The case of Ecuadorian afectados against Chevron has become one of the most notorious lawsuits in the history of the international law industry. After years of continuous debates and legal fights, the judge finally ruled that Chevron was responsible for the severe contamination of the Ecuadorian lands and would have to pay out eighteen million dollars in damages. The significance of this legal triumph can hardly be overstated: apart from the fact that members of the Indian and local Ecuadorian communities managed to prove their right for clean air and pure water, the case became a good legal precedent for everyone seeking compensation for the environmental damages caused by multinational corporations. However, there is also another side of the controversy, and the language of William Langewiesche’s Jungle Law is inherently biased towards the afectados, or the plaintiffs. Most probably, Langewiesche sought to create an objective picture of the lawsuit but failed to avoid criticism and personal bias. As a result, Langewiesche’s Jungle Law presents the case of Lago Agrio against Chevron as the fight of an uneducated crowd of Ecuadorian people against a powerful business opponent, turning the lawsuit into a convenient instrument of public relations and a means of individual and collective fundraising for the plaintiffs.
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William Langewiesche’s Jungle Law is a story of a long but productive fight of the Ecuadorian people for their rights. For many years, a group of Lago Agrio residents sought to prove that Chevron, one of the biggest multinational oil companies, had caused severe damages to the environment in the Amazon region. As a result of Chevron’s industrial activities, more than 1,700 square miles of rain forests, surrounding Lago Agrio, turned into one of the most contaminated industrial sites in the world (Langewiesche). Meanwhile, the lawsuit, filed by the Ecuadorian people against Chevron, could readily become the largest environmental suit in the history of law (Langewiesche). The author of Jungle Law tells the story and reasons underlying the lawsuit in details, but the effects of Langewiesche’s personal bias on his language should not be disregarded. Apart from the fact that the author avoids criticizing Chevron for its illegal and unethical activities in the Ecuadorian land, plaintiffs in Langewiesche’s story look uneducated and unprepared to deal with a company as large as Chevron, looking like a long man standing against the crowd of warriors and tanks in the Tiananmen Square (Langewiesche).
Langewiesche’s article was written at the time when the lawsuit was still in the process of being resolved. Yet, even at this stage of progress, the author has no optimism about the plaintiffs. Between the lines, the author constantly implies that, on the one hand, Los Afectados headed by Pablo Fajardo, a 34-year-old man who was born into extreme poverty, but, nevertheless, managed to get a secondary education degree (Langewiesche). From the very beginning of his talk about Fajardo, Langewiesche constantly emphasizes his weakest, but not strongest, sides. Even when the author writes about the power of Fajardo’s intellect and his success in completing his secondary education, he simply suggests that a secondary school diploma can hardly suffice to fight against a cohort of super experienced legal professionals from New York. Added to this is the fact, which Langewiesche does not forget to mention: Fajardo was born in 1972, the same year Texaco’s wells started to give oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon (Langewiesche). As a result, Fajardo cannot be confident that Chevron (then Texaco) was guilty of causing severe damages to the Ecuadorian environment. Now, after so many years of Texaco’s presence in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Fajardo continues his fight for the rights of his fellow countrymen, but Langewiesche again emphasizes that “the situation in Lago Agrio is not as complex as the trial makes it out to be. Much of the pollution today is left over from the original drilling operations, now long gone.” In other words, Langewiesche implies that Fajardo is losing his and others’ time, since Texaco (now Chevron) left the Ecuadorian Amazon many years ago, making most environmental claims irrelevant and unnecessary. However, Langewiesche forgets that most environmental consequences, particularly negative ones, persist for decades and centuries. The effects of oil drilling on nature are no exception to this rule. Hundreds of people in the Ecuadorian Amazon live, work and walk, surrounded by oil. Oil is everywhere, in rain forests and water, and it will take centuries before these negative effects of Texaco’s oil drilling can be relieved.
Langewiesche criticizes Fajardo for having no clear strategy to revitalize the Ecuadorian Amazon and, simultaneously, reminds of the benefits of Texaco’s presence in the region. According to Langewiesche, at the time Texaco signed the oil contract with Ecuador, the country was nothing but the land of an incompetent military regime, with a dysfunctional government and a well-developed system of corruption. To a large extent, Ecuador was not a country but a fiction, a small point on the map, without roads, airports, environmental regulations and governmental oversight capabilities (Langewiesche). In other words, Ecuador exemplified a promising object of Texaco’s exploitations, a country that could hardly defend its rights and principles against the legal and economic power of a huge multinational corporation. Based on what Langewiesche writes, it was due to Texaco that one of the first quality roads in Ecuador was built. The town of Lago Agrio started to grow very quickly. Texaco created the basis for the development of the local infrastructure which, in turn, implies that residents of Lago Agrio should be thankful for everything they were allowed to have due to Texaco. Today, Langewiesche criticizes Fajardo for the lack of an explicit vision of Lago Agrio’s environmental future. Langewiesche claims that, with so much money currently at stake, it is not clear how exactly Fajardo is going to use it and restore the local environment. Both the infrastructure and lack of vision arguments are intended to weaken Fajardo’s position in the eyes of the reader and this is, probably, the central goal of Langewiesche’s writing. Behind the tragic story of the environmental damage, caused by Texaco to Ecuadorian Amazon, stands the sympathy with everything Texaco (now Chevron) did to the Ecuadorian people living in Lago Agrio and a complete misunderstanding of how and why Fajardo should win the case.
Even more surprising is the fact that Langewiesche is not alone in his claims: now that Fajardo won the case, reporters seek the hidden connections and weaknesses in how the Ecuadorians managed their lawsuit. Very often, and in support of Langewiesche’s bias, the case is described as one of the nastiest in the history of environmental law, a spectacle almost as ugly as the pollution that prompted it (Keefe). Like Langewiesche, Keefe emphasizes the lack of education of the plaintiffs and even mentions that some of them signed case documents with their fingerprints. Like Langewiesche, Keefe speaks about the contribution made by Texaco to development of the Ecuadorian economy: “In 1972, when Texaco Company accomplished the construction of a pipeline to transport oil to the Pacific coast, Ecuador simultaneously became the second-biggest oil exporter in Latin America, following Venezuela. Within a decade, the G.D.P. per-capita almost doubled.” Finally, when the court has already ruled that Chevron will have to pay out 18 billion dollars in environmental damages, Keefe calls the case Ecuadorian lawyers’ public relations campaign, with Steven Donziger at its center. Unfortunately, both authors leave out the physical and moral sufferings caused to the nature and people by Texaco’s presence in the Ecuadorian Amazon. As an old Ecuadorian woodman says, it will take the entire lifetime to return to the environmental paradise.
Many professional journalists fail to escape personal bias. William Langewiesche’s Jungle Law presents the case of Lago Agrio against Chevron as the fight of an uneducated crowd of Ecuadorian people against a powerful business opponent, turning the lawsuit into a convenient instrument of public relations and a means of individual and collective fundraising for the plaintiffs. The most surprising is the fact that Langewiesche is not alone in his biased claims. As a result, the story of the lawsuit leaves the physical and moral sufferings of the Ecuadorian people behind the curtains of vanity, popularity, public relations, and financial merit.
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