Persecuted Human Rights Attorney Tells His Story

All across the world, the environment is being destroyed at historically unprecedented rates. This is quite the uncomfortable truth, one that most would rather not bring up in polite company. However, choosing to just sweep this issue under the carpet comes at great cost. If we are to ever solve this problem, we must be clear about the extent of ecological catastrophe and who is responsible for it.

Someone who has firsthand experience with both is embattled human rights attorney Steven Donziger. Donziger is best known for winning a case against Chevron over the oil multinational’s pollution of Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region. Recently, he appeared on Chapo Trap House — a popular political podcast — to tell his story. The facts of the case seem almost too shocking to be true.

“Chevron… in the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s, early ‘90’s dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste onto indigenous, ancestral lands and left behind about a thousand open-air toxic waste pits they’d gauged out of the jungle floor, into which they dumped… cancer-causing oil waste that they ran through pipes into streams and rivers that the local indigenous groups relied on for their drinking water, their bathing, their fishing, and their sustenance… And they left behind what really was an environmental Holocaust. I mean, the whole environment was poisoned in a 1500 mile area,” Steven Donziger told Chapo co-host Will Menaker.

As a point of comparison, 1500 square miles is comparable to the size of the entire state of Delaware. An expanse that large was made completely unlivable by Chevron’s recklessness. They were dumping an average of 4 million gallons of toxic waste in Lago Agrio’s fresh water sources per day. Basic human rights were trampled upon and countless lives were put at serious risk. By all accounts, this was not just some tragic mishap; it was intentional.

“This was no accident,” Donziger said. “[Chevron] planned it this way to save money.”

Indeed, it would have cost more money for Chevron to dispose of the waste responsibly. Private corporations are vehicles for profit-maximization. Therefore, since profits just equal revenues minus costs, all else equal, they will want to keep costs to a minimum. It was in the interest of Chevron’s bottom line to destroy the planet, uproot and displace entire communities, and give huge numbers of people increased risk of cancer.

During the Chapo Trap House interview, Steven Donziger describes what he saw when he first stepped foot on the ground in Ecuador. He could not believe his eyes, and neither could his accompanying team of legal experts. It was an absolute horror show.

“We saw what looked like absolutely apocalyptic scenes: oil spread out all over the roads and pools of oil in forests,” Donziger recounted.

When pressed on their monstrous practices by the local Ecuadorian population, Donziger claimed Chevron told the indigenous people that the oil had medicinal properties. Menaker, his interviewer, was stunned

In 1993, Donziger led a class action lawsuit against Chevron. The team sought monetary damages for what became known as the “Amazon Chernobyl.” For Donziger, despite Chevron’s tremendous power, the case felt like a slam dunk.

“The evidence against them was overwhelming; 64,000 chemical sample results pointing to their pollution of literally dozens and dozens of sites,” he said.

And, after years and years of litigation, in a real-life David versus Goliath scenario, Steven Donziger and his clients came out on top. Chevron lost and, in 2011, was ordered by an Ecuadorian court to pay $9.5 billion in compensation to the victims of their malfeasance. 

“The judgment of $9.5 billion is actually relatively modest compared to the magnitude of the damage. By comparison, BP — the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 — they paid about $50 billion in compensation and fines for something that, fundamentally, was an accident,” Donziger explained.

But why focus on that? The good guys won, after all… right? Well, not exactly. Unfortunately, this tale does not have a happy ending. For one, the affected indigenous communities have yet to receive a cent in damages. Immediately after the ruling was issued, Chevron made it clear that they had no intention of paying the judgment. Chevron quickly moved their assets out of Ecuador, making collection impossible. Then, they set their sights on Donziger.

Chevron’s legal team began working with Judge Lewis Kaplan, one of the multinational’s trusted allies in the courts, to try to take down Donziger once and for all. In 2011, the same year they lost to him in court, Chevron filed a frivolous Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, suit against Donziger.

“They went before a federal judge in New York who has a pro-business reputation, and really took it upon himself to try to work with Chevron’s lawyers to destroy my life and to silence me… so that Chevron could escape from having to pay its liability to the people of Ecuador,” the human rights attorney told co-host Will Menaker on episode 418 of the Chapo Trap House podcast. “This has been going on, the retaliation part, for 10 years and it has resulted in my home detention for the last 10 months… What we’ve seen is just a series of decision after decision in favor of Chevron by a judge who seems like he’s taking it on as his life’s mission — even a crusade — to undermine the ability of the Ecuadorian people to recover money from Chevron for the damage that Chevron readily admits that it caused.”

Steven Donziger is under house arrest to this day and is forced to constantly wear an ankle monitor — all for the crime of trying to bring a predatory multinational to justice. What Donziger’s story tells us about the state of the judiciary is frightening. Will Menaker put it well when, in his introduction to the interview, he lamented, “I fear where we’re all headed… is a totally privatized legal system in which corporations wield pretty much absolute authority over everyone and everything.”

I very much share Menaker’s concern. The influence of big business over the judicial system threatens to redefine the rule of law as we know it. If we continue down this path, American democracy will vanish. The United States will irreversibly cement its status as an oligarchy. If Chevron and the like keep getting their way, our future will be that of corporate tyranny. This disturbing trend must be treated with the urgency it so desperately warrants.


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