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Court Ruling Backs Ecuadorian Effort to Hold Chevron Accountable for Amazon Pollution

StorySeptember 20, 2011
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A U.S. appeals court has ruled oil giant Chevron cannot escape an $18 billion fine for massive pollution of the Amazon rain forest. Amazonian residents won the damages in an Ecuadorian court earlier this year, and Chevron says it will appeal the decision. It is the latest development in a complex, 18-year legal battle that has gone before judges not just in Ecuador and the United States, but also The Hague. We speak with Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch, which has worked closely with the Amazon residents suing Chevron. Atossa Soltani is in New York City this week to draw attention to environmental causes in the Amazon in conjunction with two major gatherings, the Clinton Global Initiative and the United Nations General Assembly. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The oil giant Chevron has been dealt a setback in its bid to escape responsibility for massive pollution in Ecuador’s rain forest. On Monday, a U.S. appeals court vacated a ruling that allowed Chevron to avoid enforcement of a fine of up to $18 billion. Amazonian residents won the damages in an Ecuadorian court earlier this year. Chevron is appealing the decision in Ecuador, and in March won a U.S. court order blocking the plaintiffs from claiming their damages abroad, including in the United States. Monday’s ruling freezes that judgment until the appeals court is able to weigh in on the case.

It’s the latest development in a complex, 18-year legal battle that’s gone before judges not just in Ecuador and the United States, but also at The Hague. Chevron has also filed counter-suits in the case, accusing the plaintiffs and their attorneys of fraud. In a statement, Chevron said, quote, “[We] remain confident that once the full facts are examined, the fraudulent judgment will be found unenforceable and those who procured it will be required to answer for their misconduct.”

Well, we’re joined right now by Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch, which has worked closely with the Amazon residents suing Chevron. Atossa Soltani is in New York this week to draw attention to environmental causes in the Amazon in conjunction with two major gatherings, the Clinton Global Initiative and the United Nations General Assembly.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Atossa.

ATOSSA SOLTANI: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this ruling that just came down.

ATOSSA SOLTANI: Well, I think this ruling affirms what we’ve been saying and what the plaintiffs have been saying for a decade, that—for over a decade, that Chevron is guilty of massive environmental contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon. A decision was handed down in February against Chevron, ruling that Chevron is guilty and ordering the company to pay $18 billion in damages. And what Chevron did is run to find a sympathetic venue—in this case, Judge Kaplan’s court here in New York—that would protect it from justice. And what we saw yesterday was a decision that blocks the injunction against the Amazonian communities and their legal team to be able to enforce this judgment against Chevron.

And I think what it says is that it’s really time—it sends a message. It’s a legal victory. It’s a victory for rule of law. It’s a victory for the communities that are fighting against Chevron for the last two decades, that Chevron needs to stop its abusive PR tactics and deceitful PR and its legal fireworks, and address the health and environmental catastrophe that it created in the Amazon, and pay up. And, of course, this is not yet—you know, it’s not yet ready for—we have one more hurdle to go, which is the appeals court, the appeal—Chevron’s appeal of the decision in the Ecuadorian court. So we’re still waiting for that decision. But really, this is a—you know, wipes off two years of, you know, legal—backhanded legal maneuvering by Chevron in the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened. Chevron bought Texaco, so this is when Texaco was in the rain forest.

ATOSSA SOLTANI: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what actually took place. What areas are we talking about?

ATOSSA SOLTANI: We’re talking about the northern Ecuadorian Amazon, where Texaco arrived in the late '60s and started drilling for oil in a way that would have been illegal to do in the United States, dumping huge amounts of production waters and drilling waste and causing a significant area—18 billion gallons of toxic waste and over 20 million gallons of crude waste that was spilled in this area. Some 30,000 people live here, including five indigenous tribes, who have been systematically poisoned over the last 30 years. And there is a public health crisis. There's epidemics of cancer, birth defects, all kinds of health problems related to the oil pollution. People here don’t have drinking water, so every day they’re drinking the water from the rivers and streams and poisoning themselves in the process.

