Leading article: Ecuador: finally, the polluter is commanded to pay

This ruling could be a sign that poorer countries are no longer prepared to be a dumping ground

Share
Related Topics

Deep in the Amazonian rainforest yesterday a court reached a judgment that will resonate through the boardrooms of some of the world's richest and most powerful companies. A judge in the northern Ecuadorean city of Lago Agrio ruled that Texaco was responsible for dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste in the rivers of the Amazon rainforest between 1972 and 1992 and that Chevron, which merged with Texaco in 2001, is liable for an $8.6bn (£5.3bn) fine.

The pollution of the Ecuadorean Amazon was a dirty business. And Chevron has fought dirty over the past 18 years in an attempt to evade responsibility for the crime. The oil giant has gone to enormous lengths, and considerable expense, to undermine the Ecuadorean legal system and to intimidate the lawyers representing the 30,000 Ecuadoreans bringing the case.

And, to no one's surprise, Chevron has not accepted yesterday's verdict gracefully. The firm has described the lawsuit as an "extortion scheme" and refused to pay the fine. It points to the fact that Texaco spent $40m cleaning up the area during the 1990s and signed an agreement with the Ecuadorean government in 1998 absolving it of any further responsibility. But the clean-up was a sham.

An Ecuadorean scientific team took water and soil samples after Texaco departed in 1998 and found petroleum hydrocarbons at unsafe levels in almost half. There are echoes here of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster, which killed 15,000 people when a chemical plant near the Indian city of Bhopal exploded. Union Carbide did a deal with the Indian authorities limiting compensation and was subsequently taken over by a larger firm.

In both instances, the new companies have fought demands for them to pay the full costs of the clean up and have denied their responsibility to compensate those people whose lives have been permanently blighted.

This is part of a malign pattern of behaviour from Western multinationals operating in developing countries. These firms exploit the lower environmental protection standards in poor nations which allow them to work with corrupt local middle-men to cut costs on safety and waste disposal.

We saw this in the 2006 Trafigura case, where toxic waste belonging to the multinational oil trading company ended up dumped, by a contractor, in the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan. And this newspaper reported two years ago that thousands of tonnes of hazardous electronics are being shipped to Africa by recycling subcontractors commissioned by UK councils.

Large firms cannot get away with behaving in such a reckless fashion in rich countries. For BP, the financial consequences of last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill – a consequence of the company's disregard for safety – were severe. Yet this ruling in Ecuador could be a sign that poorer countries too are no longer prepared to be the Western world's dumping ground, or to sign deals that deny their people the compensation that they are due.

This is the highest award of damages ever issued in an environmental lawsuit: bigger than what followed Bhopal, the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster and last year's emergency in the Gulf of Mexico. This is also the first time that indigenous people have successfully sued a multinational corporation in the country where the pollution took place. Crucially, the plaintiffs had the support of the Ecuadorean president, Rafael Correa.

Whether or not Chevron can be forced to pay up – and the rest of the world should demand that it do so – this judgement is welcome. Multinational firms need to be made to understand that, wherever in the world they operate, they will be required to pay the full costs when they wreck environments and destroy lives.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Analyst - (Active Directory, Support, London)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst - (Active Di...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, VBA)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition