Today, neoimperialist powers often undermine the autonomy of Latin American politics and economics, especially on environmental issues. Although it is usually not perceived in such a way, environmental degradation is essentially a site of neocolonial conquest through the exploitation of natural resources and marginalization of disenfranchised communities. The longstanding legal battle between Chevron and some of Ecuador’s marginalized indigenous communities perfectly exemplifies these trends: In 1993, indigenous and disenfranchised communities in Ecuador decided to strike back as they ignited a complex and arduous legal battle against Texaco, a large oil corporation that had been accused of polluting their water sources.
While there are several nuances and complexities that complicate this legal battle, the difference in environmental ontologies, or the frames and conceptualizations that shape how societies view the world, fundamentally undergird the differing court rulings. Ecuador’s legal perspectives of nature, which stem from indigenous knowledge systems, illuminate activists’ success in Ecuador. On the other hand, Chevron’s success in litigation in American and international courts largely comes from the frames that guide American and international laws. Despite the human rights violations against indigenous and disenfranchised communities, the courts of previously imperial powers still favor corporate interests, much to the disrespect and neglect of indigenous ontologies.
The Ins and Outs of the Case
Before diving into the neo-imperialist nature of this international judicial narrative, it is important to clarify the facts and journey of the case. The core of this legal battle took place in Ecuadorian, American, and international courts, and the stakes that each community held in each court strongly influenced their priorities as well as their power and positions in relation to the other entities involved.
In 1994, indigenous and marginalized communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon sued a corporation then known as Texaco for polluting local waterways by improperly disposing of toxic waste. Complicated by the numerous different parties involved, an American court decided that Ecuadorian courts would first hear the case, ruling through the legal doctrine forum non conveniens that it was not the most appropriate court to hear the dispute. During the legal wrangling, Chevron acquired the legal burden after it acquired Texaco in October 2000. In 2014, Ecuador’s highest court deemed Chevron to be at fault for environmental pollution and fined it $9.5 billion after Chevron successfully avoided having to publicly apologize for the devastation it had wrought. Since then, Chevron has fought relentlessly to invalidate these claims and exhaust the resources of these affected communities by plotting a vengeful media and legal vendetta against the coalition of the communities and human rights activist Steve Donzinger, who represented the communities. Through a series of ethically and legally questionable maneuvering, Chevron has managed to debar Donziger, seize his passport, and place him under an abnormally long pretrial house arrest. Overall, Chevron’s failure to apologize and quest for vengeance demonstrate its profit-centered, rather than people-centered, focus.
Utterly discontented by the judgement of the Ecuadorian courts, Chevron decided to try its luck in American and international courts, hoping to claim victory on the grounds that Ecuador violated a bilateral investment treaty. Discrediting Ecuador’s judiciary and undermining their autonomy, a United States court ruled in 2014 that Donzinger, the lead attorney in the Ecuadorian courts, had engaged in “egregious fraud” to win the case. Yet, in this battle of a much larger war, Chevron held an obvious advantage over the activists, as it fought with superior resources in its home courts. Reaffirming the delegitimization of Ecuador’s judiciary perpetuated by the American legal system, the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration eventually ruled in favor of Chevron in 2016, granting it millions in compensation. Ultimately, by winning in American and international judiciaries, Chevron left Ecuador without any hope of victory.
Even when the Ecuadorian communities thought they had reached the end of the road, a light shone at the end of the tunnel. Most recently, in 2014, Ecuador filed a complaint through the International Criminal Court (ICC), claiming that Chevron’s presence and environmental destruction in South American was a crime against humanity. The ICC’s jurisdiction is debatable, as the ICC only recently began taking cases in which environmental damage is considered alongside human injury, but Ecuador felt it had a shot at victory at the ICC. Ultimately, this would have meant that the corporation would have lost even more face, not to mention billions of dollars in profits. But unfortunately, the ICC did not take up the case, and these communities were unable to claim victory at the international stage.
Dissonance In Outcomes
Chevron’s loss in Ecuadorian courts reflected the world perspectives that shape Ecuador’s politics and society. Historically, environmental damages around the world, even in Ecuador, would only call for prosecution if they were tied to human damages. However, this anthropocentric paradigm has changed in Ecuador. Kiana Herold, a political analyst for the indigenous advocacy non-profit Intercontinental Cry, noted that “nature changed from being held as property to a rights-bearing entity” after Ecuador’s constitution was amended in 2008. This shift in autonomy means that any constitutional violation against nature is illegal, regardless of how it relates to or impacts humans, essentially recognizing nature’s autonomy.
The concept of “sumak kawsay” perfectly explains this paradigm shift. As the preamble of the 2008 constitution explains, it attempted to achieve “a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature” through sumak kawsay. Although the term is usually associated with a laidback peaceful lifestyle, the Pachamama Alliance, a non-profit organization focusing on indigenous and environmental issues, describes it more as “a way of living in harmony within communities, ourselves, and most importantly, nature.” This highlights how Ecuador’s environmental legislation and ultimately its court’s decision in the case is rooted in indigenous ideologies that are often erased in institutions dominated by Western imperial powers.
