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Don’t Let Big Oil Open a New Front in Its War on Environmental Defenders

Chevron clearly wants me confined so I can no longer work on the case or speak publicly about the company’s gross wrongdoing.

In the Pozo Aguarico region of Ecuador, lawyer Maria Cecilia Herrera shows the oil pollution that remains in the ground 30 years after oil production ceased. Photograph by Enrico Aviles, 2020.

In the Pozo Aguarico region of Ecuador, lawyer Maria Cecilia Herrera shows the oil pollution that remains in the ground 30 years after oil production ceased. Photograph by Enrico Aviles, 2020.

As sick patients flood hospitals throughout the Sunbelt and healthcare providers step up selflessly to meet the challenge, I think about my friend Rosa Moreno, the most courageous nurse I ever met.

I first met Rosa in the early 1990s in the village of San Carlos, Ecuador. She was the kind of warm, caring nurse we all hope to have by our side when we get ill. Somehow Rosa was able to sustain that compassion while treating patients seven days a week through a health crisis that went on not just for months but for decades. Her community was the epicenter of a toxic waste site that came to be known as the “Amazon Chernobyl.” Though not a doctor, Rosa was forced by necessity to do what she could to treat many different forms of cancer, including childhood leukemia. I’ll never forget the pit in my stomach when she first showed me the handwritten log she kept of the cancer patients who came to her little clinic for treatment or palliative care.

In 2015, Rosa, too, got cancer. She passed away at the age of 55, leaving behind a husband, two children, and a community with no doctors or nurses.

Why am I telling you with this story now, years after Rosa’s passing? Because the malfeasance that led to her death is anything but over. In fact, it’s getting worse. The culprit, the oil giant Chevron, has been pursuing a scorched-earth campaign to avoid paying for the cleanup or helping any of the victims. In the process, Chevron and its main law firm – Gibson Dunn – has pioneered a new, highly unethical form of lawfare intended to intimidate environmental defenders in all 180 countries where it operates. I should know; I’m the main target of Chevron’s lawfare, which has involved 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers.

Here’s some of the backstory. Multiple courts have found that from the late 1960s to 1992, Texaco deliberately dumped billions of gallons of cancer-causing oil waste across 1,500 square miles of previously pristine rainforest, poisoning groundwater and rivers residents depended on for drinking, bathing, and fishing. Texaco, which was later acquired by Chevron, told local Indigenous peoples that the toxic waste was actually good for them, saying it would “nourish the brain and retard aging.”

In 1993, a coalition of 30,000 Indigenous peoples and rural communities fought back. The father of one of my Harvard Law School classmates asked me to join the team of Ecuadorian and American lawyers representing them. After hearing from leaders like Rosa and seeing the damage with my own eyes, I was appalled by what Texaco had done to these communities. Unlike BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this disaster was no accident. It was done by design to externalize production costs onto some of the most vulnerable communities on the planet—the very people whose historical role is to act as the guardians of the forest.

After years of fighting in courts in the U.S., Ecuador, and Canada, the coalition won an unprecedented $9.5B in damages. Several appellate courts and a total of 17 appellate judges affirmed the case unanimously, and Canada’s Supreme Court ruled the Ecuadorians had the right to enforce their judgment. Human-rights champions hailed the victory as the beginning of a new era of environmental accountability.

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But then Chevron unveiled another component of its strategy to try to prevent the Indigenous plaintiffs from receiving a cent. The central feature was filing a civil RICO suit in U.S. federal court against me as well as all 47 Ecuadorian community leaders who signed the lawsuit, claiming that the entire case on which I had spent 18 years of my life had been nothing more than a “racketeering” conspiracy designed to “extort” money from the company. Judge Lewis Kaplan denied us a jury, refused to review any of the voluminous scientific proof of Chevron’s pollution, and then ruled in Chevron’s favor. He based his decision almost completely on the testimony of a man who later admitted to lying repeatedly under oath and to receiving huge payments from the company.

I continue to challenge Kaplan’s flawed decision, which has been rejected by multiple appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada. But largely because I would not turn over my computer and cell phone to Chevron (an order that many experts believe to be a violation of attorney-client privilege and one that I have appealed), Kaplan tried to prosecute me criminally for contempt. His charges were rejected by the federal prosecutor. Kaplan then took the extraordinarily rare step of appointing a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, to prosecute and detain me in the name of the government. Seward & Kissel later admitted that Chevron is actually a client of the law firm.

While I await my day in court, I’m now under house arrest. (I believe I’m the only lawyer in U.S. history detained pretrial on a contempt charge.) I’ve been confined to my small apartment for 12 months on a charge that carries a maximum of six months’ imprisonment. This has been incredibly hard on my 14-year old son as well as my clients, who have been denied their lawyer. Chevron clearly wants me confined so I can no longer work on the case or speak publicly about the company’s gross wrongdoing.

One thing that keeps me going is the fact that hundreds of top human-rights lawyers and dozens of Nobel Laureates have sprung to my defense. They see this abuse of power as the latest example of corporations trying to criminalize environmental activism. They know the use of corporate lawfare to target activists has been copied by a mining company in South Africa, a pipeline company in the U.S., and a logging company in Canada.

Two weeks ago, two retired U.S. federal judges provided a big boost. The Hon. Nancy Gertner (Harvard Law School) and the Hon. Mark Bennett (Drake University Law School) criticized their former colleague Kaplan in the news journal Law360 for the way he’s handled this case. I’m grateful for their courage, because it’s extremely rare for federal judges to call out colleagues publicly.

Please vote with your wheels and fill up your tank anywhere but Chevron. And I hope governments around the world will stand up to attempts to criminalize peaceful activism. They can start by refusing to do business with Chevron until the company learns to respect the rule of law and ceases its attacks on human rights defenders. We must not let this targeting of human rights defenders spread as quickly as the toxins that killed Rosa and the men, women, children whose names filled her notebook.

Steven Donziger

Steven Donziger

Steven Donziger is a human-rights advocate based in New York City. He can be followed on Twitter at @SDonziger. His legal defense fund is at www.donzigerdefense.com and Frente de Defensa de la Amazonía’s web site is makechevroncleanup.com

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