David vs Goliath?: Ecuador-Chevron case three years on

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In the eyes of many bleeding heart liberals, the 2011 ruling by an Ecuadorian court that oil giant Chevron should pay $8.6 billion in compensation to local communities devastated by environmental malpractice was a heroic victory over the exploitative ‘Big Oil’. It was a stepping stone in the right direction for environmental rights; a true David and Goliath story.

Three years on, however, and the bitter fight between Ecuador and Chevron lingers on with both sides desperately reeling from what has proven a disastrous, almost self-defeating battle which has presented neither a moral or empirical winner.

As a headline, the Chevron case seems like a vindicating landmark for the environment. But, looking closer, all is not as it seems. It was Texaco who did the environmental damage in between the 1960’s and 1990’s, with Chevron taking over the company in 1999, at which point Texaco had left Ecuador. Even if they were to assume responsibility for the company’s role, it was often the Ecuadorian Government who had allowed or overlooked these mistakes.

Recent revelations prove how bad a PR disaster the fight has become for the David in this story who, on paper, is lawyer Steven Donziger, an underfunded environmentalist protecting rainforest residents left with nothing after years of oil spills in their lifeline, the Amazon River. Since joining the legal team in the case in 1993, he had lead legal teams in the United States and Ecuador; 2011 was his vindication for almost two decades of dedicated work.

This year, however, things started getting dirty. As expected, Chevron threw millions behind their appeal as the battle was moved to America where the plaintiff aimed to collect the money. A ruling in 2014 by a US court ruled that Dozinger had used “coercion, bribery, money laundering and other misconduct” to influence the Ecuadorian court’s decision, including evidence he had bribed a judge to produce an 188 page scathing criticism of the oil company. In 600 hours of outtakes from the documentary ‘Crude’, Dozinger can be heard arrogantly boasting about his meetings with judges and how best to manipulate Ecuador’s legal system.

The dispute only worsened when, this week, it emerged that Dozinger and his legal team where not quite the under-dogs they had presented themselves as. A filing by two PR firms MCSquared and FitzGibbon Media, as required by the American Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), formally proved that standing firmly behind Dozinger was the Ecuadorian government who had spent $6.4 million to the firm for “advocacy” and “public relation” jobs relating to the case. MCSquared was even reported to have hired “background actors” in May for a protest against Chevron for $85 a head.

Remarkably, the revelations mean that Ecuador – who in total has spent $10.4 million on PR across ten different firms – is the largest country involved in these kinds of ‘advocacy’ contracts, preceded only by Mexico. According to the Sunlight Foundation, these organisations have had contact 685 times with the American Government, the international press and other actors on behalf of the Ecuadorian Government.

Chevron was not the only discussions had with the PR firms, but the findings indicate the extent to which the case had been as important to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa as it was to the indigenous communities ravaged by Chevron’s very real malpractice. Last year he called the company “the enemy of our country” and has even engaged in a media battle with the Economist over the issue. The Chevron case represented two things for Correa: a marker in his environmental-indigenous credentials and a seemingly solid victory over the yanquis. Now, it could be for nothing.

Ultimately, the damage done by Texaco has left real victims with a cost of up to $113 billion. But suing the Chevron with such political motivations has proved self-defeating. Now, with the revelations proving that the case has been fought with both corruption and both a greater political and economic arsenal than previously thought, the morality surrounding it seems a little less clear.

For Correa it represents an exhausted effort to one-up big business and, in doing so, the west. What it has achieved is to entrench his firebrand reputation and lose face over his environmental and moral credentials and no amount of PR can fix that.

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