“Chevron Left Ecuador Leaving $300 & the Jungle Destroyed”

This is how the US based Chevron Company left the soil of “Lago Agrio” in the Ecuadoran Amazon, with a layer of petroleum covering part of its surface. Photo from PxP

By Fernanda Sandez (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – The above photo was taken some years back. A young woman, her short hair still very dark, stands in the middle of the jungle, in the zone known as Lago Agrio, deep in Ecuador’s Amazon region. She holds up a blackened hand and looks straight at the camera without smiling. She has no reason to smile – that material which resembles very dark clay and totally obscures her hand and fingers in the full light of day, is in reality crude oil.

That’s how the giant US oil company Chevron left the site after years of operating there. The environmental and social consequences continue today.

“People even organize so-called “toxic tours” to visit the zone. That photo was taken during one of those excursions. If you hammer a stick into the ground there, water doesn’t come out, oil does,” Attorney Adoracion Guaman tells us, now from the other side of the Atlantic. Guaman is the Ecuadoran-Spanish lawyer who has been denouncing for decades what she doesn’t hesitate to call the “legal architecture of impunity.”

As of today, in fact, after being declared guilty in 2011 by an Ecuadoran court – in a trial that lasted eight years, involved six judges and accumulated a court record of over 220,000 pages – the company ended up being favored by a court in the Netherlands.

Conclusion: now it’s Ecuador that’s supposed to pay compensation to the company. “Meanwhile, the people affected by the contamination have yet to see a single dollar,” the attorney emphasizes.

In addition to her work as a human rights activist, Adoracion Guaman, the woman in the photo taken at Lago Agrio, is an expert in international trade, supply chains and modern slavery.

She teaches at several Latin American universities, served as advisor to the Ecuadoran government under former President Rafael Correa (2007 – 2017), and for years has been fighting for the creation of an binding international legal instrument capable of achieving what has cost so much – to force the transnational companies that violate human rights and provoke environmental disasters far from their home sites to respond for their actions, compensate the victims, and not end up eternally walking away scot free.

That’s another reason that Guaman, a tenured professor of Labor Law at the University of Valencia who holds two doctorates and has written over 75 scientific articles on the subject, has for the last decade participated in an initiative with a promising name: “Global campaign to restore people’s sovereignty, dismantle the power of the transnational corporations, and put an end to impunity.”  Nothing less.

“In June 2014, the United Nations voted to advance towards the creation of an instrument of this type,” she notes.

The “Lady of the Jungle,” as Attorney Adoracion Guaman is known in Ecuador, at an international meeting in Geneva. Image: Periodistas por el Planeta (PxP)

What’s the state of that project now?

Adoracion Guaman: While the process in the United Nations began in 2014, the popular struggles preceded them with the peoples’ tribunals, etc. What happened in 2014 was that a resolution (#269) was approved to form a working group. The group was spearheaded by Ecuador and South Africa, and has now held eight sessions, with the ninth scheduled for November of this year.

At that time – in 2014 – Ecuador wanted not only to lead the region in matters of human rights, but also to put a check on corporate power, a mandate that’s in our Constitution. All of that was greatly marked by the Chevron case.

The idea of ex-President Correa and his foreign minister was to succeed in modifying international law as concerns human rights, with the aim of establishing instruments that would allow the large economies that control the world to assume obligations and responsibilities with respect to human rights and nature.

This was backed by a number of groups from civil society. In an unprecedented move, and to the stupefaction of the European Union, they called a vote and won. The European Union, Japan, and of course the United States, voted against. The issue began well, but, eight years later there’s still a lot lacking.


After the elections in Ecuador brought a pivot to the right, things began to get complicated. There were battles they didn’t want to fight – the battle to establish a binding treaty for example – and in that fight Latin America wasn’t really present, and still isn’t.

Hence after eight sessions we have a text that’s still being amended, and the presidency of the group, which Ecuador is in charge of, leaves a lot to be desired. They haven’t known how or haven’t wanted to move forward with really productive meetings.

We advocated for the creation of a committee or a tribunal that could directly sanction the companies, as occurs with the Commission for International Crimes. Or, as France proposed, to open a Chamber in the International Court of Justice that’s dedicated especially to this topic.

However, after the change of government in Ecuador and the presidential period of Lenin Moreno (2017 – 2021), the document we’d drafted – which included the corporations’ obligations – was discarded.  The document that was presented were toothless words.  

