Chevron and the ‘Amazonian Chernobyl’

When it comes to environmental degradation, the profits of large multinational corporations often trump the environmental costs. Adil Khan examines how the oil giant Chevron apparently caused an environmental disaster in Ecuador and has yet to clean up its mess.

Over the course of 25 years Texaco – later amalgamated with Chevron in 2001 – caused mass destruction in the Lago Agrio area of the Amazon Basin; a catastrophe dubbed, by both experts and activists, the ‘Amazon Chernobyl’. Specifically, in Ecuador, it is claimed that the oil giant spilt 17 million gallons of crude oil into the environment, allowed 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater to pollute rivers, and failed to effectively clean up hundreds of open-air pits containing hazardous waste. With the land now spoiled and the residents left in a state of despair, the question has to be asked, will Ecuador receive the assistance needed to return this area to its unspoiled origin, or will the international community continue to ignore the pleas?

©Dallas Krentzel/ Creative Commons license

©Dallas Krentzel/ Creative Commons license

Recent legal battles

Since 1993 the plaintiffs, represented by a coalition of Ecuadorian and American lawyers, have battled against Chevron and sought $27.3 billion for the horrific damage caused to the local population and the environment. Then in 2011 in a landmark decision an Ecuadorian court fined the corporation $8 billion; an exiguous amount compared to the original level of compensation desired, but nevertheless it was perhaps the first step towards a more just outcome.

However, in March of this year, a New York judge blocked the collection of the fine on the grounds of deep corruption and illegal conduct by the Ecuadorian legal team. This effectively rendered Chevron unaccountable for their alleged actions and the much-needed recovery and development of the Amazon was prevented from coming to fruition.

A case of corruption?

Corporate criminologists Kramer and Michalowski point out; through a ‘chain of command ’ procedure proxy agents may be used to achieve the illegal goals of a corporation. Therefore corporations evade accountability through a claim of ‘plausible deniability’ ; in essence, any suspected perpetrators of threats are far removed from those who authorised the deviant activity.

Dirty tactics have been levelled at both sides throughout the trial, the latest of which involves an Ecuadorian lawyer representing farmers affected by the crisis. According to a report by The Guardian, lawyer Juan Pablo Saenz has received death threats and is being routinely followed in his home country. Whilst there is no direct evidence linking these threats to Chevron, it should be noted that multinational corporations do have the political and economic muscle, to systematically eliminate independent judiciary and prosecution, which can affect the course of justice.

2014 Environmental Report

The source of death threats may be difficult to prove, yet the effects of Chevron’s oil spill are clearly evident according to the latest study investigating the health and environmental impact. It has been found that pollution still severely contaminates the area – more than 20 years after Texaco withdrew from the country. The Louis Berger Group (LBG) scientists who conducted the research, have reinforced the validity of previous studies by confirming that the pollution has increased the risk of cancer, as well as other health issues such as immune system deficiencies. Furthermore, illegal levels of toxins are still prevalent at Chevron sites; a fact which the corporation hid from the Ecuadorian court during its trial. Chevron’s malfeasance is compounded by the fact that the LBG scientists also found troubling evidence that contamination continues to this day and pollutes the water supply of the local population; a gross violation of their most basic of human rights.

©Rainforest Action Network/ Creative Commons license

©Rainforest Action Network/ Creative Commons license

Will Chevron face justice?

Karen Hinton, a U.S. spokeswoman for the Ecudorians, compares their case to the BP oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike BP who were severely reprimanded and are being held accountable, Chevron has remained a ‘fugitive’, evading punishment for their crimes and avoiding responsibility for the clean-up operation. The South American government itself has also to an extent been a puppet of the Chevron corporation, and therefore has been largely invisible in dealing with these matters. This is in stark contract to the US government, who ‘threatened to “keep a boot to the throat” of BP until it took responsibility’.

Whilst Karen Hinton may believe that eventually ‘Chevron will lose thecase on both the law and the facts’, and although the coalition of lawyers have quixotically fought for justice for over 20 years, ultimately it is unclear whether Chevron will ever truly be held accountable and legally obliged to compensate their victims. For a nation with revenues of $37 billion, any legal struggle against a corporation whose own operating revenues are six times that figure – and equate to a staggering $220 billion –  is unlikely to result in the victory that the Ecuadorians crave.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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2 comments
  1. Very confusingly written. You stated as fact that Chevron were responsible for this. But later in the article you suggest that there is still an ongoing legal process. All other reports refer to this as an allegation or under investigation. Do you know something we don’t??

  2. As stated, Chevron have already been found guilty by an Ecuadorian court for the environmental contamination. This is a fact. The court’s verdict deeming that Chevron was responsible was based upon evidence, a summary of which can be viewed here. Moreover, academic studies detailing the health problems in the region can also be viewed here and here.

    As for the ongoing pursuit of justice; legal battles continue to exist due to the apparent attempts by Chevron to discredit the case and evade complying with the rule of law, not because Chevron haven’t been found guilty.

    If you wish to explore these issues further I suggest you read the work of Karen Hinton on The Huffington Post.

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