A first attempt by the local people to sue Chevron in the US failed, with a court declaring it lacked jurisdiction. Undeterred, the plaintiffs sought justice through the Ecuadorian courts mounting a class action of 30 000 indigenous farmers and inhabitants. Several years on, following a no-holds barred,
‘gloves off’ legal epic, the Ecuadorians obtained a $19 billion judgment against Chevron.
A week before the Ecuadorian decision, Chevron obtained a court order prohibiting enforcement of the judgment in the US (Chevron has no assets in Ecuador but plenty in the US). The order was granted on the basis of impropriety committed by the New York-based attorney overseeing the plaintiff’s case, Steven Donziger (or ‘Big Steve’ as he was when shooting hoops with Barack Obama at Harvard). Extraordinarily, evidence of the fraud (disputed by Donziger) emerged after outtakes from Joe Berlinger’s 2009 award-winning documentary Crude were subpoenaed by Chevron’s lawyers.
As a strong supporter of public interest litigation, especially the kind that rights environmental wrongs, I felt a little uneasy reading this book. It has no happy ending either for the environment or people involved. For Barrett, the story of the Ecuadorians’ struggle for justice is ‘a tale with no shortage of knaves and villains’ (p 254). Chief among the villains, Barrett tells us, is Donziger. Barrett spends most of the book painting Donziger as a media-savvy propagandist ‘drunk on the attention of journalists’ (p 250) and intent on ‘shaping a story about poor peasants confronting a colossal corporate villain’ (p 92). Donziger was someone, says Barrett, who viewed Ecuador’s legal system as open to ‘boundless malleability’ (p 108) where opponents had to use ‘irregular tactics if they expected to prevail’ (p 111).
For mine, Barrett’s obsession with exposing Donziger is a little over the top. So much mud has been flung in this two-decade long litigation and Barrett’s book does little to hose that down. Of course, that’s not to say Law of the Jungle doesn’t make for entertaining reading. As a journalist, Barrett knows that good stories are about characters and there’s little doubting Donziger is as complex as they come; intelligent, driven, passionate and uncompromising. I would have preferred, however, that a different book be written, one with well-thought-out conclusions about international environmental litigation, perhaps using the Ecuadorian case as an example of legal process gone haywire. But that’s clearly not the audience Law of the Jungle has in mind.
In the end, it’s hard to know what to make of the Ecuadorian litigation. Last I read the oil still hadn’t been cleaned up and the plaintiffs were in Canada trying to get $10 billion from Chevron’s subsidiaries. Sadly, it appears to be an all-too-familiar story of poor folk sold down the drain through corporate buck-passing, government ignorance and, in this case, a legal system and legal players with a loose grasp of the rule of law.
A sad story told with journalistic flair. Read it if you like John Grisham.
EVAN HAMMAN is a Sessional Academic and PhD candidate in the Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology. He researches and writes about environmental law.