Quito—Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s popular president, does not mince words when he talks about the Chevron Corporation. In an interview with The Nation here recently, Correa accused the oil giant—the third-largest company in the United States, as measured by gross revenue—of “deliberately polluting” the Amazon rain forest in eastern Ecuador, of “shamelessly lying” to evade its legal responsibility to clean up, and of waging a ferocious international campaign “to destroy the reputation of our justice system and government.” In a wide-ranging, hourlong interview in the centuries-old presidential palace, Correa was intense and passionate as he spoke about how Texaco—which was taken over by Chevron in 2001—had dumped toxic waste into nearly 1,000 pits and spilled billions of gallons of oil-exposed water into a 1,700-square-mile area between 1972 and 1992. Correa said that Texaco could have chosen not to pollute. “Back then, better techniques [of waste disposal] already existed,” he said. “The techniques they used here were against the law in their own country. They weren’t interested in the human beings who lived in the Amazon region. To me, it is a question of racism.”
Correa’s outspoken comments are just one of the latest developments in a massive international legal case that has pitted 30,000 poor Ecuadorans who live in the rain forest against a corporation that reported $19.2 billion in profits last year—more than half of Ecuador’s entire government budget. The battle has already lasted 22 years, spanned several countries on three continents, and shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
The American public is largely uninformed about this epic struggle, even though it’s as important as the dispute over the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The mainstream US media, when it hasn’t ignored the case, has often taken Chevron’s side, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) endorsing the company’s view that an alliance of Ecuadoran extortionists and crooked US lawyers is using the corrupt Ecuadoran court system to shake down an innocent corporation.
On closer inspection, the truth is totally different. If the plaintiffs finally win in the end, the rain-forest inhabitants will not just have their habitat start to be cleansed of the oil muck that oozes into their water supply, or enjoy improved health facilities to treat what they argue are elevated levels of cancer and other diseases. They will also have proved the success of an innovative legal strategy that recruits financial help in the rich developed world to provide at least a fighting chance against a corporate colossus like Chevron, which has already spent, by some estimates, $2 billion in its massive legal and propaganda campaign. But if Chevron prevails, it will be one more depressing proof that multinational corporations can defy national and international law and pollute with impunity.
Here, as briefly as possible, is what has happened so far: Texaco left Ecuador in 1992, having disposed of its wastes by methods that in some cases would have been illegal, and in others unethical, in the United States. The company dumped a combination of drilling muds, “formation water,” and actual crude oil into unlined waste pits—a procedure that Texas outlawed back in 1969. It released billions of gallons of oil-laced “produced” waters straight into the streams and lakes, even though standard procedure in the United States was to “reinject” the potentially toxic compounds safely deep underground. In 1995, Texaco agreed to “remediate” part of the mess, which it later said cost $40 million. In 1998, Ecuador’s government certified that the purported cleanup had been successfully completed, thus relinquishing its right to bring further legal action.