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Book "Law of the Jungle" tells of corruption in Ecuador

Paul Barrett reveals a tale of oil, pollution, intrigue and corruption in Ecuador in his new book. Review by Justin Jacobs

“This case is extraordinary. The facts are many and sometimes complex. They include things that normally come only out of Hollywood.” Such was a US federal judge’s description of the 20-year legal dispute over who bears ultimate responsibility for oil operations in Ecuador that spoiled a vast swathe of the Amazon, and exacted a heavy toll from its inhabitants.

The Lago Agrio saga has seen twists and turns, larger-than-life characters, high drama from the courtroom to the jungle and an $18 billion judgment against Chevron. Bloomberg journalist Paul Barrett draws from this deep well of material to deliver a compelling account of the Lago Agrio case in his new book Law of the Jungle.

Texaco stuck oil at Lago Agrio, in the Oriente, a vast forested area in Ecuador’s south, in 1964. For the next 20 years or so, oil and petro-dollars flowed. However, when Texaco left the country in 1992, millions of gallons of crude oil, drilling mud and produced water had been spilled into streams and left in waste pits around the Amazonian oilfields. Little was done to clean it up.

In 1993, newly qualified layer Steven Donziger helped bring a class-action lawsuit on behalf of residents of Lago Agrio aimed at forcing Texaco to clean up the oil pollution and to compensate local residents. That started a legal battle that continues to this day.

Nobody comes out of the story well. “This is a tale with no shortage of knaves and villains,” Barrett writes. A former Texaco engineer tells Barrett that, to scare off locals, workers would occasionally throw dynamite out of helicopters before landing at well sites. For the sake of saving a few million dollars, Barrett writes, Texaco refused to line its waste pits and re-inject produced water, as was standard in the US, steps that would have prevented much of the environmental damage that still plagues the area. Chevron took over Texaco in 2000 and has rebuffed any claims for compensation.

The Ecuadorian government and state-owned PetroEcuador fare little better in Barrett’s telling. The government agreed a deal with Texaco that released it of all liability while requiring it to clean up a fraction of the pollution at Lago Agrio. PetroEcuador, which took over Texaco’s operations in the early 1990s, compounded the damage already done. Successive administrations have been deeply involved in the case, but none have shown much will to improve the lot of Lago Agrio’s residents. The Ecuadorian judicial system, as Barrett tells it, is corrupted to its core.

But it is Donziger, who is the main protagonist - and ultimately the villain - for Barrett. Donziger was a junior lawyer without any courtroom experience when he joined the case, but he had ambitions and a sense of righteousness. The case was the kind of David-and-Goliath battle that could lift Donziger’s career – and make him rich if he won.

The case indeed made Donziger a superstar in the environmental movement and a hero to many on the left. He has been the subject of a documentary and countless profile pieces, including one written by Barrett himself for BusinessWeek magazine in 2011.  But Barrett argues that as Donziger’s star shined brighter in pubic, his quest for justice took a darker, more cynical turn. “To vindicate his clients, he had made a Faustian bargain. It seemed to him the only way to win against a global conglomerate determined to bury the case,” Barrett writes. “He convinced himself that … the only way to beat a multinational oil company was, in Malcolm X’s phrase, ‘by any means necessary’.”

As the case moved to Ecuador, Donziger found that he was far more effective at influencing Ecuador’s justice system than his well-resourced opponents at Chevron. Barrett lays out extensive evidence that Donziger cajoled, threatened and blackmailed successive judges. Throughout the case he pressured experts to produce the results he wanted and coached potential witnesses in ways that never would have been tolerated at home.

Donziger’s biggest coup, Barrett shows, was getting his choice appointed as a supposed independent lead expert on the case. He had found the presiding judge’s biggest weakness – a fondness for young women – and exploited it to get his man on the case. Chevron’s lawyers were in the dark, only later suspecting something was awry. He then hired a Colorado environmental consultancy to ghostwrite the expert’s report, the single most important document in the case, and passed it off as a legitimate impartial document of the damage done. “I feel like I have gone over to the dark side,” Donziger wrote in his personal notes at one point during the trial.  

Chevron has responded, accusing him of racketeering and attempting to re-frame the case as little more than a cash grab by Donziger. Sadly, Donziger’s actions have undermined the people of  Lago Agrio’s legitimate case for restitution. A judge has said that Donziger and his Ecuadorian colleagues corrupted the judicial process to the point of making the $8 billion judgment illegitimate.

That ruling, Barrett argues, makes it nearly impossible for the people of Lago Agrio to receive compensation or help to clean up the environmental damage. As Chevron has no assets in Ecuador, the plaintiffs will have to go elsewhere to claim compensation. Argentine, Brazilian and Canadian courts have already rebuffed efforts to seize Chevron assets in those countries. It is unlikely a US court will enforce the judgment. One can’t help but think that the millions of dollars spent fighting the case in court would  have been better spent cleaning up the mess left behind in Ecuador.

Paul Barrett, Law of the Jungle: The $19 billion legal battle over the oil in the rain forest and the lawyer who’d stop at nothing to win, Random House, 2014

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