Ontario Court of Appeal says communities of Ecuador affected by Chevron can enforce Ecuadorian rulings in Canada
by Santiago Escobar
As the Unist’ot’en continue their protracted battle against Chevron and other companies in resistance to the Pacific Trails Pipeline in northern B.C. over unceded Wet’suwet’en territory, Indigenous peoples of the Amazon Rain Forest in Ecuador are pursuing Chevron in Canada for damages in one of the largest oil-related catastrophes in history.
This past December 2013, after twenty years of legal battles with America’s third largest corporation – ranking 11th in the world – the 30,000+ Indigenous plaintiffs of Ecuador made a small step forward when an Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that they could pursue Chevonr for damages they were awarded in the Ecuadorian courts. But the battle is far from over.
Between 1964 and 1990, U.S. oil giant Texaco (now Chevron) deliberately contaminated Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest by dumping some 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater, among other contaminants, leaving in its wake pollution levels 30 times higher than the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. What has been called Amazon’s ‘Chernobyl’ has led to a proliferation of miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer rates that are thirty times higher than elsewhere in the country. Scientific readings of the toxicity of water and soil in the region have revealed levels thousands of times above what is permitted by both Ecuadorian and U.S. law. And it’s the region’s Indigenous inhabitants – which includes the Quechua, Siona, Cofan, Secoya and Huaorani peoples – who are bearing the brunt of the genocidal effects of the Amazon’s destruction. The Tetetes and the Sansahuari peoples have already been killed off by Chevron’s activities.
The battle with Chevron is just one of many faced by Ecuador and its inhabitants in the face of U.S. corporate interests and imperialist military operations in the region, including the militarization of Colombia, which has in the past already launched military attacks into Ecuador. For his part, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has opposed U.S. manoeuvres in the region, launching the campaign “Dirty Hands” against Chevron.
Chevron has used all the “legal” resources at its disposal to avoid compensating those affected in Ecuador. According to the indigenous plaintiffs, Chevron has a legal army with more than 60 legal firms, some 2,000 legal professionals, top-notch public relations firms, the shadowy “investigative and risk” management firm Kroll. In 2013 alone, Chevron spent $400 million alone in 2013 for “legal services” that have been deemed “unethical”. “This is probably the most money any company in history has spent defending itself on environmental claims,” said Aaron Page, a U.S. lawyer for the Ecuadorians. “The total legal cost for Chevron shareholders is likely approaching $2 billion and it is rising fast.”
In addition to the ‘legal’ means at its disposal to defeat the case, Chevron has also employed a whole series of other dirty tricks to undermine the lawsuit, including: harassing the plaintiffs’ legal team, several bribery attempts, and undercover plots such as setting a trap to the judge overseeing the case in Ecuador.
After nearly 20 years of battle, in 2011 an Ecuadorian court ruled that Chevron had to pay for the destruction that it caused and was required to compensate the victims. On December 11, 2013 the Supreme Court of Ecuador ratified the ruling and set the final amount owed at US$9.5 billion.
The plaintiffs are now trying to gain justice in several courts across the globe, including Canada, since Chevron no longer has assets remaining in Ecuador. On December 17, 2013, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that Ecuador’s Indigenous communities indeed have the right to pursue Chevron’s assets in Canada to enforce the US$9.5 billion Ecuador judgment. Chevron’s assets in Canada are currently estimated at US$15 billion. Thus, the entirety of the Ecuador judgment can be collected in Canada if the communities prevail on their enforcement action.
Referring to comments from a Chevron spokesman that the company would “fight this until hell freezes over” and then “fight it out on the ice,” Justice James Mac Pherson of the Court of Appeal for Ontario said that: “Chevron’s wish is granted. After all these years, the Ecuadorian plaintiffs deserve to have the recognition and enforcement of the Ecuadorian judgment heard on the merits in the appropriate jurisdiction. At this juncture, Ontario is that jurisdiction.”
Indigenous peoples in Canada will be watching the ruling closely, as the notorious polluter pursues development of the Pacific Trails pipeline through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in central B.C.
In an interview with BASICS, Freda Huson, a spokesperson for the Unist’ot’en, said, “We are protecting the Morice River and Gosnell creek, which feed into the Bulkley River. Salmon is one of our main staple food that spawn in Gosnel and swim down stream into Bulkley.” The Unist’ot’en built a cabin near the initial route of the proposed pipeline in 2010, which forced a route change for the Pacific Trails Pipeline.
Huson told BASICS Community News Service that “We have since constructed a traditional pithouse on their new proposed route. We have people living at the site blocking the only bridge into our territory. We stand in solidarity with many other nations struggles against industry destruction.”
Currently, several organizations and alliances in Canada are backing the Indigenous plaintiffs in Ecuador, including the Canadian and Quebec sections of the International League of People’s Struggles; the Hugo Chavez People’s Defense Front; Red de Amigos de la Revolución Ciudadana; Centro Comunitario San Lorenzo; and Barrio Nuevo.
The alliances are planning to have the first meeting of a Solidarity Committee at 6:30pm on January 16, 2014 at the Hispanic Centre of York, 1652 Keele St., Toronto.