So, the case was brought initially in the New York courts against Chevron. And for nearly a decade, Chevron argued that this case should be heard in Ecuador. And then it went to Ecuador. Once Chevron bought Texaco, it assumed the liabilities. The case was taken to Ecuador, and that’s where it’s been for the—since 2003. So now it’s ironic that after nearly, you know, a decade of arguing the case should be heard in Ecuador, Chevron is back in the New York courts looking for a sympathetic judge to block enforcement. It’s lost the first round of this historic trial. And we believe that Chevron needs to, you know, stop its tactics of trying to allege fraud, and address the real health crises that are facing the communities in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: During arguments on Friday, U.S. Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch asked a Chevron lawyer, quote, “Are you saying that a New York court is in charge of deciding that we will not tolerate a South African judgment, procured by fraud, and enforced in Russia?” What does that mean?

ATOSSA SOLTANI: Well, basically, you know, Judge Kaplan was giving a global injunction to prevent lawyers for the communities in the Amazon to enforce this decision that the Ecuadorian judge made against Chevron. So it’s basically legal imperialism, preventing—basically saying that a U.S. district court could—you know, a U.S. district court could prevent a sovereign court in another country from finding an American company guilty of crimes. And that is legal imperialism, and I think that’s what the district court—the court of appeals found yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Brazil. You’re here at the United Nations. What is happening in Brazil? Talk about your work there?

ATOSSA SOLTANI: Well, two-thirds of the Amazon rain forest is in Brazil. And currently, there’s a triple threat in Brazil coming initially from the Belo Monte Dam, which would be the third-largest dam in the world, planned for the Xingu River. You have also a big debate happening in the Brazilian congress over the forestry code, which rules how much a landowner can clear of its forests, under law. And there’s a backsliding. There’s a proposed law that would, you know, rule back the forest code. And then you have a rise, a significant rise, in murders and death threats against activists. So this is a triple threat. It is a critical moment for the Amazon. And the Amazon is important to the entire planet. It is really the engine of the global weather system. It’s the rain machine for the planet. And we cannot afford to lose the Amazon at the rate that it’s going. We’re approaching the tipping point of ecological collapse.

So you have President Dilma Rousseff, who’s the first woman president of Brazil. She’s actually opening up the General Assembly here tomorrow for the first time a woman head of state has done that. And under her, you know, current administration, we’re seeing a significant rise in deforestation rates, in crimes against activists. And now, with the—in June, the license for the Belo Monte Dam was issued, and this is causing significant environmental damage. This dam would be—would destroy 60 miles of the Xingu River. It would displace some 40,000 people. The bulldozers have started to arrive in the city of Altamira. There is chaos ensuing. People are being displaced from their land without compensation or even consent. Their homes are being destroyed. Actually, just recently, there have been people whose houses have been burned by the police. And you have a situation of significant conflict in an area that already has the highest deforestation rate, and crime is up. You know, there’s literally chaos ensuing in the cities and the towns around this dam. And there are many promises the government made that this dam—the environmental impacts of this dam would be addressed, that haven’t been met, and those promises haven’t been met. So, just yesterday, the municipality of Altamira called on the Dilma government to suspend this dam project. And this is a municipality that was previously in favor of the dam. So what we have is, you know, we have a crisis. We have—in this area, which is Pará, the state of Pará, you also have the heightened—where the activists were murdered a few months ago. Six people have already been murdered in recent months.

AMY GOODMAN: Atossa, I wanted to break in, because we’ve just gotten this breaking news from Georgia. Clemency has been denied for Troy Davis. The Board of Pardons and Parole has denied clemency, which means, unless anything changes, he will be executed on September 21st—that’s Wednesday night—7:00 Eastern Standard Time in Jackson, Georgia. Again, clemency has been denied for Troy Anthony Davis.

We’re going to wrap the show right now. I want to thank you very much, Atossa Soltani, for joining us. Latest news out of Brazil is that Brazilian authorities have arrested two brothers in connection with the murders of two Amazon environmental activists, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo. He predicted he would be killed when he went back to Brazil. He said, “I will protect the forest at all costs. That is why I could get a bullet in my head at any moment.” Those are the words of José, who was executed.

That does it for our broadcast. Again, the latest news in this country, Troy Anthony Davis’s appeal for clemency has been denied. He is set to be executed September 21st, Wednesday, at 7:00 p.m. in Georgia.

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