Poynter Seminar with Khadija Sharife
Friday, 12 February 2021, 11:30am EST
The historic $9.5 billion pollution judgment won by Amazon communities in Ecuador against Chevron was the result of a substantive legal battle that has attracted the attention of legal scholars, Nobel Laureates, human rights organizations, and climate activists throughout the world. The case was brought by an international team of lawyers and community leaders led by Steven Donziger who faced off against 60 Chevron law firms and more than 2,000 lawyers retained by the company. Considered by many to be a key corporate accountability case in the world, the judgment was won in 2011 after courts in Ecuador - where Chevron insisted the trial be held - found the company deliberately and systematically discharged billions of gallons of cancer-causing oil waste onto Indigenous ancestral lands when it operated in Ecuador under the Texaco brand from 1964 to 1992. The dumping led to an epidemic of cancer and other oil-related health problems that has decimated Indigenous cultures; experts call the disaster the “Amazon Chernobyl”. The legal case raises critically important issues related to global warming, indigenous rights, international judgment enforcement, Free Speech, private investor arbitration, attorney ethics, and how corporations often used SLAPP harassment lawsuits to target human rights lawyers and campaigners with intimidation and threats with the goal of obtaining impunity for their wrongdoing.
The discussion was grounded in the reality of the facts on the ground in Ecuador as confirmed by multiple courts including the Supreme Courts of Ecuador and Canada, both of which have validated the judgment on the merits or for enforcement purposes. It also addressed how Chevron accepted jurisdiction in Ecuador, only to later sell its assets in the country and try to discredit Ecuador’s courts as the evidence mounted. After the trial, Chevron returned to the same U.S. courts where it had refused to hold the environmental trial to launch a retaliation campaign – one that expressly tried to undermine the credibility of the main U.S. lawyer for the Ecuadorians, Steven Donziger. The company accused Donziger of being at the helm of a “racketeering” conspiracy as a means of winning the case. Chevron then obtained a decision from a first-level U.S. trial judge in a non-jury trial that the case in Ecuador was procured by fraud. Chevron’s main witness in that case was coached 53 days by company lawyers, paid at least $2 million, and later admitted to having lied on the stand while the judge was a former tobacco industry lawyer. Chevron then tried to use the U.S. retaliation case to try to undermine enforcement of the Ecuador judgment around the world. Reports from two international trial monitoring committees, both highly critical of the handling of aspects of the case by U.S. courts, were also discussed.
In addition, the discussion also touched upon the extraordinary legal circumstances faced by Mr. Donziger, the Harvard-educated U.S. lawyer who is under house arrest without trial in Manhattan on a misdemeanor criminal contempt charge that he believes is orchestrated largely by Chevron. The contempt charge has led to Donziger being under house arrest for 540 days. No other lawyer in America is being held pre-trial on a misdemeanor charge.
Donziger’s prosecutor, appointed by the charging judge has deep ties to the oil and gas industry including Chevron. The charging judge appointed her after the charges were rejected by the federal prosecutor in New York. The four main witnesses in the case are Chevron lawyers.
How the legal clash plays out could determine whether Indigenous groups survive or become extinct; whether large fossil fuel companies can be held accountable by our courts; and ultimately, whether grass roots activism needed to address global warming can be respected by some of the most powerful forces in our society.
Besides Convenor/Chair/Moderator Khadija Sharife and Steven Donziger, there were comments by Luis Yanza, Ecuadorian community leader and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, and Patricio Salazar, Ecuadorian lawyer for the affected communities in the Amazon.