The environmentalist lawyer Steven Donziger sat in his Manhattan apartment on the 806th day of his house arrest, waiting for the court order that will give him 24 hours to report to a jail in Brooklyn to start his six-month federal prison sentence for “criminal contempt.” That call could come as early as October 26.
Once the order comes through, Donziger will immediately report to prison. He has emphasized throughout his long ordeal that he respects the law and believes he will be vindicated on appeal.
Outrage over Donziger’s case is growing globally, as awareness spreads about how Chevron and two federal judges have persecuted him after he won a landmark pollution case against the oil giant in Ecuadorian courts in 2013 for contaminating an area of rainforest the size of Rhode Island. Chevron refused to pay the $9.5 billion judgment, and instead counter-attacked in US courts. (I’ve written about Donziger’s recent conviction, as well as the longer history of this injustice.)
Despite facing prison time, when I sat down with him on October 20, Donziger seemed upbeat as he fielded phone calls and e-mails from supporters and allies. The electronic monitoring device that has kept him in his apartment was fastened around his left ankle. As he spoke, he restlessly paced back and forth.
Donziger told me that one particularly painful aspect of his house arrest is that he hasn’t been able to visit the people in the polluted Indigenous and farmer communities that he represents. He started working on the case in 1993, and has visited Ecuador more than 200 times. He said his Ecuadorian friends were “an inspiration to so many communities all over the globe, who are also dealing with major pollution problems by these big oil companies.”
Donziger works with an organization in Ecuador called the Amazon Defense Coalition, which includes 80 communities spread out over a 1,500 square-mile area. He called the ADC “one the most successful grassroots organizations against the fossil-fuel industry probably in world history.” Among its prominent figures is Luis Yanza, who at 59 is nearly the same age as Donziger, and one of his closest friends.
Donziger described Yanza as “one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.” The two have worked together since the early 1990s. “In some respects, we’re different,” Donziger reflected. “I’m a privileged guy from the United States. I have a lot of self-confidence. Luis is very quiet, a man of dignity and humility. But his moral authority is based on the work that he’s done his whole life in these communities. That transcends everything.”
But he was worried that the worldwide attention is focusing on him instead of on his 30,000 clients. “The most important feature of this case,” he said, “is the people of Ecuador and not Steven Donziger. What Chevron has tried to do is make this about me, and not about the environmental crimes it has committed in the rainforest—which have killed hundreds if not thousands of people, and will continue to do so if the company is not forced to comply with the court rulings in Ecuador and do a clean-up.”
Five peer-reviewed scientific studies report that the incidence of cancer in the polluted region is higher than in comparable zones. (Chevron funded its own peer-reviewed study that found no such increased risk.) Donziger said he knows 10 people well who have died of cancer. Rosa Moreno, for instance, was a nurse, “with a beautiful smile.” She treated patients at a clinic in the hamlet of San Carlos, where there was no doctor. “I was a young lawyer, and she was a young nurse,” he remembered. “We grew up together on the case.” Moreno died of cancer in 2017, at age 56.
(Chevron’s public affairs office did not respond to a request for comment.)
I asked Donziger to explain the ferocity of Chevron’s 10-year vendetta against him. He said that he and his clients are trying to collect on the Ecuadorian judgment in countries where Chevron still does business, such as Canada, and so the company naturally wants to disrupt their legal efforts. He also argued that Chevron wants to intimidate environmental lawyers and grassroots groups more broadly, preventing them from launching similar fights in the first place.
But he said that Chevron’s legal attacks against him showed that the company is frightened: “My detention and the obvious corporate-financed persecution of me is a response to our success and to the success of these formerly marginalized Indigenous peoples who are now empowered and who serve as an example to the world. It is a sign of our success, not of our failure.”
Donziger offered an additional explanation for the intensity of Chevron’s attacks against him, “There are individuals within Chevron who want to destroy my life, because they’re so angry at the role I’ve played in helping previously marginalized peoples to empower themselves to such an extent that they were actually able to win a legal case against Chevron. Those people in Chevron never expected that to happen,” he said. “They feel, ‘We’re in charge.’ Their view is very racist. They see the people in Ecuador as weak and dumb.”
He added, “There’s a particular vitriol for a guy like me, who comes from a place of privilege, who went to Harvard Law School, who dedicates so much of his life to fighting them. It’s almost like they see me as someone who betrayed their class. They have to try and destroy what I represent.”