When big multinationals get called out by the woman or man on the street, the story tends to almost always play out in the same way, with the individual finally being crushed by the sheer multi-scale power of whichever corporation is in question. The complex, disturbing case of Chevron’s presence in Ecuador is little different, and in this case the man in the process of being crushed by the beast has a name: Steven Donzinger.
Donzinger has been under house arrest for over a year with charges that reach a maximum penalty of 6 months, and is finally going to see a trial on the 3rd of November. He is still suffering the consequences from his active role in the lawsuit against the Chevron Corporation, an oil company which is responsible for massive pollution in Ecuador’s Amazonia going back a generation. Seemingly, Donzinger’s battle would come to an end when the court ruled against Chevron in 2016, but discourse persisted when he was accused of illegal activity such as racketeering, money laundering, wire fraud, and more, by Chevron’s law firm.
Donzinger’s supporters see the ongoing litigation as nothing less than corporation-sponsored persecution of an individual who stood up to a multinational, sending a clear warning across the bows of future litigants who might dare to take a stand.
Sparking the initial charges was Alberto Guerra, an Ecuadorian judge compensated by Chevron, who testified against Donzinger and later confessed that his account was false. The Southern District of New York court filed to dismiss the case but former corporate representative (now Judge) Lewis Kaplan moved it to a private firm to process the charges, a key move as it all but guaranteed trial without a jury. Critics have commented on the evident bias in Kaplan’s judgment, such as attorney Charles Nesson, who pointed out how this charge “…is the pinnacle element of all of the other claims against him. And if you take that one out, the rest of them – they’re just not there… He has effectively been convicted of bribery by the finding of a single judge in a case in which bribery wasn’t even the charge.”
The USD$9.5 (originally USD$18) billion lawsuit punishing Chevron for the 16 billion gallons of pollutant in the Amazonian has been under the spotlight for being one of the longest environmental cases in history. This pollution, which consisted of enormous amounts of toxic waste into Lago Agrio’s lakes and rivers over decades starting in the 60’s, has caused countless health problems such as birth defects, cancer, and miscarriages, and has had multiple unsurprising harmful impacts on the environment and biodiversity. The USD$150 billion company was saving an estimated USD$5 billion of earnings doing this.
John Horan, a civil litigation attorney, has compiled an extensive recommendation for Donzinger’s suspension to practice law be lifted, and also criticizes Judge Kaplan’s evident bias. Horan points out that Kaplan’s judgment is problematic because he has regarded Chevron positively, with Kaplan’s previous statement: “We are dealing here with a company of considerable importance to our economy.” Horan insists “it is fairly obvious that Judge Kaplan had great personal animosity for Steven Donzinger.” Additionally in the report are multiple positive character references for Donzinger, and insists he does not lack the qualities of “honesty, integrity, and credibility.”
Corporations – with a pre-eminent focus on profit margins – frequently act uniquely for commercial benefit. These behavior systems are fundamentally divorced from a real world context, and when objective oversight is removed by a partisan judicial process, it is not just the environment which is failed, but also society at large.
Donzinger has spent decades fighting for the individuals affected by Chevron’s actions, only to lose both his physical and financial freedom. While the press has been scrutinized for neglecting the trial enough spotlight, the initial charges against Donzinger are but themselves enough to cause public controversy.
The myth tells us that plucky David ultimately brings down Goliath, but the global reality is that David’s success, although often told, is an outlier; where money and power are at stake, Goliath almost always marches on, crushing all resistance.
For Times Media Mexico
Isabella Fix is a freelance writer whose work focuses on social and environmental issues.
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