Steven Donziger, Ecuador, Chevron
EcoJustice Radio International Issues

Chevron Loses Civil Case in Ecuador – Attorney Steven Donziger Goes to Jail


EcoJustice RadioHuman Rights Attorney Steven Donziger, fighting to make Chevron pay $9.5 billion to Ecuador to clean up their mess left behind after decades of oil drilling, dumping, and spilling in Ecuador, served six months in jail for “Criminal Contempt.” EcoJustice Radio interviewed him on the original case and the efforts by Chevron-friendly judges to stop him from advocating for the Ecuadorian people. Through brazen judicial activism, Chevron turned Mr. Donziger into a Corporate Political Prisoner, under house arrest for more than two years, disbarred, with frozen bank accounts, $32 million in legal fees, a lien on his home, and no way to make a living. The judgment has not yet been paid. this was Part Two of an EcoJustice Radio series on Amazon Rainforest Defenders – LISTEN TO PART ONEPART THREE

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Steven Donziger, Ecuador, Chevron, EcoJustice Radio

Defending the Amazon: The Fight for Justice with Steven Donziger

Check out our special encore presentation of Jessica Aldridge’s interview with Human Rights Attorney Steven Donziger recorded in December 2020. We investigated the story of Chevron’s crimes in Ecuador with Mr. Donziger who represented Ecuadorian communities demanding justice in a $9.5 billion decision against them for one of the largest-ever oil disasters. This was recorded while he was in his sixteenth month of house arrest, and he ultimately served 993 days at home and in federal prison for a misdemeanor charge that usually requires a maximum of 180 days. We begin with an introductory excerpt from a Vice video entitled The World’s Worst Oil Disaster You’ve Never Heard of.

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Amazon Chernobyl: Chevron’s Toxic Legacy in Ecuador

In a move calculated to shield Chevron and deter other lawyers from suing giant corporate polluters, Donziger was sentenced on October 1 of 2021 to the maximum of six months in prison for criminal contempt. While the case is being appealed, he continues to live under house arrest with the threat of prison hanging over his head.

Between 1964 and 1992, Chevron (then Texaco) illegally dumped 16 billion gallons of toxic waste in Ecuador’s rainforest, a disaster that contaminated rivers and groundwater, destroyed forests and farms, and set off waves of cancer and birth defects in communities across an area of ancestral Indigenous land the size of Rhode Island. Impoverished victims of corporate malfeasance rarely have the resources to challenge their tormentors in court. But in 1993, Indigenous and campesino activists fighting to support “Los Afectados,” the name used for those affected by the public health crises that Chevron’s pollution created, asked a young lawyer named Steven Donziger to help them take legal action. In 1994, this coalition founded the Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia (FDA).

Donziger and FDA worked together to bring a class-action lawsuit demanding justice on behalf of 30,000 afectados. And in 2011, after nearly two decades of litigation and advocacy, a Chevron-instigated venue change from New York to Ecuador, eight years at trial, and three levels of appeals, Donziger and FDA won. An Ecuadorian court ordered the company to pay $18 billion—later reduced to $9.5 billion—to clean up its toxic waste and provide for the health needs of the people it had poisoned. In 2018, Ecuador’s highest court upheld the judgment.

EcoJustice Radio looks into how Chevron, supported by US federal judges, is using retaliatory attacks against Mr. Donziger and the Ecuadorian Peoples, and how their actions set a dangerous precedent and represent a growing and serious threat to the ability of civil society to hold corporations accountable for their misdeeds around the world. Now a wide cross-section of U.S.-based environmental and corporate governance groups have condemned Chevron’s most recent retaliatory attacks to intimidate the Ecuadorian indigenous peoples and farmers who have been harmed by the oil giant’s massive contamination of their ancestral lands.

Interview Excerpts: Steven Donziger vs Chevron Oil in Ecuador

Jessica Aldridge: Thank you for being here, Steven. Let’s start out by setting the scene for our listeners so that they understand what brought you down to Ecuador in 1993 when you were part of the team that filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 30,000 farmers and Indigenous peoples against Texaco for the polluting of an area of the western Amazon referred to as the Amazon Chernobyl by locals and experts. Explain what happened to the people and the land and why there was and is this lawsuit.

Steven Donziger, Chevron Crimes in EcuadorSteven Donziger: Well, thank you for having me, Jessica. I mean, it’s a long story that spans over 25 years. I’ll keep it real simple. the bottom line is, Texaco, now owned by Chevron, went into this delicate ecosystem, the Amazon, in Ecuador in the mid 1960s. They found oil. They had a contract with Ecuador’s government to drill across an enormous 1,500 square mile area of forest that was home to five indigenous nations. And they discovered oil in the middle of Kofan territory in 1967. They built hundreds of wells. Over the next 20 or so years they built about 1,000 online waste pits into which they deposited drilling muds which are cancer causing toxic chemicals or heavy metals found in the ground.

