2011 – Ecuadorian people take on oil giant Chevron

For over three decades, the indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon have fought for compensation for toxic contamination caused by the oil giant, Chevron Texaco. After initially chasing Chevron through US courts, legal efforts returned to Ecuador, where in 2011 the courts finally found the company liable and ordered Chevron to pay $9.6 billion. The company refuses to pay and has retaliated legally against its victims, providing further evidence of the need for an international binding treaty to end corporate impunity.

Texaco (a wholly owned subsidiary of Chevron Corporation) extracted oil from the eastern region of Ecuador. Between 1963 and 1992 Chevron drilled more than 360 oil wells, leaving behind hazard waste in 900 pits. To save money, Texaco chose to use environmental practices that were obsolete, did not meet industry standards, and were illegal in Ecuador and the United States. The result was, and continues to be, one of the worst environmental disasters on the planet.

The lands were home to seven indigenous nationalities and dozens of farmers’ communities, who formed an alliance, the Union of People Affected by Texaco (UDAPT) to fight for compensation. They filed a landmark class-action against Chevron Corporation in 1993, in New York, and moved back to Ecuador at Chevron’s own request. The legal efforts were paralleled by direct actions (strikes, blockades) by the community and at an international level by a variety of campaign groups that mobilised press attention, disrupted Chevron AGMs, targeted shareholders and investors, and supported the legal efforts.

It took more than 20 years before the Ecuadorian National Court reached a final decision. The Court awarded $9.6 billion dollars in compensation to be invested in environmental restoration and other related damages.

Chevron decided to challenge the judgment accusing Ecuador’s legal system of corruption and fraud, and have promised a “lifetime of appellate and collateral litigation”, vowing to “fight it out until hell freezes over, and then fight it out on the ice.” Accordingly, they initiated a commercial arbitration case against the Ecuadorian Government as well as a racketeering civil lawsuit against the Ecuadorians victims.

The case against Chevron is unprecedented. It is not only the largest environmental damages award in history, it also represents the first time that indigenous people have forced a multinational corporation to stand trial in their own country for violating their human rights. It sets an important precedent for other multinational companies that commit environmental and human rights abuses.

However the struggle to have the legal judgement enforced also points to the need for an international instrument on corporate liability to address the problem of transnational corporations impunity for causing environmental harm and committing human rights abuses.