Big oil largely does whatever it wants around the world. In country after country, corrupt plutocrats shill for oil companies that pollute the land, poison the citizens, and spirit away natural resources to benefit the gas guzzling denizens of the overdeveloped world.
Ecuador is a perfect example of this sad chain of events. Since the 1970s, the US-based corporation Texaco has been drilling wells in the Amazonian jungle in Ecuador. According to Sweden’s Umeå International School of Public Health, during this drilling, Texaco spilled more than 30bn gallons of toxic wastes and crude oil into the land and waterways of Ecuador’s Amazon basin. Compare this with the 10.8m gallons of crude spilled into the waters of Alaska by the Exxon Valdez to gain a sense of the magnitude of this disaster.
But Texaco largely got away with this massive act of pollution. One reason for this may lie in what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” the distended temporality through which environmental destruction plays itself out. Unlike human rights atrocities committed with traditional weapons of mass destruction, environmental contamination often makes itself felt across generations and in ways that are not always easy to tie to the original contamination.
How then to hold polluting corporations responsible for their polluting ways? Texaco paid $40m in the 1990s for clean-up, but then claimed that it had exhausted its obligations to the people of Ecuador. Conveniently, the company was bought by Chevron in the 1990s, meaning that the original perpetrator disappeared in legal terms. Similar acts of absorption have occurred in other toxic waste spills. One thinks of the case of Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, India; the company responsible for the disaster was bought by Dow Chemical and still has not paid out substantial damages to the people of Bhopal.
This makes the decision by an Ecuadorian judge to hold Texaco responsible for $8bn worth of damages in the Amazon particularly significant. It took eighteen years for justice to be delivered in this case. Joe Berlinguer’s movie Crude offers a powerful account of this epic battle for justice. This victory sets an important precedent, but it is already embattled. Supported by the U.S. government, Chevron has already taken steps to bar enforcement of the ruling in international courts. Nevertheless, the decision is a real milestone in holding polluting corporations responsible for their damage to the Earth and its fragile inhabitants.