From the early 1970s into the '90s, Texaco pumped 1.5 billion barrels of oil out of hundreds of wells dug in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest.
The company disposed of billions of gallons of toxic oil waste from each well into nearby waste pits. Most of those pits are still there, mixing chemicals with groundwater and killing fish and wildlife. Birth defects and cancers are now common among the native people.
The damage to the ecosystem has upended the way of life of the region's six indigenous groups and its farmers.
Now, big oil could be forced to pay for the cleanup and damage its wells are causing. With the help of U.S. attorneys, the indigenous groups and environmental community sued. They are now awaiting what is likely to be a landmark ruling from an Ecuadoran judge who may hold Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001, liable for up to $27 billion in damages.
The case, Aguinda vs. Chevron, is emboldening other indigenous groups around the globe to take on multinational companies that have run roughshod over their lands and livelihoods, and it serves as a warning to other companies that are considering projects that would destroy the environment.
The significance of the Chevron case lies not only in the possible size of the judgment but also in the unusual way in which has traveled through the courts over the last 16 years, as a recent 60 Minutes report explained. (Chevron's PR machine responded by hiring a former CNN reporter to make a similar video that instead flatters the oil company.)
In 1993, 30,000 plaintiffs filed a class-action lawsuit in New York. After being mired in the court for 10 years, the oil giant won – the judges determined they shouldn't rule on a case involving land on another continent. But there was a condition: Chevron had to be wiling to go to trial in Ecuador.
As lawyer David Feige wrote in The Los Angeles Times, "The company readily complied, possibly figuring that the plaintiffs would drop the matter and go away."
They didn't, and now an Ecuadorean judge is expected to rule soon. Feige says of the upcoming verdict, which he believes is likely to be against Chevron,
"What's unprecedented about it is having gone to a foreign country, duked it out in their system and coming away with a huge judgment that is enforceable in US courts, or at least theoretically enforceable in U.S. courts."
Chevron claims it is being defrauded by the plaintiffs. It says it already spent $40 million in a cleanup deal with the government of Ecuador and therefore can't be sued, though this is a civil case brought by the victims rather than the government.
Andrew Woods, legal advisor to the plaintiffs at Donziger and Associates, hopes this case will affect the kinds of environmental precautions multinational companies take:
"It's not that [Chevron] polluted. It's that they polluted unnecessarily. They operated using technology standards that were well below what they were doing elsewhere in the world – and things they would never do in the United States.
"With this case, we hope that, for pollution that hasn't happened yet or for contracts that are still to be negotiated, that companies would choose to operate in a responsible manner rather than sacrificing environmental and human impact controls to maximize profits."
Indeed, indigenous groups around the world are fighting harder to preserve their environments from the threats posed by polluters.
• At last month's UN-affiliated Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change, the participants wrote a declaration calling for the phase out of fossil fuels. It states that indigenous people are "deeply alarmed by the accelerating climate devastation brought about by unsustainable development."
• In Arizona, the Navajo Nation is fighting uranium mining on and near its land. National Park Service assessments have shown radiation levels from uranium mines at 450 times normal levels.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., who has banned uranium mining on Navajo Nation land, says:
"It is unconscionable to me that the federal government would consider allowing uranium mining to be restarted anywhere near the Navajo Nation when we are still suffering from previous mining activities."
• Canada's tar fields are the focus of a legal battle between the tar sands industry and the Beaver Lake Cree Nation.
The Beaver Lake Cree have called for a stop to more than 16,000 state permits for tar sands extraction. Their leaders say the industry is harming animals that the native people have hunted and fished for millennia.
The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates tar sands extraction would adversely affect more than 160 million migratory birds over the next few decades.
• Last summer, India's Supreme Court ruled in favor of two large and controversial mining projects after a fight by tribal people and environmentalists.
British-owned mining company Vedanta was allowed to open a bauxite refinery, and South Korean steel firm Posco received a permit for iron ore mining. Villagers continue to protest.
• In two weeks, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell faces trial in New York for allegedly aiding in crimes against humanity – namely the deaths of activists in Nigeria.
The lawsuit claims that Shell appropriated and polluted the homeland of the Ogoni people and then had the police quell protests.
Woods says that the Aguinda vs. Chevron case could positively affect indigenous people globally:
"People lose sight of the fact that what the indigenous groups [in Ecuador] have lost is completely irreplaceable. [Chevron] is the worst environmentally related oil disaster we currently know of.
"Even if they get it cleaned up, the indigenous people can't get back what was lost. They can't fish, they can't hunt. Their traditional way of living is pretty much destroyed.
"So if this lawsuit is effective at deterring Chevron from doing similar things in other countries, or other companies like BP or Shell from taking similar practices in other countries, then that will have a huge impact on the lives of indigenous peoples around the world."