The Ecuadorians, who recently won a $19 billion judgment against Chevron for oil contamination in the Amazon rainforest, have filed a lawsuit in Argentina, asking a court to freeze $2 billion in Chevron's Argentina assets as partial payment for the judgment. Chevron has refused to pay, even though the Ecuadorian courts have ordered the company to do so, and U.S. courts have said the judgment can be enforced. Chevron has few assets in Ecuador.
The chances of the Ecuadorians' collecting are good because Argentina and Ecuador have an agreement that they treat each other's court decisions as their own. Chevron's shareholders should be concerned because $2 billion ain't chump change.
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Ecuador Villagers Seek $2 Billion of Chevron Assets In Argentina
Buenos Aires, Argentina – Indigenous groups and villagers from Ecuador are filing suit today to freeze an estimated $2 billion of Chevron assets in Argentina to help pay for a remediation of the extensive toxic pollution left by the oil giant on their ancestral lands in the Amazon rainforest, representatives of the communities announced.
The move is the fourth legal action filed to enforce a $19 billion judgment in Ecuador against Chevron for creating what experts believe is the world's worst oil-related contamination, dubbed the "Rainforest Chernobyl" by local communities. Earlier legal actions were filed this year against Chevron assets in Canada, Brazil, and Ecuador.
Brought by the prominent lawyer Enrique Bruchou, the action in Argentina differs from the earlier seizure actions in that it derives its authority in part from an international treaty in Latin America called the Inter-American Convention on the Execution of Preventive Measures. The treaty, which dates from the late 1970s, allows for the automatic freezing of assets of a defendant that fails to abide by the law and refuses to pay a final foreign judgment.
The Preventive Measures treaty has been ratified by Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, Guatemala, and Uruguay. Venezuela and Chile have signed the treaty, but have not ratified it.
Chevron maintains oil operations and bank accounts in Argentina worth about $2 billion, said Bruchou and Pablo Fajardo, the lawyer representing dozens of indigenous and farmer communities in Ecuador. Chevron's operations in Argentina produce about 26,000 barrels of crude and 4 million cubic feet of natural gas daily.
In all, the amount of Chevron assets in the four countries are worth at least an estimated $8 billion, said Fajardo. Because the judgment in Ecuador against Chevron is for $19.04 billion, seizure actions will continue to be filed against Chevron assets in more countries to make sure the full amount of the judgment is collected, he added.
Bruchou, a native of Buenos Aries, founded his firm in 1990 after working for several years at the U.S. law firm Shearman & Sterling. International Financial Law Review named his law firm, Bruchou Fernandez Madero & Lombardi the best in Argentina for five consecutive years. Bruchou himself was named "Law Firm Leader of the Year" in 2011 by the prestigious Latin Lawyer magazine.
In a press conference in Buenos Aires on Wednesday, Bruchou said that enforcement of the Ecuador judgment in Argentina and other Latin American countries will signal to foreign investors that they should apply the same environmental standards they use at home to areas where vulnerable indigenous and farmer communities are located. "We ask for no more than that and no less than that," he said. "We call it responsible foreign investment."
Just recently, a court in Ecuador ordered the seizure of an estimated $200 million in Chevron's assets in that country, which include bank accounts and a $96.3 million debt owed the oil giant by Ecuador's government. Any further investments that Chevron tries to make in the four countries would be subject to seizure and auction, said Fajardo.
The case originally was filed in the U.S. in 1993, but shifted to Ecuador in 2002 at Chevron's request after the oil company praised the courts there as fair and transparent.
After an eight-year trial, the court in Ecuador found in 2011 that Chevron admitted to deliberately dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste into Amazon waterways, decimating indigenous groups and creating an epidemic of cancer that has killed or threatens to kill thousands of people. A video on the case can be seen here; a written summary of the evidence can be read here; and a segment from the U.S. news show 60 Minutes on the case can be viewed here.
The area affected by Chevron's toxic dumping was once one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet.
Luis Yanza, a representative of the dozens of rainforest communities that brought the lawsuit, praised the filing of the action in Argentina. "The time has come to use the force of law to obligate Chevron to correct its atrocious behavior in our country," Yanza said.
"We have fought now for almost two decades to correct the injustice created by Chevron in Ecuador," said Fajardo, who grew up in Ecuador's oil fields and is the recipient of a CNN Hero Award. "While Chevron might think it can ignore court orders in Ecuador, it will be impossible for Chevron to ignore court orders in countries where it maintains substantial assets," he added.
The action in Argentina comes just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court denied Chevron's attempt to block enforcement of the judgment, while numerous other U.S. courts have flatly rejected the oil giant's claim that the judgment was the product of "fraud". In May, Chevron CEO John Watson suffered a stunning reprimand when investors holding 38% of the company's shares voted for a resolution that found he mishandled the Ecuador case.