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

Recruitment Genius: Partner Manager - EMEA

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Partner Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Regional Sales Manager - OTE £100,000

£45000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Regional Sales Manager is re...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company provides IT support...

Recruitment Genius: IT Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This manager is for a successfu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

We all have a problem with drink, not just Charles Kennedy

Simon Kelner
Jilly Cooper  

Jilly Cooper’s Riders: You actually can judge some books by their covers – so don’t meddle

Rosie Millard
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific