descent who grew up in the contaminated region and is now representing 30,000 victims of the oil giant's operations. The company has repeatedly accused him of dishonesty and greed in its publicity campaigns.

Green Left Weekly's Denis Rogatyuk spoke with Fajardo in his office in Quito, Ecuador, about the latest developments surrounding the legal case.

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The pollution caused by Chevron-Texaco operations in the Ecuadorean Amazon has been called the “Rainforest Chernobyl”. How big is the contamination and how many indigenous communities are affected by it?

I think that the pollution of Chevron in Ecuador can be compared with the Chernobyl catastrophe, as well as the Exxon Mobil and BP disasters. The polluted area covers about 500,000 hectares of rainforest and the effects are continuing to this day.

This pollution has been done intentionally by Chevron. This is important because the cases of Exxon Mobil and BP were genuine accidents. But for 26 years, Chevron-Texaco has intentionally polluted the Amazon through its drilling operations, as well as disposing of chemical waste in the surrounding rivers and forest areas.

Before the arrival of Chevron operations in the area, six distinct indigenous groups were living in the area. Only four of them have survived, while the other two have disappeared.

There are also several thousand peasants and other indigenous groups that live in the area. There are a grand total of 30,000 victims.

The campaign to bring Chevron to justice has been running since 1993. Could you briefly tell us about the most prominent stages in this campaign?

Chevron's pollution was environmental, but also social, cultural and economic. We began the process of class action in New York in 1993, seeking to bring justice for the victims and make Chevron pay for the pollution caused in the Amazon.

In its defence, Chevron did two things. First, it tried to strike a deal with Ecuador's neoliberal government. Second, it tried to transfer the case to Ecuador and not allow it to remain in the US.

They tried to convince judges in the US that the case was invalid in their courts and needed to be transferred to Ecuador.

After nine years of legal action in New York, Chevron convinced the New York judges and in 2002, the case was transferred to Ecuador.

In Ecuador, Chevron changed its strategy and pressured Ecuador's judges to abandon the case. In response, victims of the pollution organised mass demonstrations.

The company began a sustained assault against the Ecuadorian government and people. It applied economic and political pressure, as well as media campaigns and arbitration cases filed against the government.

These attempts proved futile. As a result, Chevron has decided to focus its attention on attacking the victims themselves. For five years, they waged a huge media campaign aiming to portray Chevron as the victim and those affected by the pollution as criminals.

The 30,000 victims are organised within one group called the “Union of People Affected by Texaco-Chevron”. It includes five indigenous groups who reside in the Oriente region and several peasant groups also affected. The united group takes all the legal and political decision with regards to the case.

This battle has been waged for 22 years and 2 months, and is not only one of the most important trials in the world, but also the important battle of the indigenous people of the world.

After nine years of legal battle in Ecuador, we gathered more than 80,000 samples of contamination in water, earth and atmosphere. At the same time, 106 expert reports were released showing severe contamination caused by Texaco.

With all this evidence, Ecuadorian judges ruled in 2011 that Chevron had to pay $9.5 billion in reparations. Chevron appealed the sentence in Ecuador's Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling. Ironically, the court that ruled against Chevron was the same court in which it demanded the legal case take place.

However, the ruling cannot be executed in Ecuador, as Chevron has no assets in the country. Hence, we have to wage the legal case in other countries to acquire the compensation.

There has recently been a significant development in Canada, where Chevron faces litigation in the country's Supreme Court.

In 2012, we filed legal actions in Brazil, Argentina and Canada. In Canada, we have made many advances. Chevron wanted to prove that the Canadian judges are incompetent in this matter and that the victims had no right to sue Chevron for their assets in Canada.

After three years of legal battle, on September 4 last year, all seven judges of the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously decided to uphold the Ecuadorian peoples' right to seek compensation from Chevron in Canada.

This takes us to the fourth legal action by Texaco-Chevron [to overturn the ruling]. We have a lot of chances to win this trial.

The only problem that we have is the economic part of the litigation. In the 22 years of legal action, Chevron has sued the victims and their defenders and applied severe economic pressure in order to cut off any financial resources for the legal case. Chevron's logic is that without any money, we would be forced to abandon the case. We have proved them wrong.

What makes the ruling in Canada so important is the fact that Chevron has investments worth $15 billion in the country. Moreover, the Canadian justice system has one of the highest levels of transparency in the world.

In this way, the result of the trial could also have consequences for potential trials in other countries, such as Australia where Chevron has significant investments and commits severe tax evasion and fraud.

Could you tell us what kind of social and political movements you are working with in Ecuador and elsewhere?

We are aware that the battle of 30,000 indigenous people and peasants against Chevron is impossible to wage alone. This is why for many years we have tried to build solidarity with similar groups and campaigns around the world.

Here in Ecuador, we have a coalition of supporting organisations, such as the indigenous group CONAIE, as well as a number of social, environmental, human rights organisations, trade unions and women's collectives.

In the US, a whole range of networks have provided their support for the legal case, such as Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action, Amnesty International, as well as indigenous rights groups. In the past two years, we have also built up a network of support in Europe.

At the moment, we are building a network of all the victims of Chevron across the world. We are looking to Australia and New Zealand to enrich that network.

The Ecuadorian government has also been running a legal case against Chevron for compensation. Is there a relationship between the two campaigns? Do the government's efforts assist you in any way?

The main battle for justice was begun by the people most affected by the crimes of Chevron. Historically, the company has had a strong alliance with Ecuador's neoliberal governments, which was one of the reasons why the company decided to file the case within the country.

In recent years, Chevron has waged a protracted economic, legal and media campaign against the government of Rafael Correa [who came to power in 2007 on an anti-neoliberal platform]. In its arbitration actions, the company is demanding that the Ecuadorian government pay the $9.5 billion in compensation to the victims.

The government reacted by launching the “Dirty Hand of Chevron” campaign. As such, the government's campaign is focused primarily on fighting the arbitration trials and the media campaign waged by Chevron.

It has no connection to the campaign of the victims. Only the victims wage the trial itself, and the government plays no part in that.

Chevron has targeted yourself and leaders of the battle for compensation with a media smear campaign. It claims the legal case itself is fraudulent, and that you are set to make $150 million if the judgement is enforced. How do you respond to these kind of allegations?

This is nothing new. It has been targeting the victims with legal cases like the “Rico trial” in the US, where they accused the victims of corrupting judges and Ecuador's government to receive money.

In recent years, Chevron has attacked individuals who have been supporting the struggle. It believed that by smearing the leaders of the campaign, this would discourage others from joining in.

This strategy is doomed to fail, since there are 30,000 well-organised victims who would continue fighting without me being part of the campaign. As for myself, I do not want one cent of the compensation money.

The whole point of the campaign is to allocate money for the reparation of the Amazon forest and compensation for the communities. Chevron can accuse me of anything — neither I nor the other leaders will be dissuaded from our mission.

What can Australians do to support this campaign?

It would be helpful to exchange information and experiences among trade unions, environmental and indigenous groups about fighting Chevron from several angles.

Most Australians are unaware of the crimes of Chevron outside their country. I think the Australian people need to know what Chevron has done in Ecuador, and the battle for justice that is being waged.

We would like to build networks between the affected people around the world. Together, we can work against Chevron and bring it to justice for its economic, social and environmental crimes.
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