“We’re in front of the International Criminal Court now! We’re just about to get in. I’ll let you know when it’s done.” He hung up, went in and dropped the time bomb in an office.
Forty minutes later he called again. “We did it!”
The bomb, 50 pages long, had travelled all the way from the polluted jungle of northeast Ecuador, which locals call the Chernobyl of the Amazon. When it goes off, John Watson, the CEO of Chevron, will need to explain why he’s obstructing a court-mandated clean-up of toxic contamination there, putting thousands of lives at risk. If he loses, the oil industry will never be the same.
Meeting a man on a mission
The day before I met Julio Prieto for an interview in the House of Peace in Brussels, an office and meeting space for peace organizations. Julio represents the 30,000 Ecuadorians trying to get justice from Chevron. He describes himself as the right hand of Pablo Fajardo, who also represents the afectados (victims). Julio comes across as a humble man who keeps a low-profile, but who clearly knows what he’s doing.
“I coordinate the things outside Ecuador. The plaintiffs launched their case in 1993 in New York, but Chevron wanted to move the trial to Ecuador. After years of legal battle they were granted this, on the condition that Chevron comply with the outcome in Ecuador. In 2011, the highest court in Ecuador ordered Chevron to pay $9.5 billion USD to clean up the huge mess it left behind. Chevron refused. So we convinced lawyers in Brazil, Argentina, and Canada—where Chevron has assets—to try to enforce the judgement in their countries. That’s no easy task. Brazil is totally different from Canada. You have to think what to say to each person and how you say it.”
But Julio seems well-versed in that art, often taking his time to find the right words, as he does when I ask him to speculate a bit on which of the cases is most promising. “If I had to bet on it, I would bet on Canada. The Supreme Court decision allowing us to proceed with the enforcement in that country is a big blow to Chevron because it has enough assets in Canada to pay the bill.”
We discuss the federal racketeering suit that Chevron brought in New York, with the aim of launching a frontal attack on all of the lawyers defending the Ecuadorians. Chevron managed to avoid a jury and convince a one-sided judge to rule in its favor. “We are confident that the [US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit] will overturn the ridiculous ruling issued by Judge Kaplan and that this will open the way to collect the money in the US. Do you know what this judge did? At first he ordered all judges in the world to stop us from bringing cases, but this was overturned by the Second Circuit. So now he orders all judges in the world to give any money that we may collect from Chevron, back to Chevron. This is crazy, but we trust that the Second Circuit will overturn it again. That trial is a circus. Recently, Chevron’s star witness, who received over $2 million from Chevron and has a track record of being bribed, admitted he lied. Money talks, but gold screams, he said.”
The judge’s decision, which said that anyone supporting the lawyers can also be sued, effectively cut off the Ecuadorian team’s funding. “They gave us the treatment given to terrorists. We had to let go most of our already small legal team of four in Quito, due to lack of funding, but this will not stop us. With the help of our friends, we will continue this till the end.”
And with justice on their side, they’re not alone. The European Environmental Bureau, the largest federation of environmental organizations in Europe—for whom this author also works—decided to launch its first ever crowdfunding campaign to support the lawyers, a reflection of the global importance of this case. In addition to setting a legal precedent, a win for environmental justice in Ecuador will set off alarm bells at oil company headquarters around the world. It will be a sign that you can kick the can down the road for ten, twenty, or thirty years, but in the end a much bigger and heavier can will hit you in the face. With interest, the award has risen to $10 billion—and then there’s the more than $2 billion Chevron has spent on the case, and the huge blow to its share price that would result from a victory in Canada.
More than just another court case
I ask about Julio’s background: “I come from Quito,” Julio explains when I ask how he got involved in the case. “My parents are not rich but not poor either. They were able to pay for me to go to the best college in Ecuador. My teacher was an attorney for the victims and he asked me to join him.
“In the beginning I was just doing legal work in Quito, but eventually I started to go to the jungle to meet people and learn their stories. Once you see the pollution, and you talk to the sick people and you know their story, there is no turning back. And there I met Chevron. We arrived in this small van, a team of four people. They arrived with 20 trucks and ten well-paid corporate lawyers shouting about Chevron here and Chevron there.”
Did they intimidate him? “At the beginning, they sent me a strong message: the week I started working in a new office, someone broke in. Of course they didn’t leave a note, but nothing was stolen, not even the money in the office. Then there were a few strange calls. We went to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and we got a protective order telling the Ecuadorian Government to keep us safe. So we had security for some time, but we needed to feed them and pay their hotel bills and we just couldn’t afford this.”
Julio shows me the sticker over the camera on his laptop and adds: “If I could remove the microphone, I would do it. Did you know that Chevron even hired Kroll, one of the biggest investigative firms in the US, to have private spies follow us? Through 2013, Chevron paid them $14 million. They bugged at least one apartment. The website chevron-toxico.org is hit with very strong attacks twice a day. So we had to hire our own hacker to keep the information online.”
This battle has never been limited to courthouses. It began when Texaco, acquired by Chevron in 2000, spilled around 20 billion litres of water polluted with chemicals from hundreds of wells over an area the size of Rhode Island, leading directly to more than 10,000 deaths. There has been no cleanup, and the toxic waste continues to kill people to this day. All of this is documented in the more than 200,000 pages comprising the case in Ecuador. When the victims went to court, Chevron promised to fight back “until hell freezes over. And then we’ll fight it on the ice.” But no amount of money, attacks, hacking, spies, or advertising can stop the truth.
“The trial may be over but the suffering is not,” Julio says. “We will not clean up the jungle with the paper from the judge that says that we should have $10 billion to do it. So yes, some people lose faith in justice but we are committed to proving them wrong. We have no choice. It’s not like the problem goes away if we don’t look. The afectados don’t stop crying, and they don’t stop dying.”
The case at the International Criminal Court, which the lawyers brought directly against Chevron’s CEO, is ongoing. They are also active in Canada and New York, but they don’t have the billions of dollars that Chevron has spent on preventing justice.
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You can find more information on this case in the EJOLT atlas of environmental justice.