Victory for Ecuador’s indigenous people as Chevron is fined $8.6bn for Amazon oil pollution

The people of Ecuador’s Amazon region have achieved legal justice after an 18-year battle seeking damages for crude oil pollution

The people of Ecuador’s Amazon region have achieved legal justice after an 18-year battle seeking damages for crude oil pollution.

The $8.6bn (£5.3bn) judgement, issued by a court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, is the largest ever awarded for an environmental case, though sits below BP’s $20bn compensation fund for the impacts of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. According to human rights groups, it also represents the first time indigenous people have sued a multinational corporation in the country where the crime was committed, and won.

The case was brought on behalf of 30,000 people affected by the environmental catastrophe. Chevron inherited the suit when it bought Texaco in 2001 and has denied the allegations of environmental damage.

The amount could be doubled in the event that Chevron do not formally apologise. A further 10% of the sum is to be paid in costs to the Amazon Defense Coalition, the group representing the plaintiffs.

Before being bought by Chevron, between 1972 and 1990, Texaco dumped 18.5 billions of gallons of toxic waste into rivers and water sources, the lawsuit claims. The company reportedly spilled millions of gallons of crude oil and left a vast quantity of waste pits behind, which continue to contaminate the soil and water. According to affected communities, the pollution has caused widespread ill-health including a spike in cancer rates.

“Justice does exist,” said Guillermo Grefa, of the Kichwa indigenous group. “I can now dream of drinking clean water, water with no oil residue, and that the Earth will begin to clean and heal.”

Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called it a “triumph of justice” but said the group have appealed because the damages weren’t high enough. A court-appointed expert recommended damages of $27bn (£16.5bn).

“This is a great victory,” said Emergildo Criollo, a plaintiff and Cofán leader who lives in the northern Amazon in Ecuador, but he added: “Our fight won’t stop until Chevron is held accountable and pays for all the damage it left in the Amazon Rainforest.”

Chevron is also appealing the decision, which it claimed was “illegitimate and unenforceable.” In a statement, the US-based company said: “It is the product of fraud and is contrary to the legitimate scientific evidence.” Enforcement of any financial judgement is currently suspended by a US court over concerns that attempts to collect Chevron’s assets would disrupt the economy. The company, which generated $19bn profit last year, no longer has assets in Ecuador.

The legal battle could potentially continue for months or years before plaintiffs see any compensation, but campaign groups hailed the judgement as a historic ruling for human rights, environmental justice and corporate accountability. Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network, which have spent years working to help the Ecuadorian people and protect the Amazon, said Chevron’s guilt for extensive oil contamination in the Amazon rainforest is now official.

In a statement, they said: “[It] proves overwhelmingly that the oil giant is responsible for billions of gallons of highly toxic waste sludge, deliberately dumped into local streams and rivers, which thousands depend on for drinking, bathing, and fishing.”

The organisations accuse Chevron of having waged unprecedented public relations and lobbying campaigns to avoid cleaning up the environmental and public health catastrophe. “It is time Chevron takes responsibility,” they said.

The case was initially filed in a US federal court in 1993 and transferred to Ecuador at Chevron’s request. But the company has now attacked Ecuador’s courts as evidence turned against it.
“It is a critical benchmark in a long struggle for justice,” said Han Shan of Amazon Watch, “a struggle that will not end until the affected communities get the cleanup, clean water, and critical health care they need and have sought for so long.”