One of the more complex and depressing legal sagas of the last several decades was dealt a severe blow Monday: A US appeals court ruled that Chevron will not have to pay a group of indigenous Ecuadorians $9.5 billion for environmental destruction related to oil drilling in the Lago Agrio area of the Amazon rainforest.
The reasons for this ruling are myriad: Texaco (now owned by Chevron) was originally released from litigation by the Ecuadorian government after the company paid $40 million in the 1990s to clean oil waste pits in the area. Nonetheless, in 2011, an Ecuadorian court ordered the company to pay $9.5 billion in damages. Because Chevron has no assets in Ecuador, the company refused to pay. The original plaintiffs sued in the US, lost, and appealed. The company just prevailed after the US Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the plaintiffs won their case in Ecuador using bribery and fraud.
Though the Ecuadorians will take their case to Canada, the appeals court decision is damning; Bloomberg Businessweek noted that "Chevron couldn't have won a more emphatic victory."
Over the course of these 20 years of environmental litigation, Steven Donziger, the attorney for the plaintiffs, was found by the court to have fabricated certain aspects of an environmental report presented to an Ecuadorian judge, bribed that judge, and also ghostwrote part of his ruling.
Without denying environmental destruction occurred, the appeals court judges noted in their decision that "even innocent clients may not benefit from the fraud of their attorney."
The Wall Street Journal's editorial board wrote that "one of the most egregious legal frauds in history may finally be over" and "Chevron's vindication looks to be final." Legal scholars are spiking the football on Donziger, who is accused of trying to extract money from a wealthy American company.
Bad and corrupt lawyering, however, doesn't change the truth of the matter: Lago Agrio and the people who live there are still fucked. Corporate and government interests have yet again prevailed at the expense of the most important environmental region in the world. There's still blood on the hands of the companies that extracted oil in the region and the oil state of Ecuador. The Lago Agrio region of the Ecuadorian Amazon is still an unmitigated environmental disaster.
Companies and governments win, the environment and the native people lose.
The people living in Lago Agrio still wash their clothes and their bodies in rivers that run black with oil. Populations of people who once lived off the land now fish from artificial ponds built because the fish still living in the river are unsafe to eat. They drink bottled water because the river water will give them cancer. There is an increased rate of various types of cancer and birth defects in the Lago Agrio region.
Large swaths of the Amazon rainforest have been clearcut, roads have been built to move machinery and truck out oil. I spent a week in the region in 2013—five days on a nature preserve set up by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, and a few days at a settlement set up for indigenous people by Ecuadorian oil interests. Pictures don't do the environmental devastation justice. These words don't do it justice.
No sum of money will fix what's been done to Lago Agrio
On the preserve, the sounds of the rainforest keep you up at night—monkeys and frogs and insects. World renowned botanists and entomologists wander the jungle and find plants and insects unknown to science at an alarming rate. You look when you walk, because you don't want to step on a poisonous spider or a venomous snake or an gigantic insect that looks unlike anything you've ever seen before. Seeing a jaguar isn't out of the question, because more jaguars live there than anywhere else.
Where there is oil exploitation, there are no animals. There are few trees. You walk on grass like you're in a suburban park. Instead of looking down at your feet, you look off into the distance for hundreds of feet because there's nothing blocking your way, no danger or majesty below. The sounds you hear are machinery.
The full story is more complex than "Chevron ruined the Amazon." Much of the environmental devastation was caused by Ecuadorian government-owned oil companies after Texaco had already left. There is quite literally an established set of steps international corporations and governments take to exploit the lands of indigenous peoples around the world. What happened in Lago Agrio is a function of a developing nation being forced to choose between environmental and indigenous community protection and stimulating its economy. It's a function of globalization and fossil fuel reliance around the world.
What's clear, if you go to the damaged region, is that $9.5 billion dollars won't fix this. No sum of money will fix what's been done to Lago Agrio. All we can do is hope to learn from it. In April, the first of 200 new oil wells went into operation in nearby Yasuni, which had previously been the most pristine part of the Amazon in the most biodiverse part of the world.