The Small Matter of Suing Chevron (Review)

Suzana Sawyer’s new book uncovers the machinations of corporate power and judicial imperialism in a decades-long struggle for accountability in the Amazon.

March 24, 2023

The Small Matter of Suing Chevron, Duke University Press, 2022

In 1993, a group of Ecuadorian villagers filed a landmark lawsuit against oil and gas giant Chevron Corporation over contamination in the northern Amazon. Nearly two decades later, against all odds, an Amazonian provincial judge awarded them $9.6 billion, the majority of which was slated for environmental remediation. But Chevron struck back. In The Small Matter of Suing Chevron, University of California-Davis anthropology professor Suzana Sawyer makes a desperately needed intervention into the controversy surrounding the decades-long legal saga.

The Small Matter of Suing Chevron is a monumental book: it moves from the molecular structure of crude and the minutiae of legal code to the devastating macro-operations of corporate power. Contextualizing the battle within broader debates about oil toxicity, public health, and legal ethics, Sawyer unravels how Chevron has prevailed, leaving a massive environmental and humanitarian crisis untreated. By the time Indigenous and campesino villagers filed their lawsuit in 1993, they had amassed evidence that the corporation had regularly and deliberately dumped oil wastes in the rainforest. But rather than pay the multibillion-dollar liability handed down in 2011, Chevron filed complaints of its own in the United States. There, as well as before an International Arbitration panel, the company argued that the 2011 ruling was procured through fraud. Reflecting the tendency for such judicial processes to recast victims as perpetrators and perpetrators as victims, Sawyer’s account of this astounding travesty of justice speaks volumes about the obstacles to accountability in general.

The book’s six chapters, flanked by an introduction and conclusion, are interspersed with excerpts from court transcripts, corporate campaigns, affected people’s testimonies, and Sawyer’s fieldnotes. These chapters, Sawyer notes, “don’t seek to determine a truth around each key controversy” of the Ecuador litigation and its countersuits. The bigger aim is to expound how particular truths were constructed, challenged, and granted or denied legitimacy in court.

Having spent her career conducting extensive research in Amazonian Ecuador, Sawyer is ideally suited for this task. Best known for her 2004 book Crude Chronicles, Sawyer has produced groundbreaking work on extractive politics and Indigenous social movements. In the Chevron case, she has attended court proceedings since the initial 1993 filing and always buttresses her firsthand observations with a razor-sharp awareness of larger dynamics at play.

While never losing sight of the ongoing crisis in the Amazon, Sawyer methodically shows how the original lawsuit filed by the affected peoples contorted under the pressure of the Chevron lawyers’ questionable legal techniques. With litigation unfolding over two decades and in jurisdictions spanning three continents, the combined case archive is a morass of filings, expert reports, and exhibits tallying at least hundreds of thousands of pages. In a brilliant excavation, Sawyer juxtaposes corporate discourse with lived experience, revealing how Chevron has generated half-truths that have held sway outside Ecuador in judicial processes greatly shaped by the asymmetric relations underlying extractive industries.

Previous academic studies of the Chevron case have only touched on select aspects, while media coverage has mostly amplified the voices of pundits who have failed to broach its contents. This neglect has, woefully, contributed to mainstream portrayals of the affected peoples as participants in a “get-rich-quick” ploy or as casualties of their lawyers’ supposedly outsized ambitions. Sawyer sheds further light on why misrepresentations about the plaintiffs’ claims abound, zooming in on the methods and form of the Chevron lawyers’ maneuvers that framed those claims as not just misguided but also deceitful.

Take for instance a key question of the Ecuador litigation with which Sawyer also deals: is crude toxic? Although the soil and water samples taken by the defendant and plaintiffs were remarkably similar in composition, each party interpreted that data in radically different ways. The plaintiffs maintained that the presence of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) accounted for chronic and serious effects. Industry experts, however, argued that hydrocarbons should be divided into their thirteen constituent fractions to assess how only certain hydrocarbon compounds posed a danger to human health. Conveniently, this approach, which has particular salience in the United States, restricts the parameters for clean-up by narrowing what counts as a toxicological event. The anthropologist, then, according to Sawyer, should follow how “toxicity is not an inherent property” but rather a “relation”—one that enfolds molecular, technological, and regulatory work.

In the 2011 Ecuadorian court decision, Judge Nicholas Zambrano, wielding the “precautionary principle,” ruled that the corporation was liable for harms that were both “foreseeable” and “avoidable.” Ecuador’s civil law tradition required that the judge—as well as the clerk, teams of lawyers, and scientific experts—visit allegedly contaminated sites, where it was near-to-impossible to refute the presence of crude and the incalculable loss it had caused. Sawyer observes that this immersion in the “radicalizing sensoria” of petrocapital’s ruins contributed to Judge Zambrano’s ruling, which powerfully “interrupted prevailing relations of knowledge and power.” In the countersuit in U.S. courts, however, judges believed Zambrano to have participated in a scheme against Chevron.

Claiming that Zambrano’s ruling was fraudulently obtained and thus in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act—a law passed by U.S. Congress in 1970 to halt organized crime—Chevron argued that the judgment was “illegitimate” and “unenforceable.” Sawyer unravels how the corporation’s lawyers “enroll[ed] misleading conclusions about processes deemed key to ascertaining crude contamination in the Ecuadorian litigation” to “entrench the conviction that the corporation was the victim of racketeering.” What U.S. presiding judge Lewis Kaplan took as truth, she contends, involved huge imprecisions of the science (both of toxicology and epidemiology), as well as misunderstandings about Ecuador’s judicial procedures. However, issues regarding translation writ large compounded as Chevron secured a favorable decision at The Hague. That 2018 judgment found that the Republic of Ecuador had violated its Bilateral Investment Treaty with the United States when it subjected Chevron to Ecuadorian litigation and subsequently failed to protect it from “collusion.”

Alchemizing from a contamination case into a racketeering suit and contract dispute, the legal saga’s twists and turns are as tedious as they should be heartbreaking. As Sawyer notes, it is difficult to see beyond the sanctity of law—to resist the pull to believe it impossible for a great number of experts to have gotten things so wrong. Her attention to microcosmic detail is vital for explaining the machinations of power at work. At the same time, her arresting prose is proof that digging into legal intricacies need not to be numbing. Instead, it can attune us to what exactly is at stake: namely, the future of tens of thousands of people drinking petroleum-laced water and the overall wellbeing of the Amazonian biome, carved open with waste pits.

I applaud Sawyer’s decision to not conclude the ethnography in the courtroom, since these deliberations from afar have cast a wide shadow over those still striving for repair. Rather, she uses the final pages to acquaint the reader with the experimental hub of Amisacho Restauración, where a group of local and international activists are applying innovative DIY-techniques to restore the rainforest—and the same site where I conducted a significant part of my dissertation fieldwork. Leaving the reader at Amisacho—a place and a project named after the Ai’ Kofan people’s name for their home—Sawyer’s book is a call to action. It demands that we think beyond law, while never forgetting the moral imperative to participate in the ongoing work to change it.

An innovative study at the interface of law, health, and the environment, The Small Matter of Suing Chevron will appeal to anthropologists of all stripes, as well as legal scholars, epidemiologists, and those working in the environmental humanities, science and technology studies, and Latin American contexts. As global toxics threaten to resign us all to irredeemable loss, Sawyer’s masterful ethnography demonstrates how it is still both possible and necessary to take a stand against corporate power and judicial imperialism.

Lindsay Ofrias is a “Leadership for the Ecozoic” postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at McGill University. Her current research project examines the political economy of oil contamination and people’s struggles for repair in Amazonian Ecuador.

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