Avaaz Targeting Chevron Over $12b Ecuador Pollution Disaster on Eve of Shareholder Meeting; 700,000 Sign Petition
NEW YORK, NY - Avaaz, the world’s largest online activist political network, has targeted Chevron with a “Justice for Amazon Chernobyl” campaign designed to force company CEO Mike Wirth to pay the $12 billion Ecuador pollution liability that has caused a wave of cancer and continues to decimate Indigenous groups in Ecuador’s rainforest.
Since Avaaz took up the issue a few days ago, more than 700,000 people around the world have signed a petition in support of the Indigenous groups in their battle to hold Chevron accountable for what is widely considered the world’s worst oil-related disaster. The petition urges one of the company’s largest investors, Vanguard, to vote in favor of two shareholder resolutions that criticize the company’s “material mishandling” of the litigation.
Avaaz has tens of millions of members in 195 countries and is known as one of the most influential activist networks in the world.
The Ecuadorian Indigenous groups and farmer communities won a $9.5 billion judgment (now $12b with interest) against Chevron in 2013 after the company was found by three layers of courts to have deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic oil waste onto Indigenous ancestral lands, causing an outbreak of childhood leukemia and other cancers that have killed or sickened thousands of people. Chevron had insisted the case take place in Ecuador and had accepted jurisdiction in the country’s courts. The disaster has long been known as the “Amazon Chernobyl”.
In an explanatory note to its campaign, Avaaz wrote: “Oil giant Chevron dumped billions of gallons of deadly chemicals in the Ecuadorian Amazon, leaving behind rivers full of toxic waste, decimating wildlife and spreading cancer and death in indigenous communities. They've never cleaned it up! But Chevron's impunity could finally end if we persuade just one man to do the right thing.
“Chevron's top stockholder [Vanguard] is a US retirement fund whose chair has challenged corporate abuse before, and his customers are part of this community! If we flood him with support in the next 24 hours he could tip a historic vote -- at Chevron's shareholder meetingtomorrow.”
The Avaaz campaign comes on top of furious pressure mounted by Canadian First Nations leaders and 36 major Chevron shareholders, both of whom have been unsparing in their criticism of the company for failing to meet its legal obligations in Ecuador. The investors recently sent a letter to Wirth to try to open up a dialogue with company management to explore settlement options as a way to minimize future risk for Chevron shareholders.
“Investors lack confidence that Chevron’s executive team and board are sensitive to human rights and environmental risks,” said Pat Tomaino of Zevin Asset Management, which has organized the shareholder effort, in a recent press release. The shareholder letter to Wirth said: “One item of particular concern on our agenda is the risk posed by long-standing litigation of the acquired liability of Texaco pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon. We have questions regarding the adequacy of management’s disclosure of the risk to shareholders from the Ecuador litigation and whether our company could benefit from exploring alternative approaches that might better protect future investor value.”
In Canada, major indigenous leaders have blasted Chevron for violating the rights of First Nations communities. Phil Fontaine, the former National Chief of Canada, sharply criticized Chevron after touring the affected area last year. Grand Chief Wilton Littlejohn of Canada also called out the company in a recent speech before the United Nations, while the Assembly of First Nations has signed an agreement with the affected communities in Ecuador to hold Chevron accountable for causing environmental harms in both countries.
After being found guilty by Ecuador’s courts in 2013, Chevron vowed never to pay the judgment despite having accepted jurisdiction in Ecuador. Chevron’s General Counsel, Hew Pate, also threatened the Indigenous groups with a “lifetime of litigation” if they persisted. (See this summary of the overwhelming evidence against Chevron; see this article by Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler on Chevron’s intimidation campaign around the case.)
Chevron also was criticized Steven Donziger, a leading American human rights lawyer who has helped lead the legal fight against the oil giant for more than two decades. A Harvard Law graduate, Donziger said he was “deeply disappointed” at the refusal of Chevron’s management team to address its $12b liability given the undisputed evidence of operational practices that caused massive environmental damage to the Amazon rainforest.
“Chevron has caused an unprecedented humanitarian disaster for almost 50 years in the rainforest, and has yet to pay the first dollar to the Indigenous peoples and farmer communities it has harmed,” said Donziger.
“This type of behavior is simply unconscionable for any corporation in the world, but particularly one that donates massively to the Trump political machine while stiffing Indigenous peoples who have been devastated by oil pollution that enriched Chevron shareholders,” said Donziger. The lawyer called on governments to take into account the example of the Ecuador disaster before entering into any future business deals with Chevron. ”No government should do business with Chevron going forward until company management can demonstrate their respect for local citizens where they have extractive operations.”
In the meantime, Chevron’s 2018 annual meeting – scheduled for tomorrow at company headquarters outside San Francisco -- represents a major high-stakes test for new CEO Wirth. Wirth already has gotten off to a rough start by refusing to meet with representatives of 36 institutional investors who have demanded action on Ecuador.
As of Tuesday, more than 700,000 people had signed a petition urging Vanguard Investment Chair Bill McNabb to vote in favor of two shareholder resolutions stemming from the Ecuador litigation risk. One of the resolutions – which, in a major rebuke to Chevron management, received 39% of voting shares in last year’s annual meeting -- seeks to separate the positions of CEO and Board Chair, long considered a corporate governance anachronism but one that Chevron refuses to change.
Donziger also said Wirth and Hewitt Pate, Chevron’s General Counsel, were deliberately misleading shareholders and had erected a “fortress of deceit” to evade paying the liability to the people of Ecuador.
“It is our view that these individuals are engaged in a deceitful campaign to manufacture evidence and hide basic facts from the financial markets about the company’s exposure both in Ecuador and the U.S.,” Donziger said. “In Ecuador, courts found the company deliberately dumped billions of gallons of cancer-causing oil waste onto Indigenous ancestral lands, causing an outbreak of childhood leukemia and killing scores of people. In the U.S., Chevron and its lawyers lied and committed fraud to cover up this criminal behavior by bribing a witness with $2 million to falsely claim the judgement against Chevron was written by the plaintiffs. The witness later admitted lying after being having been coached for several weeks by Chevron’s lawyers.
“Chevron has spent about $2 billion in legal fees to try to make the facts that prove its guilt go away, but no amount of Chevron money can erase the truth as acknowledged by scientific evidence, courts, and the naked eyes of thousands of witnesses,” added Donziger. Chevron retaliated by targeting Donziger with an avowed “demonization” campaign that involved at least 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers in what is thought to be the most expensive corporate attack effort directed against a lawyer in history.
Last year, the Ecuador ecological disaster dominated the annual meeting at Chevron as then CEO John Watson was sharply rebuked on two resolutions that received overwhelming shareholder support. This year, Patricio Salazar, a lawyer who represents the Indigenous groups in Ecuador, is expected to attend the meeting and confront Wirth along with shareholders and campaigners from the environmental group Amazon Watch.
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