It took 17 years, but justice has finally come for the thousands of Ecuadoreans affected by contamination left behind by Chevron. “I can now dream of drinking clean water, water with no oil residue, and that the earth will begin to clean and heal,” said Guillermo Grefa, a Kichwa representative to the Assembly of Affected Communities.
His excitement was prompted by a landmark decision from a judge in Ecuador who on February 14 declared Chevron guilty of widespread environmental contamination in the country’s Amazon region and ordered the oil giant to spend $8.6 billion to clean up the mess. The ruling was a major victory for the lawyers and activists who have been pushing the case for nearly two decades, though observers noted that the government of Ecuador will have a hard time collecting money from Chevron, given that the company isn’t eager to pay for the clean-up, and no longer has assets in the country that could be seized.
The ruling sets an important precedent since it is a rare case brought by indigenous people and rural farmers in Latin America against a multinational corporation that has resulted in a guilty verdict, said Kevin Koenig, the Northern Amazon coordinator of the U.S. organization Amazon Watch. “This rattles the CEOs of the world, the executives and the shareholders, and it should because it shows that companies who operate in foreign countries with no regard for environmental standards and no respect for indigenous rights are going to be held accountable,” Koenig said.
In his ruling, Judge Nicolás Zambrano, whose jurisdiction includes the oil town of Lago Agrio, told Chevron to pay $8.6 billion to clean up environmental damage in the region and apologize publicly within 15 days or pay $8.6 billion more.
The case was filed in 1993 by lawyers from the Amazon Defense Coalition for 48 plaintiffs representing an estimated 30,000 Natives and mestizo (mixed-race) farmers affected by the pollution that Texaco—which merged with Chevron in 2001—generated in northeastern Ecuador from 1964 to 1990. The legal battle began in U.S. courts in the 1990s and only shifted to Ecuadorean courts after a U.S. judge ruled that it should be tried in that country.
Rather than personal reparations for plaintiffs, the coalition sought funds to pay for cleanup of the region where oil and toxic waste have contaminated streams and agricultural land. According to the Amazon Defense Coalition, Texaco poured 18.5 billion gallons of oil-reservoir waters into Amazon tributaries and left 916 pits of toxic sludge scattered across the region before selling its Ecuador operations to state oil company Petroecuador in 1992.
Pablo Fajardo, lead lawyer for the Amazon Defense Coalition, said the estimated 30,000 residents affected by that pollution include members of the Amazon Kichwa, Cofán, Huaorani, Siona, Secoya and Shuar tribes, plus thousands of mestizo farmers.
Chevron called the ruling “illegitimate and unenforceable” in a statement and said it’s “the product of fraud and is contrary to the legitimate scientific evidence.” Chevron said Texaco completed environmental remediation in 1992, before selling its operations to Petroecuador.
Fajardo, who has lived in the region since 1987, worked in the oil industry before studying law and witnessed Texaco’s oil spills and its practice of filling pits with toxic waste that it would sometimes burn, filling the sky with acrid smoke. “I was also here when Texaco did the environmental remediation that they say they did,” he said. “All they did was cover the pits with dirt so people couldn’t see where the oil was.”
Chevron says it will appeal the ruling and has filed a civil suit. It has also gotten a restraining order against the plaintiffs in New York and asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to urge the Ecuadorean government to suspend enforcement of the ruling.
Undeterred, Fajardo said, “This is just a small step in a larger battle and we have a long road ahead, but the important thing is that we have the capacity and strength necessary to continue with this fight to the end.”