Monday, December 5, 2011

U.S. Embassy Finally Lifts A Finger to Help Fix Rainforest Destroyed by American Oil Company Chevron

In a surprising turn of events given the U.S. Embassy long and sordid history in Ecuador, our nation’s ambassador there has decided to support a joint effort by Ecuadorians and The Nature Conservancy to preserve the rainforest where the Cofan indigenous group lives. It's about time. See the Embassy’s press statement here.

In 1993, a year after Chevron abandoned its operations in Ecuador, a group of Ecuadorian indigenous groups and farmer communities sued the company for damages in U.S. federal court. Chevron was granted its request that the trial be held in Ecuador. Earlier this year, that move backfired when the Ecuadorians won a historic $18 billion judgment. See here.

Among the groups suing Chevron was the Cofan, who have seen their population drop from 15,000 to a few hundred brave souls due to the devastating effects of Chevron's pollution. But rather than help the Cofan, the U.S. Embassy historically has tried to do all it could to help Chevron avoid accountability for its devastating abuses.

Chevron has fought the Cofan and other indigenous groups every step of the way and promises to never pay the Ecuador court judgment even though Chevron promised to abide by any judgment out of that country's courts as a condition of the dismissal of the case from U.S. federal court.

Earlier this year, Wikileaks disclosed U.S. Embassy cables that suggest Chevron conspired with U.S. Embassy officials in Ecuador to obstruct the lawsuit brought by the Cofan and their allies. See this Mother Jones article for the eye-opening details of the cozy relationship Chevron had with embassy and former embassy officials.

A quick recap of the Wikileaks cables (see here, here, here and here) shows that Chevron left no stone unturned in its efforts to undermine the trial:
  • One of the cables, written by U.S. Ambassador Linda Jewell in April of 2008, revealed that Chevron convinced Jewell to go to bat for two Chevron lawyers who faced a criminal investigation for signing off in 1998 on a sham remediation of oil sites in exchange for a government release from liability. Jewell wrote the embassy "will consider how it can help Chevron resolve" the case, and that she contacted a former Supreme Court President of Ecuador as part of that strategy.

  • Linda Jewell
    U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador

  • Chevron tipped off U.S. embassy officials that during the ongoing trial it had offered to set up "social projects" in the Amazon in exchange for GOE [Government of Ecuador] support for ending the case.

  • In August 2009, Chevron lawyer Ricardo Reis Veiga called the then-U.S. ambassador to provide a "heads up" that the company was releasing secret videotapes taken by Chevron contractor Diego Borja that the company claimed implicated the judge in a bribery scandal. The move backfired after Borja later admitted Chevron paid him for his work in trying to entrap the judge, and that the tapes did not actually show a bribe.

  • Ambassador Jewell appeared to unabashedly adopt Chevron's worldview of the hotly disputed legal case. She wrote that Chevron was not liable for the contamination due to a government release when that very issue was being litigated before the Ecuador court. Eventually, Chevron lost that argument.

  • Another cable from March of 2006, written by Charge d'Affairs Jefferson Brown, said that Chevron executive Jamie Varela told embassy officials that "Chevron had not had any real complaints about the judge" or the "administration of the case" in Lago Agrio. Chevron later argued before various U.S. courts that Ecuador's judicial system was unfair at that time, contradicting these private statements to the embassy.

  • Varela also tipped off Brown that Chevron was planning to file an international arbitration case against the Government of Ecuador in a move to gain leverage over the Lago Agrio case, according to the cables. Varela also indicated that Chevron would not publicly disclose the filing for fear the plaintiffs would use it against the company.

  • Jefferson Brown

  • Brown also wrote that U.S. embassy officials were "surprised" that Varela did not ask for U.S. government "intervention in the case" to help Chevron, as had other Chevron officials. Nevertheless, Brown wrote that the embassy "will continue to raise the [Chevron] matter with [Ecuador's government] when we discuss other commercial disputes" but he also concluded that Chevron's complaints were "being fairly and adequately addressed in the courts or in arbitration and require no direct [U.S. government] action at this time."

The U.S. embassy in Ecuador might want to explain why it was working to undermine the rule of law in Ecuador to help an American company that was committing human rights abuses.