Pablo Fajardo is the lawyer representing the victims of an environmental disaster in Ecuador allegedly caused by the American energy company Chevron. The company is fighting an Ecuadorian ruling to financially compensate the victims. But Fajardo continues to fight back. Regine Reibling reports from Quito.
Pablo Fajardo speaks softly, his voice quiet. But his eyes sparkle and show determination when it comes to helping the victims of the “worst environmental catastrophe in the Ecuadorian rainforest”. Fajardo is clear: “It was caused by Chevron-Texaco.” He is a lawyer fighting to ensure that around 30,000 people receive compensation. But the fight gets messy when your opponent is an oil company.
Chevron acquired Texaco
It was not actually Chevron that explored for oil in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Oil company Texaco was active in the Northeast part of the country from 1964 until 1990, and has been accused of dumping around 64 million litres of crude oil and billions of litres of contaminated water in the forest, streams and rivers during this time period. Around 450,000 hectares in the Sucumbios and Orellana provinces are highly polluted. In 2001, Chevron acquired Texaco, making it the defendant in the case in front of the Ecuadorian courts. Last year, Ecuador’s supreme court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs and ordered Chevron to pay 9.5 billion dollars in compensation. Chevron refuses to recognise the judgment and regards the Ecuadorian judiciary and lawyers as corrupt. And now the company has scored a major victory: An American judge ruled in earlier this month that the ruling in Ecuador was obtained through fraud and bribery.
Fajardo has been actively involved in the legal process for the past 20 years – first as an activist, and later as a lawyer. At the age of 14 he moved with his parents and siblings from the coast of Ecuador to Shushufindi, a small town in the oil-producing area of Sucumbios province. He worked first on a palm plantation, and later for Texaco. “I saw the crimes from the inside: The oil leaks and chemical waste were simply tossed out.” He also remembers what it was like as a teenager to wade ankle deep through the oil that Texaco had simply dumped onto the streets so that the dust would not rise. And the people in the region suffered, with cancer and various skin ailments widespread.
Law a natural fit
Even as a teenager, Fajardo began to fight back and helped found the organisation the Amazon Defense Front, which launched the first lawsuit back in 1993. The authorities told them to go find a lawyer, “which gave me the idea to study law,” says Fajardo. “But I didn’t plan on taking over the case, as I was an activist myself.” He received a scholarhip from the Catholic church, for whom he worked. After he finished his degree in 2004, he worked first as an assistant supporting Ecuadorian and American lawyers in the lawsuit against Chevron, rising to become the lead lawyer. Fajardo has received numerous awards for his involvement: the Hero Award from CNN in 2007 and then the Goldman Prize for the Environment one year later. But the 42-year old does not make much of these honours. He is far more concerned about the victims.
Chevron makes its own accusations
Chevron rejects all the allegations and claims made against it, arguing there it has never been proven medically that there is a direct connection between oil production and cancer. And Chevron spokesperson James Craig is very clear on this point: “Chevron is not responsible for the damage caused to the Ecuadorian rainforest.” Instead he argues that the state oil company Petroecuador bears responsibility for the damage. Petroecuador acquired the oil platforms from Texaco in the early 1990s.
“Chevron wants to rid itself of all responsibility,” says Fajardo. He is determined to enforce the compensation ruling through courts in other countries where Chevron has subsidiaries. Litigation has already started in Brazil and Argentina.
Picture credit: Eduardo Flores, Andes / Creative Commons