There’s one document in which the corporations no longer appear as subjects with direct obligations, a decaffeinated script that insists on the obligations of each government, and in which human rights are no longer the linchpin. Also, all references to the creation of a tribunal were eliminated, in favor of just a bare mention of a committee. There was very little transparency. It wasn’t even made known who drafted those documents.

Up to today, we haven’t seen international sanctions or justice for the victims, beyond some extra-judicial economic agreements. What keeps your hopes alive?

To me, there are two clear points of hope. One is because the social mobilization continues. All around the planet, the social organizations are confronting the transnational corporations and their voice is heard more and more.

Sixteen years ago, voices that pointed a finger at the transnationals were never heard – not in the media and not in academic circles. You never heard anything about those who spoke against impunity oragainst global corporate power.

Today, with the struggle for this binding treaty alone, we’ve succeeded in putting on the negotiating table the fact that there are powers which – as Salvador Allende said in 1972 (when he was president of Chile) – are supranational powers that drive the world, and are impossible to rein in.

Confronting this, there’s the social struggle, and also the militant forces of academia. In addition, in the national framework, there are numerous initiatives that are yielding some results.

For example?

French law regarding due diligence is beginning to have results; the same with German law. In Spain, we’re also drafting one [such law]; and in Latin America there are many initiatives for establishing norms in that sense.

Some successes have been obtained in international tribunals in climate litigation and in human rights, for example. That’s working well.

There are reports of social organizations that have brought multitudes of companies before the international tribunals. And they’re winning. They’ve managed to push many transnationals against the ropes. So, with or without a binding agreement, the struggle continues advancing greatly.

It moves slowly, and it won’t be easy, because this goes right to the heart of transnational capitalism. Today it may seem as if impunity continues, but at the social level it’s not so.

What role should consumers be playing?

That’s a question we’ve discussed a great deal. For many years, there was a tendency – especially when it became clear that the corporation’s proclaimed social responsibility was nothing but a way to wash their hands, since, according to them, the responsibility lay above all on the buyer. However, while citizen awareness of their consumption is certainly very important, in reality it’s the government’s job to make sure that [corporate social responsibility] is in effect.

We can’t hold the people alone responsible for the consumption of products that should be prohibited, precisely because they were produced based on grave human rights violations or environmental damage. Why? Because when a product or a service is stained with blood or produced via the destruction of nature, the State has to do something.

Are there any good examples of that?

The law of due diligence in the Netherlands, which hasn’t yet come out, goes a little in that direction. It proposes that consumers be able to make purchases “with peace of mind.” They explicitly state: “this law is intended to ensure that consumers can buy with their minds at ease.”

However, my struggle isn’t pointed in that direction. It’s not so that consumers can buy in peace. What I’m seeking is that the national governments take responsibility for what the companies import to sell (in their territory or in another), and how they produce capital gains based on the violation of rights, no matter where these violations are committed.

But – what can be done now that the corporations are within the governments?

The corporate takeover of the public powers is a phenomenon that, disgracefully, is occurring on all sides. From the Madrid of that woman whose brother trafficked with face masks, to the Minister of Labor who came from the banana sector, etc. But in any case, the fact of having norms that could lead to a law is something in itself – beyond this government takeover.

For that reason, I call them “battle trench laws,” because they’re passed under progressive governments, so that when conservative governments come to power, the laws are there – at least, until they repeal them. When I’ve been part of governments, I’ve dedicated myself to cementing social policies.

What was the experience like when you litigated against Chevron?

That was my first case regarding these issues, and I became involved with it relatively late, after the first lawsuit had already happened. I’m a close friend of Pablo Fajardo, who was then the plaintiff lawyer, and I got involved with the case as a lawyer for the Union of those Affected by Chevron-Texaco’s Operations.

I had the opportunity to work with them on the ground, and that was what brought me back to Ecuador. Discovering the barbarity they had done was the factor that led me to get still further involved.

As you know, after those affected brought a lawsuit against Chevron and beat them in 2011, with a firm sentence, Chevron abandoned Ecuador, leaving US $300 dollars in their bank account and the jungle destroyed. Then, in the height of the absurd, there was a new ruling by a court in the Netherlands in 2018, stating that it’s Ecuador that’s supposed to pay. That’s how impunity functions.

This article is part of “Planet Community” a journalistic project led by “Periodistas por el planeta” [“Journalists for the Planet”] in Latin America, which the IPS participates in.

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