When you drill for oil, they ran pipes out of the sides of the pits into rivers and streams that the local, Indigenous peoples and other farmers that had moved down there relied on for their drinking water, their bathing, their fishing. And essentially over the 25 years they operated, from the mid sixties to the early ’90s, they engaged in a deliberate mass industrial poisoning. When I say deliberate, they deliberately polluted to save money. It was clearly foreseeable that the result would be a lot of people getting sick, getting cancer and dying and they didn’t care.

When the Indigenous peoples of the area saw in the 60s, early 70s what they were doing and they asked the Texaco engineers why black oil was in their streams and rivers, the engineers reassured them by lying and basically saying oil was medicinal and it was like drinking milk with vitamins in it. It was healthy for them. It was a complete and utter disrespect for these people who lived there, for humanity, for the Earth, for basic decency. It was also blatantly illegal and criminal.

So I first went down there in the early 1990s with a group of lawyers led by Massachusetts based Ecuadorian named Cristobal Boniface. And we went down with doctors and lawyers to investigate what we had heard was this awful catastrophe. And so began, a journey that I’ve been on now for many, many years, starting just after I went to law school.

We filed the suit in 1993, we won the suit in 2011, and ever since then, we’ve been trying to collect the judgment because Chevron won’t pay. And I personally have been having to deal with the attacks they’ve made against me and other lawyers, here in New York, where I’ve been under home detention now for 16 months on a misdemeanor for which no lawyer in US history has ever been locked up for even one day. So it’s an extraordinary situation. I think it’s really the politics of corporate power and using our, judicial system to attack corporate accountability advocates and really trying to use me as an example to intimidate all people who engage in this work. But that’s where things stand now. I live with my wife and 14 year old son, and we’re strong, we’re resilient, and we get what’s happening. We have a fair amount of support. I have some great lawyers, and, we’re hopeful we’ll get through this. And regardless, the larger case lives on in terms of enforcement actions, and other jurisdictions that are being used to try to collect Chevron’s assets to force them to comply with the judgment.

Jessica Aldridge: Great. Thank you. And we’re going to dive deeper into those issues and especially what led up to your incarceration, in essence, and, also what’s happening on your behalf and what are some of the solutions that people can, involve themselves in?

So these communities and these Indigenous peoples continue to suffer from these oil spills and leaks

Chevron crimes in Ecuador, Steven DonzigerSo these communities and these Indigenous peoples, they continue to suffer from these oil spills and these leaks. How so? What’s happening to them today?

Steven Donziger: It’s as bad as ever. I mean, basically, the pollution has a cumulative impact over time, the exposures to the toxicity to the toxins in the air, in the water, food, in the environment. So the people who live in this area generally are exposed multiple times a day to cancer causing toxins. And ever since Chevron left in the early 1990s, there’s been virtually no actions to clean up, mitigate the impacts of their deliberate, systematic pollution. There’s still billions of gallons of toxic oil waste in this part of the Amazon, in the environment and the state oil company PetroEcuador, which took over Chevron’s operation, continues to some degree, to engage in some of the same practices that continue to contaminate. And the pits that Chevron built in the are still there, polluting the water today in the air and the groundwater and the soil.

So, the rates of cancer are off the charts. If you look at the basic independent health evaluations of cancer rates in the region, there’s probably been thousands and thousands of people who have died of cancer. You can go into one of the communities, and if you ask people, does anyone know a family member who’s died of cancer? And literally 90% of the hands shoot up, it’s just been devastating, and it remains devastating.

There was one working nurse in the region, Rosa Moreno, who passed away in 2017 of cancer. She took care of so many little babies who got sick or had cancer. Childhood leukemia, which you almost never see anywhere in the world, is off the charts, according to these health evaluations. And it’s really a humanitarian crisis, it’s a public health catastrophe. And I think it’s essentially a crime of, what’s called ecocide, which is kind of a new thing in the law that is trying to get sort of acceptance as the fifth atrocity crime after genocide and crimes against humanity, war crimes and the like. And it’s destroying the natural environment in such a way that people who live in it can’t sustain themselves.

