Indigenous in Ecuador Struggle to Get Chevron to Pay Up on $9.5 Billion in Damages

Indigenous of Ecuador's Amazon region fight for $9.5 billion in pollution damages from Chevron in Canada's Supreme Court.

Their land still saturated with goop, indigenous groups in Ecuador are awaiting a decision in the Supreme Court of Canada on whether Chevron Corp. can be forced to pay the $9.5 billion in damages they are owed for severe contamination of their lands.

Attorneys for Ecuadorean plaintiffs, most of whom are indigenous, appeared before Canada’s Supreme Court on Thursday, October 11 in an effort to seek payment for the $9.5 billion judgment levied against Chevron back in 2011.

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Canada’s Supreme Court is now deliberating on whether Ecuadorean indigenous plaintiffs can recover money from Chevron’s holdings in that country. Observers estimate that the court will take at least three months to decide whether the oil company must pay the fine there, or whether the plaintiffs cannot sue in Canada due to certain regulations.

Chevron’s counsel has countered by saying that Canadian courts do not have jurisdiction in this lawsuit since the parent company resides in the U.S., and that their Canadian subsidiary is not liable. They are also pointing out that the first lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Steven Donziger, was found guilty earlier this year of coercion and bribery in relation to the case by U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, which effectively bars the plaintiffs from pursuing the lawsuit in the U.S.

Activists said that the fraud charges should have no bearing on whether Chevron is responsible for the damage and that the oil conglomerate should pay up.

"We believe Chevron is asking the Canadian courts to create an unconscionable barrier to justice as part of its long-term plan to keep the merits of these life-and-death issues from being decided," said Kevin Koenig, coordinator of Ecuador programs for the U.S. environmental group Amazon Watch. "By blocking the Ecuadorians villagers from getting in the courthouse door, Chevron hopes to obtain impunity for its human rights violations in Ecuador."

He also said the two-decades-old case needs to go away so that all parties can move on.

"This case has gone on way too long,” he said. “It is past time for these claims to be resolved once and for all."

Chevron, however, has different plans.

“Chevron Corp. and Chevron Canada Limited look forward to demonstrating to the Supreme Court of Canada that the trial court in Ontario has no jurisdiction to hear the action brought by the Ecuadorean plaintiffs,” said Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw.

The latest episode of this case (which started in 1993) began as a result of Chevron's refusal to abide by the Ecuadorean court's order—issued in 2011—that it clean up almost 1,000 oil waste pits and billions of gallons of oil sludge dumped into streams and rivers of the Amazon between 1964 and 1990, when Texaco owned the company.

Chevron accepted jurisdiction in Ecuador in 2001 as a condition of the trial being transferred out of U.S. court at the company's request. Two separate appellate courts in Ecuador, including the country's Supreme Court, unanimously affirmed the trial court judgment.

From that point the case traveled back to the U.S. where it ultimately was derailed due to a court’s finding of fraud and bribery against Donziger; this case is being appealed in the U.S.

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Due to Chevron’s continued refusal to accept the imposed fine, plaintiff’s attorneys have sought to seize the company’s assets in Canada and have explored their legal options in Argentina and Brazil, too.

In the meantime, the mostly indigenous residents of the Lago Agria region are still facing severely contaminated water and land. Moreover, medical studies are showing higher rates of cancer and other diseases affecting residents there, in comparison to the rest of the country.