Lago Agrio: The Drama Continues

Thursday, August 25, 2016

I was in the 10th grade when I first heard about the ecological and human health disaster caused by petroleum extraction in Ecuador. A film festival in my hometown showed Crude, a documentary that details the impact of abandoned oil fields near Lago Agrio and the accompanying legal battle. Local populations whose livelihoods and health were allegedly harmed by careless corporate and government actions had been fighting to hold Texaco accountable for cleanup and compensation since 1993. The film, however, focused on several key characters that became involved in the case many years later. There were lawyers (Steven Donzigner and Pablo Fajardo), a corporation (Chevron, which acquired Texaco in 2001), celebrities (including Sting), and a young and charismatic Presidente (Rafael Correa of Ecuador).

As a teenager with little previous exposure to the subject of environmental justice, I was captivated by the real-life cast members’ passions and, perhaps just as importantly, their flaws. Crude instilled a rage in the audience members surrounding me as the apparently noble cause of fighting for this community’s rights appeared to be an uphill battle. I can vividly remember the conversations between my friends and me, and those happening around us the instant the theater lights came back on. We decided that this was a cause worth getting behind, and that we should seriously consider futures as environmental professionals!

Observing the years-long battle to address the disastrous effects of irresponsibly retired oil fields taught me about the complexities and frustration surrounding a plethora of similar issues playing out around the world. Anything but straightforward, the Lago Agrio story unfolded as a series of cases underscoring the importance of a narrative and individuals, like the story and characters in Crude.

In my opinion, Donzinger, the lawyer representing various community members in the affected areas, had a solid case against Chevron. For several years, the outcome of long-awaited trials confirmed the validity of my initial bias:

  •  In 2011, an $8.6 billion verdict with damages up to $18 billion (contingent on a public apology) was issued against Chevron in an Ecuadorean court.
  • By 2013, three more levels of Ecuadorean courts had ruled Chevron should pay, and in November of 2013, Ecuador’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling from the previous year but halved the initial damages to $9.5 billion.
  • In 2015, Canada’s highest court enforced these judgments against Chevron. Eighteen consecutive appellate judges in Ecuador and Canada had ruled against Chevron.

(See this page for a summary of the lawsuits relating to the abandoned sites near Lago Agrio, Ecuador, in the United States, Ecuador, and Canada.)

Recently though, the noble cause that inspired me in my youth has received a very different kind of attention. Chevron filed a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) action against Donzinger and several others, and in 2014, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan found that the 2011 ruling requiring Chevron to pay a fine was obtained through extortion and fraud, including the alleged ghostwriting of an Ecuadorean judge’s ruling. With support from various organizations, Donzinger’s lawyers appealed, citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to bolster their claims, but the Second Circuit affirmed on August 8, 2016. This ruling was significant because it deemed the $9.5 billion fine unenforceable in the United States. Yet, the current characterization of Donzinger’s case as an extortion scheme diverts focus away from the larger story: the communities surrounding Lago Agrio were negatively impacted by environmental and human harm.

The story of Lago Agrio is not just one about interesting characters, propelling storylines full of twists and turns. This is real life; each twist and turn comes with costs and implications for those seeking justice. The actions of a certain lawyer—described as “unorthodox” by some and “fraudulent” by others—do not change the underlying facts of the case: 18 billion gallons of oil and toxic chemicals were spilled into regional water supplies over a period of more than 20 years, and extraction sites were irresponsibly abandoned, causing harm to the environment and people of surrounding communities. Chevron no longer disputes that the pollution occurred, and there is general concurrence that there are adverse health effects, including cancer associated with oil development in the region.

Hearing about the situation in Lago Agrio more than six years ago made me gravitate toward the field of environmental law. I am now a recent college graduate in my first full-time job, learning about both the practical and emotional layers of many environmental cases. I also have a heightened awareness of the influence that one person can have, and of the importance of making deliberate decisions and maintaining professional integrity. No matter what the members of the Ecuadorean plaintiff’s legal team did or did not do, a tragedy was inflicted on communities. Those affected continue to seek justice—in September, Canadian courts will rule again on enforcement of the original fine. Regardless of how that storyline ends, the environmental and health impacts on the people of Lago Agrio were certainly fact and not fiction.