Despite the fundamentally abstract nature of Ecuador’s focus on the environment, Ecuador is a fertile ground for indigenous environmental activism. It should come to no surprise that the activists won the case in Ecuadorian courts because the laws aligned with the perspectives and views reflected in their legal argument. Since Ecuadorian law and politics take indigenous knowledge systems into account, it also takes the welfare of their communities over that of corporations into account.
Playing In An Uneven Field
Neatly juxtaposing with Ecuador’s perceptual frames on nature, the ontologies that have served as a framework for American and International courts are more distant from the environment. The U.S. Constitution was founded on Enlightenment principles, including John Locke’s natural rights, which consist of “life, liberty, and property.” That raises the question: How does one domesticate and commodify nature? To answer that, Locke proposed his labor theory of property, which claims that “property originally comes about by the exertion of labor upon natural resources.” These Lockean frameworks have become a part of the ontologies that guide the United States’ society and legal system.
Ultimately, Lockean conceptualizations of land lend themselves to the objectification of nature and natural resources, facilitating the submission of nature to human domination and, therefore, the exploitation of natural resources. This logic is the backbone behind Chevron’s success in American and international courts. While the Ecuadorian courts were concerned about pollution and its effects on disenfranchised communities, international and American courts were really testing the realm of corporate law, demonstrating how these frameworks favor Chevron’s arguments. Yet on a global playing field, these ontologies and legal frameworks are not necessarily seen as equally legitimate or valid, resulting from power dynamics that are products of imperialism.
Before the era of imperialism, several indigenous communities coexisted and worked alongside the natural environment of South America, guided by sumak kawsay. These communities adapted their landscape to fulfill their needs, but they also asked rivers, trees and other entities for permission to use their fruits. As colonizers washed up on the shores of Latin America, they forcefully began assimilating communities into Enlightenment-originating ontologies, attempting to erase and exploit these communities’ relationship with their land. Even though the world has now allegedly left the colonial era, much of its effects, including the erasure of indigenous voices, are still very much alive. This neo-colonial power dynamic demonstrates why the voices of imperial powers condescendingly overpower those of indigenous communities, and this institutional oppression of indigenous communities, such as those belonging to the Unión de Afectados y Afectadas por las Operaciones Petroleras de Texaco, a group fighting Chevron, leaves them vulnerable to the iron fists of corporations.
Rex Weyler, the founder of GreenPeace International, further connected the polarization between corporate interest and sustainable development. “The history of colonialism, going back thousands of years, is also a history of extraction of resources,” he told the HPR. “The modern extraction industries have continued this tradition, plundering other nations, undermining foreign governments, and so forth. The oil companies such as Chevron represent the extreme powers of the extraction industries.”
Yet this legacy did not end with political decolonization. Advocating for the liberation of Steven Donziger and raising awareness of the injustices perpetrated in his case, world famous actor and political activist Alec Baldwin argued that Judge Kaplan and the media are being bought and sold by the oil industry. Because of this financial leverage held by Chevron, the indigenous communities in Ecuador must fight an unfair fight for their survival. While the law is oftentimes perceived as fair and objective, the framework upon which it built could be easily manipulated by corporations. As Donziger pronounced in a press conference, the Chevron lawsuit “appears to be part of a new playbook used by corporations to try to undermine successful human rights and environmental advocacy. The strategy of this new corporate playbook is to turn the law into a weapon to attack the vulnerable, rather than be used as a shield to protect the vulnerable from abuse by the powerful.”
At least within the context of a case like this, it is clear that American and international law chooses to support corporations, using platforms of corruption to hide injustices built into the systems itself. But, hope is still of the essence. The objective of this press conference was to announce a coalition of world leaders, including 30 Nobel laureates, who are using their legacy to support Donziger in overcoming the hindrances set by Chevron. If Donziger is able to successfully persevere past these challenges with help from his colleagues, it sets a precedent for future environmentalism to fight for the rights of marginalized communities and their natural landscape.
A Challenging Road Ahead
Ultimately, the decisions set in favor of Chevron have broader implications as they perpetuate systems that oppress marginalized communities, devastate their natural environments, and erase their ontologies. By inherently stratifying ontologies through judicial decisions, the Western view of property has been set as superior on a global scale at the expense of undermining and marginalizing indigenous relationships with nature. It sets a dangerous precedent that normalizes and standardizes the further erasure of ideologies that have been historically legitimized and ostracized by colonial powers.
Although this is a challenge that easily seems impossible, it is pivotal, and moreso now than ever, for disenfranchised communities to mobilize, advocate, and fight for the inclusion of the voices and perspectives in international legislation and litigation. While some cases will be lost and others will be won, the institutional inclusion of the voices is a way to permanently ensure that the stakes of decisions on these communities are loudly amplified and ceaselessly fought for.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Julien Gomba