In this op-ed, I argue that Chevron knowingly endangered human lives through their oil operations in the Amazon, actively covering up their actions through unscrupulous or illegal means, while seeking to prevent the Ecuadorian court from securing justice for its own citizens.
First, I consider the chemical implications of the lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador. When utilizing the term chemicals, I am in particular referring to the toxins that are introduced into the air or water, through the extraction of crude oil.
Chevron did not want this information released, because it would label them as a company who cares more about profit and expansion, than they do about the destruction they have caused to the Amazon or to the countless human beings who have perished or fallen ill because of their operations. Though this is arguably true of any corporation, none wants attention brought to this fact. But I know it to be the case because I have had the opportunity to conduct ethnographic research in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador over the past few years.
In the process, numerous residents have told stories about losing parents or siblings to cancer, or other terminal illnesses. Upon being tested, the deceased were revealed to have suffered from late-stage cancer as well as other fatal illnesses, that could have only come from the toxins introduced into the Amazonian ecosystem, by the oil drilling operations of Chevron.
Beyond my own subjective experiences, throughout the course of studying the Ecuadorian litigation against Chevron, I have learned that their oil operations have caused the deaths of several hundred individuals, through prolonged exposure to toxic petroleum vapors in the air or from alkaloids that have made their way into the Amazon river, via the runoff from crude oil.
In a tacit recognition of this reality, Chevron has actively worked to undermine scientific studies, which supply the evidence necessary for proving they are guilty of causing millions if not billions of dollars’ worth of damage in the Amazon. I recently gained access to many findings from the 4-year period of studies conducted by Miguel San Sebastián and his colleagues. These studies seek to determine the impact of Texaco / Chevron’s operations on the health of Ecuadorians who live in active oil zones as well as inactive ones, and it matches up perfectly with the claims that the plaintiffs have made (Sawyer, Ch. 2, P, 129). One study in particular revealed that “children in exposed cantons below four years of age were 3.5 times more likely to have leukemia than children in non-exposed counties, and children below 14 years of age were 2.5 times more likely to have leukemia than children in non-exposed counties” (Sawyer, Ch. 2, p. 130). This is a prime example of a piece of evidence that Chevron wanted to undermine the validity of so that the public would ignore their role in the crisis.
They also refused to accept the chemical evidence that has been collected through years of studies in the region. Chevron alleged that these studies were falsified by the Ecuadorian plaintiffs to expose them as a company who was willing to indirectly cause the death of hundreds of individuals, in the interest of corporate greed and profit. The studies further revealed that hundreds of Amazonian residents developed cancer because of the toxins that Chevron had released into the air and water, through their continued oil drilling projects. However, this awareness by the Ecuadorian Government of Chevron’s environmental and health crimes was not always existent. operations as bringing wealth to their country. At the same time, many of the people in Ecuador, from the outset, regarded. Chevron’s actions as dangerous and causing more harm than benefit.
However, they could not do much to oppose the operations as the earlier governments approved Chevron’s decisions and were accepting large sums of money to authorize the firm to drill in the Amazon. The tides later began to turn on Chevron’s reputation within Ecuador. In June 2005, when the initial lawsuit in Ecuador was beginning to take shape, the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health accused Chevron of attempting to undermine scientific integrity. (Sawyer, Ch. 2, p. 158). Despite this, Chevron insists that the data released by the IJOE in their letter were flawed, even though the studies continuing to be released each provide evidence that oil operations which are left unregulated and allowed to age, are associated with continued illness and death. The data I have at my disposal on the volatility of hydrocarbons that have been given the opportunity to stew in the damp and humid rainforest climate, further backs this understanding.
