This week a United States District Court in New York overturned the previous ruling by an Ecuadorian court to grant $18 billion dollars in damages to farmers whose livelihood and health in the Amazon were negatively affected by United States oil corporation Texaco. The previous ruling was overturned because of allegations that the Ecuadorian lawyer had used corrupt means to obtain such a ruling, however the fact that environmental damage occurred was not contested.
The Ecuadorian claimants have a single goal in mind — to be compensated for the environmental damage they’ve experienced at the hands of a U.S. corporation. This incident begs many questions regarding U.S. jurisdiction in other nations, the actions of multi-national corporations (MNCs) and the power of international law to hold them accountable.
The initial court case, entitled Aguinda v. Texaco, confirms that Texaco had permission to drill for oil in Ecuador alongside one of its national companies from 1972 to 1992. During these years Ecuadorian farmers claim that Texaco mishandled wastes that resulted in oil spills, damaging a total of 1,700 square miles in the Lago Agrio region. These damages have contaminated the soil and water supply of residents and caused numerous illnesses.
It goes without saying that Chevron will use this ruling to prevent being held accountable for damages they may cause in other nations. When they began drilling in Ecuador there were few international laws regarding environmental damage. In 1972, the United Nations began enacting international conventions for environmental aggravations but these rules aren’t binding to multi-national corporations. MNCs are very rarely held accountable for their actions, especially when it comes to deciding which court has jurisdiction over them. According to an article in the Boston College of Law Review, the application of the doctrine of forum non conveniens “virtually guarantees that U.S. multinationals receive little or no penalty for damages inflicted … overseas.” This is simply unacceptable.
MNCs exist somewhere in the in-between, creating business and profits in multiple countries without being held accountable by one nation alone. Because they affect so many nations they deserve to answer to the international community for any problems they create, in the same way that American-based companies are accountable for the damages they cause on U.S. soil. MNCs represent economically advantageous syndicates but as part of the international community they have a responsibility to carry out their business in ways that safeguard the livelihood of both the people and the places around them.
Despite the recent ruling, Chevron isn’t innocent — since the early ’90s Chevron has paid millions in damages to the states of California, Colorado and New Jersey for violating safety laws and bypassing regulatory laws that resulted in environmental damage. Just last week BP spilled more than 1,600 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan, resulting in hasty action by the EPA to assess damage and enforce parameters to prevent a second occurrence. Compare this quick response to a spill that’s been assured has no long-term effects to that of the damage in Lago Agrio. Locals call it the “Amazon Chernobyl” and more than 20 years later, their pleas are still being ignored.