And that’s really what’s happened, people are dying left and right from their exposures to the oil contamination, while Chevron spends literally two, $3 billion on dozens and dozens of law firms and hundreds and hundreds of lawyers to just try to muck up the ability of our team to collect on a judgment that the Ecuadorians legitimately won in the courts of their own country, where Chevron wanted the case to be held. So it’s a very bad faith form of, really, judicial treachery and trickery. Chevron’s paying massive sums of money to the legal profession, to the big law firms, to block the ability to collect this judgment. And part of that strategy is to attack.

Jessica Aldridge: Yeah, we’ll get into that, too. And just one thing I wanted to point out that stuck with me when you and I spoke previously is that there’s no word for cancer in the Indigenous languages down there.

Steven Donziger: That’s correct. historically, there’s no word for it because living in the forest, there was no cancer. Cancer is caused by exposure to chemicals and industrial chemicals and heavy metals and, cancer was unknown before Texaco showed up in the mid 1960s and started dumping oil waste into the rivers and streams. that’s true, there was no word for it. And unfortunately now the indigenous peoples have had to create a lot of new words that were formally not in their vocabularies.

What About Remediation and Clean-Up of the Oil Operations?

Chevron crimes in Ecuador, Steven Donziger

Jessica Aldridge: And you had said that Chevron has not offered any form of rehabilitation or reparations, but there’s allegations that Texaco did provide remediation, supervised and approved by the government of Ecuador. In addition, they also argued that PetroEcuador, the state owned oil company and partner of Texaco, is actually the one that’s responsible for the oil spills and the dumping, and not Chevron, who bought Texaco.

Steven Donziger: Yeah, that’s what they say in terms of the first argument, that there was a cleanup. Texaco claims it spent $40 million in the mid 90s on a cleanup. I mean, $40 million is maybe one-tenth of one penny on the dollar of what they really owe. And I don’t know where the money went, but it didn’t go to a cleanup. And they took a handful of 1,000 open air waste pits that are operating, from which they run pipes into rivers and streams to empty out the toxins into the waterways, and they covered them up with dirt without cleaning them out. It’s like treating cancer with a bandaid, basically.

And the blaming PetroEcuador, that is the state oil company, is, I mean, to us it’s a non starter, because Texaco, now owned by Chevron, was the exclusive operator of the oil fields, and under customary law relating to oil field operations, the operator is 100% responsible for the environmental damage. The operator makes all the engineering decisions, the production decisions, and Texaco exclusively made the decisions to pollute in violation of their contractual obligations, in violation of Ecuadorian environmental law, and in violation of their duty to people who live there to treat the environment and the people with proper care so they wouldn’t harm them. So we believe Chevron is 100% responsible for the damage that Texaco caused and continues to cause by having abandoned these thousand waste pits and really left the area in a very destroyed, poisoned kind of state. It doesn’t mean, by the way, that Ecuador’s oil company isn’t blameworthy because they’ve done some improper practices as well when they took over the fields after Texaco left. But the lawsuit is about what Texaco and Chevron did during the time that they operated and its ongoing effects.

Jessica Aldridge: Steven the lawsuit originally started in New York in the 1990s, and then it was moved to Ecuador in the 2000s. Can you explain what took place during that time and why they had this move from New York to a totally different country?

Steven Donziger: Sure. So, the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, that is, the affected communities who brought the lawsuit, didn’t trust their own court system, because Texaco had been dumping literally millions of gallons of waste into the waterways on a daily basis for years, and they never had been held liable for even $1 of damages during that entire time. So the people didn’t trust their own court system. They wanted to sue in the United States. But once that happened, suit was filed in November of 1993 in Federal Court in New York. Chevron’s main defense was, no, we can’t sue up here. This case is properly heard in Ecuador because that’s where the damage occurred. And we argued, no, it’s properly heard in the United States because that’s where the decision to pollute was made. That took literally ten years of time for that issue to sort itself out in various courts.

Like the Ecuadorans were fighting to get into the courthouse in New York, which is where Texaco’s global headquarters was located this entire period of time. And Texaco kept trying to block them from getting into court, and ultimately Texaco won. By then, Chevron, had bought Texaco. They won that battle, and they were able to send it down to Ecuador, surely thinking that they could quickly get the case dismissed for political reasons, just because they enjoyed so much influence in the country, and they had polluted with impunity by that point for 30 years, and they never even had to deal with one lawsuit against them.

So I think they thought we would go away if they were able to move the case to Ecuador. And obviously we didn’t. We reorganized ourselves, and we started working with a group of great Ecuadorian lawyers, created a real international team led by the local lawyers in Ecuador. And we refiled the same lawsuit as much as we could under Ecuadorian law in 2003. And then the case started up. It was extraordinary. I mean, Texaco’s first line of defense is they were trying to avoid the entire trial.

