Climate Corner: Companies use law as a weapon

May 15, 2021

Aaron Dunbar

By now I probably don’t have to tell you that a year is a very long time to spend cooped up in the house. For human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, however, that period is now six hundred days and counting, having been placed under house arrest in August 2019.

His crime?

All the way back in 1993, at which point I was a mere bouncing baby two-year-old, Donziger represented over 30,000 farmers in a class action lawsuit against Chevron (or rather Texaco, Inc., now a subsidiary of Chevron), suing over the resulting health and environmental damages of the company’s Amazon drilling operations. Among the areas covered by this lawsuit was the Lago Agrio oil field, a region so viciously ravaged by extraction that it became known as the “Amazon Chernobyl.” Donziger has described visiting the area as akin to witnessing an “apocalyptic disaster,” complete with oil-filled jungle lakes and barefoot children wandering oil-flooded roads. Though far from being as well known as it should be, Lago Agrio could arguably be considered one of the worst oil disasters in history.

In 2013, Chevron was ordered to pay a whopping $9.5 billion in damages for this abomination by Ecuador’s Supreme Court. Considering the fact that the original extraction in Lago Agrio commenced as far back as the 1960s and 70s, one can hardly consider this to be a case of swift or easy justice.

But of course, the Goliath that is Chevron wasn’t about to take such a long-gestating defeat lying down.

Described by twenty-nine Nobel Prize laureates as “judicial harassment,” and by human rights advocates as a strategic lawsuit against public participation (or SLAPP suit), Chevron’s next move was to accuse Donziger and the Ecuadorian judiciary of “shocking levels” of fraud and misconduct, eventually leading to his being stripped of a license to practice law, an absurd order to pay Chevron millions of dollars for their legal costs, as well as an attempt to seize Donziger’s laptop and cell phone.

It was here that Donziger was hit with a contempt of court charge, as he refused to surrender his devices on the grounds that they contained sensitive client information, and has since spent the better part of the past two years under house arrest for what amounts to the charge of a petty misdemeanor.

Now, I know I may be unfairly generalizing here, but when I hear the words “fraud and misconduct” and have to associate them with either a group of poor Indigenous farmers or a multinational oil corporation worth $136 billion, 99 times out of 100 I feel pretty safe in taking a guess as to which party is screwing over the other.

OK honestly, for me it’s more like 100 times out of 100.

I could probably dedicate an entire weekly column to the sprawling, storied history of Indigenous and First Nations groups suffering abuse at the hands of the fossil fuel industry, and likely never run out of topics. From the Osage people whose would-be oil wealth was stolen from them via a racist system of guardianship, to the Lakota Sioux at Standing Rock protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on their land, and the horrifying rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women that skyrocket around pipeline “man camps.” For seemingly as long as there have been extractive industries, the colonized and the disenfranchised have been a preferred target for these companies all over the world. For a company like Chevron, which has the gall to include a “promoting diversity and inclusion” page on their website, this racist, abhorrent behavior is all the more appalling.

Even if the case of Steven Donziger and the people of Ecuador is of no particular interest to you, the fossil fuel industry’s ruthless use of the law as a cudgel, coupled with its widespread buying of political power in this country, should absolutely chill you to the bone.

Time and again these companies use legal and political force to steal from everyday people, poison communities, and silence critics, all virtually without consequence. As I write these words, laws are being introduced throughout the country designed to criminalize protest against fossil fuel infrastructure, resulting in felony charges against those who dare to stand up against the tyranny of their industry. These bills use language crafted specifically by fossil fuel lobbyists to curtail our First Amendment rights, and harshly penalize those who dare to stand for truth and environmental justice.

We have become a nation of Davids, ruled by Goliaths, and it’s of the utmost urgency that we shift this balance of power before it’s too late.

After spending nearly two years as a prisoner in his own home, Steven Donziger has finally entered into the trial phase of his case this week. Several House lawmakers have recently urged the Justice Department to intervene in the case, citing the unprecedented nature of Donziger’s detention, and the gross violation of his rights. With any luck, perhaps this will be the turning point for Donziger and his 30,000 clients, and something at least faintly resembling justice can, at last, be served.

In the meantime, I urge you to learn more about Donziger’s case and to petition the Department of Justice for his release, by visiting