Donziger to Speak at Harvard Law on Historic Environmental Litigation of Amazon Indigenous Groups Against Chevron
CAMBRIDGE, MA - New York human rights attorney Steven Donziger – long considered a leading public enemy of the oil and gas industry – is slated to speak to students at Harvard Law School Tuesday about the historic environmental judgment won by Ecuadorian indigenous peoples and farmer communities against Chevron and the company’s attempt to retaliate by deploying 60 law firms to target adversary counsel.
The case, Aguinda v. Chevron, has traversed three continents and 24 years in what is considered by scholars to be one of the most sprawling, complex, and expensive litigations in history. Chevron has spent at least $2 billion on its defense and lately has focused on trying to taint the $9.5 billion judgment won by the rainforest communities by accusing Donziger and his indigenous clients of fraud – an allegation contradicted by no fewer than 21 appellate judges in Ecuador and Canada who have reviewed all or parts of the case.
Donziger will speak at an event sponsored by the Environmental Law Society and participate in a fair trial class at the invitation of Charles Nesson, the William F. Weld Professor of Law at Harvard. The class is studying Donziger’s role in the battle of the Ecuadorians for a clean-up of their ancestral lands, which are pockmarked with roughly 1,000 unlined toxic waste pits filled with oil sludge that continue to contaminate groundwater and streams in an area where cancer rates have skyrocketed. (See here for a summary of the evidence against Chevron and here for photos of some of the victims.)
“We are excited to have Steven return to Harvard Law where he can share his view of the Chevron environmental case with our students,” said Professor Nesson.
The litigation between the rainforest communities and Chevron has become a global flashpoint over the conflict between indigenous rights and oil development in delicate ecosystems. It also poses a case study in the ability – or inability -- of civil justice systems to hold powerful corporations accountable for causing environmental harms to vulnerable populations.
Although Chevron had insisted the trial take place in Ecuador and had accepted jurisdiction there, the company has refused to pay the judgment and has threatened the communities and their lawyers with a “lifetime of litigation” if they persist. In the meantime, Chevron has lost three consecutive unanimous appellate decisions in Canada, where the villagers are trying to enforce their judgment by seizing Chevron assets.
Major Chevron shareholders also have stepped up their criticism of management for failing to settle the case (see this blog) while some of Canada’s most prominent indigenous leaders – including former National Chief Phil Fontaine -- have spoken out forcefully against the company for refusing to remediate its pollution in Ecuador. Greenpeace Co-founder Rex Weyler recently accused Chevron of committing “ecological crimes” after visiting the affected area.
Donziger has been targeted with what observers believe could be the most well-financed corporate retaliation campaign in history. Chevron has admitted paying the private investigations firm Kroll at least $15 million to spy on him and his family as well as other counsel. Kroll admitted preparing at least 20 reports designed to dig up “dirt” that could be used to discredit Donziger. Chevron also has used six public relations firms and 150 investigators on the case.
Despite evidence Chevron’s lawyers at the firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher paid an admittedly corrupt witness $2 million to try to frame Donziger and his clients in a civil RICO case designed to collaterally attack the Ecuador judgment (see here and here for background), a U.S. federal trial judge who refused to seat a jury ruled in favor of the company. The judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, refused to consider the voluminous scientific evidence of Chevron’s pollution in Ecuador, denied Donziger the ability to bring counterclaims against Chevron alleging criminal behavior by the company, did not disclose what evidence he admitted until he issued his opinion, and for various reasons crippled Donziger’s ability to defend himself, according to many legal observers.
(See here and here for analyses of the Kaplan ruling by commentators and this motion by trial attorney John Keker calling the RICO proceeding a “Dickensian farce” where the judge showed “implacable hostility” toward the Ecuadorians and Donziger.)
Donziger called Judge Kaplan’s RICO decision in favor of Chevron an “example of American judicial imperialism” that is backfiring against the company in enforcement courts. Chevron’s paid witness in the RICO matter, Alberto Guerra, later admitted lying under oath. Donziger and his clients recently sent a criminal referral letter to the U.S. Department of Justice seeking a probe of the company and its lawyers for presenting false evidence.
At one point, Donziger – himself a 1991 Harvard Law School graduate -- faced off against 114 lawyers from the Gibson Dunn firm as he defended himself pro se. Chevron admitted in an internal email that its long-term strategy was to “demonize Donziger” and at one point a top Chevron official said in reference to the case, “We will fight this until hell freezes over, and then fight it out on the ice.”
Chevron also is trying to orchestrate Donziger’s disbarment in New York without allowing him a hearing based on Judge Kaplan’s civil RICO findings – a move he is currently litigating (see here). Chevron also filed a motion before Judge Kaplan to try to force Donziger to pay $32 million of the company’s legal fees in the RICO case -- a number he has said is designed to silence his advocacy and that he has no hope of actually paying.
Donziger, a sole practitioner, has been widely praised by environmental leaders even as he has drawn the ire of Chevron and business organization such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “For more than two decades, Steven Donziger has taken on one of the largest and most important fights for corporate accountability in history,” said Paul Paz y Mino, associate director of the environmental group Amazon Watch. “His ability to stare down one of the most vicious corporate attacks ever is nothing short of astounding and serves as an inspiration to untold numbers of people around the world.”
For background on the case, see this article in Rolling Stone, this legal brief by Donziger’s appellate counsel, this report about the erroneous RICO findings, and this photo essay by award-winning journalist Lou Dematteis.
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