And in October of 2003, it started in a town called Lago Agrio, which was the epicenter of where Texaco first found oil in Ecuador. Lago Agrio, in Spanish, is the Spanish for Sour Lake, which is the name of the town in Texas where Texaco’s headquarters was. So they basically went on to Indigenous territory and created a town around the wells that they built. And, they called it an English name after a town in Texas. In the meantime, they displaced most of the Kofan who had to move deeper into the jungle to avoid the industrial development and the pollution.

So we were back in Ecuador, and Chevron had agreed to accept jurisdiction in Ecuador as a condition of the case, moving from New York to Ecuador. And the first thing they did on the first day of the trial is they tried to claim the court had no jurisdiction over them. And so began years and years of bad faith litigation. I mean, they just do anything they can to get an advantage. They change their position, they lie, they threaten judges. They tried to put sand in the gears of justice by filing literally hundreds and hundreds of duplicative motions, asking for the same thing, trying to tie up the court.

And their first goal was that there not be a trial. Once we overcame that, they then tried to sabotage the trial that we had been seeking for all these years. And they did that just by trying to file paper and take advantage of their superior resources and their law firms to just get in the way of the case and obstruct it, sabotage it, and hope we would run out of money and go away. So that took eight long years. And ultimately, we did win a judgment against them in 2011, which was a huge, historic victory.

Judge Kaplan: Chevron continually tried to deny fair trial in Ecuador

Jessica Aldridge: So, Steven, you were just talking about what had happened during those ten long years, from 2003 to ten years later, to having this trial down in Ecuador, to get this ruling on what Chevron now owes for the Ecuadorian people due to the toxic wasteland that they have created down there. I think it’s also important to note that and remind our listeners, or those that may not know, that during this time, the, Ecuadorian government, under President Correa, revised the constitution to be the first country in the world to codify the legal rights of nature. And did that have any effect on the outcome of the case as well? And then maybe just talk a little bit again about what that outcome was. I know that there was a settlement of $18.5 billion, but then it was reduced to 50% of that at, two and a half years later. And why is that?

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Steven Donziger, Chevron crimes

Steven Donziger: Yeah, so, in the middle of the trial, Ecuador elected a president who was a nationalist, educated with a PhD in economics in a U.S. university. And he basically set kind of a tone for the country that I think allowed the court system to do its job properly, that is, to become neutral, to analyze facts, rule on legal questions without being intimidated by corporate power, oil, money interests, and, I think that had a great deal to do with our ability to get a fair trial in Ecuador, which Chevron, continually tried to deny to us by trying to, again, throw sand into the gears of the court system, threatening judges, filing motions, threatening to put judges in.

One thing I quickly learned as a young lawyer, while lawyers are trained to go to court and use the law to achieve a certain outcome, the lawyers for Chevron were trained to just look at the court system as just like a tool of their own power, a system to try to bend to their will, as opposed to a system to try to litigate within a fair manner. And they were constantly threatening judges. They were constantly, violating Ecuador and procedural law and abusing the system as a way to try to delay any final resolution, because the evidence against them was utterly overwhelming. And there were 64,000 chemical sampling results from dozens and dozens of their formal well sites that prove massive amounts of contamination, sometimes 200, 300 times over. Acceptable regulatory norms. In Ecuador, there were just. Some sites were just like almost pure oil in the soil. They had created just a terrible, terrible environmental problem, and they knew they were basically toast legally. So they tried to just block the trial from finishing by trying to constantly delay it.

Steven Donziger is a New York-based attorney, human rights advocate, and member of the international legal team that won the historic $9.5 billion Ecuador pollution judgment against Chevron. Steven spent 995 days in detention on what was at most a misdemeanor, both in house arrest and prison, after he refused what appears to be an unlawful order to turn over his computer and cell phone to Chevron as he fought to protect the rights and lives of his Indigenous clients, including their right to confidential communications with their own lawyer. He can be reached at the website


Jessica Aldridge, Co-Host and Producer of EcoJustice Radio, is an environmental educator, community organizer, and 15-year waste industry leader. She is a co-founder of SoCal 350, organizer for ReusableLA, and founded Adventures in Waste. She is a former professor of Recycling and Resource Management at Santa Monica College, and an award recipient of the international 2021 Women in Sustainability Leadership and the 2016 inaugural Waste360, 40 Under 40.



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Hosted by Jessica Aldridge
Engineer: Blake Lampkin
Executive Producer: Jack Eidt
Producer: Emilia Barrosse
Show Created by Mark and JP Morris
Music: Javier Kadry
Episode 84
Photo courtesy Steven Donziger

Originally Published 3 December 2020, Updated 2 January 2024

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