Chevron in Ecuador

The archive of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign website

Death Threats Made to Ecuadorian Lawyer in Chevron Pollution Case

Juan Pablo Saenz is representing small farmers trying to force Chevron to pay damages for pollution in the Amazon

By Grace Livingstone, The Guardian
26 March 2014

The Ecuadorian lawyer representing small farmers trying to force Chevron to pay damages for pollution in the Amazon rainforest says he has received death threats.

"People are constantly following us in Ecuador," said lawyer Juan Pablo Saenz, who told the Guardian he has received two anonymous death threats by phone. "They said to me: 'Think very carefully about what you are doing, because it would be a shame if something happened to you and your family'."

He does not know who made the threats. Lawyers working on the Chevron case in Ecuador – known as the "Amazon Chernobyl" – now have protection from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

In an historic judgment three years ago, an Ecuadorian court ruled that Chevron should pay US$18bn of damages for pollution in north-eastern Ecuador.

But earlier this month, a US district judge found that "corrupt means" had been used to persuade the Ecuadorian court to reach that verdict. The US judge said the claimants could no longer pursue their claims for damages in US courts, though the campaigners said they will appeal the decision.

Saenz said the corruption claim was baseless. He said the key witness in the US trial was a former Ecuadorian judge, Alberto Guerra, who has received more than $10,000 a month from Chevron. The oil company paid for him and his family to emigrate from Ecuador to the United States, court documents show.

A spokesman for Chevron said: "They like to point to what they claim is a payment to judge Guerra. But the 500-page judgment is based on much more. We had a seven-week trial, where thousands of pieces of evidence were presented, from emails to movie clips, to diary entries, that all show that the legal team for the claimants were committing fraud against Chevron. The judgment lays out in detail the scheme again Chevron and it goes well beyond judge Guerra’s testimony."

He added: "Chevron is not responsible for any pollution in Ecuador. If they had had the scientific evidence on their side, they would not gone to such lengths, committing fraud and corrupting the Ecuadorian judiciary, to bring a false judgement against Chevron.

"It’s easy for people to believe a large oil company went into a Latin American country in the 1960s and committed these things, but when you look at the evidence you see that Texaco did what it was supposed to do and cleaned up the sites for which it was responsible."

Texaco, which was later taken over by Chevron, is accused of dumping 18bn gallons of toxic waste water and spilling 17m gallons of crude oil in the Lago Agrio region of Ecuador between 1964 and 1990. The affected area covers 1,700 square miles. Locals say the soil and rivers have been poisoned and many people have contracted illnesses.

Chevron no longer has assets in Ecuador, so the claimants are fighting a legal battle to force the company to pay the damages in the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. They are also considering pursuing Chevron in the UK.

"Chevron portrays itself to its shareholders as a monolithic entity, but when you try to collect damages, suddenly they pull out a map of subsidiaries," says Saenz, who said the case against Chevron feels like "fighting an empire".

Last year, a Canadian court ruled that the small farmers have the right to seek damages from Chevron in Canada and Saenz thinks the Canadian courts will order the company to pay up within the next two years. "We will win this fight, however long it takes. We want to show that if poor communities organise, they can get justice."