To put the destructive capabilities of hydrocarbons into perspective, consider what Suzana Sawyer points out, namely that “[O]ver the course of its 28 years of oil operations, Texaco spilled at least 16.8 million gallons of crude oil from its primary pipeline and discharged 20 billion gallons of toxic wastes into the environment. These facts are not disputed; they come from Texpet’s production records and are calculated and retained by the Ministry of Energy and Mines” (Sawyer, Ch. 2, p. 162). This change in the very ecological and chemical composition of the Amazon over the course of several decades through constant chemical processes as well as reckless human error, again demonstrates that while oil as a substance may not be harmful on its own if left untouched, when exploited on a large scale it is likely to permanently alter entire ecosystems and communities for the worse. Furthermore, although Texaco/Chevron understood that their wells were generating large sums of toxic waste daily, causing astronomical amounts of damage to the environment and to human settlements, they continued to operate because the profit margins were so tantalizing (Sawyer, Ch. 1, p. 83). This willingness to continue expanding regardless of the grave ecological dangers they had created was enhanced because they were convinced that the residents of the Amazon had no power to stop them. However, it was also because Chevron initially worked under the cover of a corrupt Ecuadorian government.
Second, I consider the legal implications of the lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador. Early on in my investigation I learned that Chevron is very much interested in the legal work surrounding the Ecuadorian litigation and is not afraid to go great lengths to prevent the truth from being reached. In her work, Sawyer emphasizes the challenges in establishing legal truths by arguing,
“Law demands definitives. Indeed, one of law’s constraints…is an exigency for absolutes. The court must, after exhausting all possible interpretations and satisfying all procedural criteria, secure a ‘finding of facts,’ determine the legal truth, and render a decision. Jurisprudence requires a single, authoritative, final resolution, in space and time” (Sawyer, Opening, p. 30).
It is important to consider that Chevron at one point was initially in a legal battle against their own practices, having fought against Steven Donziger an attorney who sued the corporation, on account of their chemically and environmentally harmful practices. They were not afraid to push their own facts, as they believed that the legal system was flawed in some capacity, and that they could create their own truth to undermine the arguments of Donziger. However, later, in 2005, Chevron won in court to move the case to Ecuador in hopes they could test the reputation of Donziger. Moreover, while they understood the facts of their contamination were visible to the public, they hoped that they could create a stir, that would seemingly shift the blame to a single US lawyer. Hence, the act of undermining environmental and chemical truths as well as undermining the stigma of their practices was no longer their priority. However, the new priority was to hinder the ability of Donziger to successfully represent a group of close to thirty thousand Ecuadorian plaintiffs by harming his reputation, in turn attempting to jeopardize his support from the public as well. In other words, Chevron was playing a blame game of sorts.
They hoped to take advantage of the fact that they are a multi-billion-dollar company, battling against a lawyer who had made a great deal of information about the company’s harmful actions public, findings they had hoped to shield from the public forever. Furthermore, Chevron did not want the public to be aware of the tens of thousands of individuals who worked with Donziger to bring legal action against them, because that would make the former relevant and draw global attention. (Sawyer, Opening, p. 1). When someone speaks with passion and truth in their voice, and from their own experience, it is extremely hard to dispute, as for example, one activist said we “have overwhelming proof to present to justice: our poisoned rivers, our ailing forest, our disappeared animals, our dead” (Sawyer, Interstice 1, p. 61). This claim matches up quite well with the evidence that has been presented through scientific reports surrounding crude oil tests, as well as water and soil contamination tests, so successfully disputing it would be a futile task. Instead, Chevron chooses to ignore it. In other words, their aim is to convince the public that the claims of the natives are misunderstood or that they were in fact responsible for what has been described, when it was quite the opposite. They did not want people to know that they chose to pursue profit and expansion, over backing out when it was clear that their operations were constantly endangering human lives. Chevron has shown time and time again that they are more interested in embracing false legal truths and antagonizing those who are against them. In the process, they go to great lengths to obstruct justice and exploit the integrity of legal systems for their own benefit, and to prevent truths from being heard.
The central lesson that we can take from the lawsuit is that is extremely challenging to hold corporations accountable when they can use the manipulate the law to their advantage, while delaying the outcome by moving the trial between countries when they are ruled against in an initial case. If a major corporation such as Chevron seeks to resort to illegal tactics such as forging their own data, tampering with witnesses, and lying to the court, then justice cannot be served. Lastly, Chevron refuses to accept the consequences of their own actions and is willing to go to great lengths to harm the integrity of the plaintiffs and their lawyers. This only further stresses the need for major corporations to be held accountable for their crimes and not be given opportunities to exploit the law to their own advantage.