A large swathe of contaminated Ecuadorian rain forest is at the centre of not only a judicial tug-of-war, but a bitter public relations battle that has been raging for almost two decades. (Photo credit: Andrea Davoust)
US oil giant Chevron quickly cried foul after an Ecuadorian court in the north-eastern Amazon town of Lago Agrio ordered it to pay more than $8 billion for environmental damage in the rainforest region. In a statement, the company pledged to “see that the perpetrators of this fraud are held accountable for their misconduct,” leaving no doubt that the case and its inseparable 18-year public relations battle will continue.
As in the past, both Chevron and the plaintiffs have repeated that they have been the victims of unprecedented campaigns waged in newspapers, airwaves and the Internet to distort the facts and influence authorities.
At the centre of the case is a large and remote swathe of rainforest near Ecuador’s border with Colombia. Plaintiffs, who represent Amazonian communities, have sought $27 billion for the environmental damage caused before the company left the country in 1992, making it the biggest environmental lawsuit in history.
According to Kevin Koenig of Amazon Watch, Chevron has been waging a very visible public relations campaign in Ecuador ever since the case moved there in 2003.
Koenig says Chevron has often taken out full-page adds in the country’s main newspapers as well as in local papers in Amazonian towns to explain their position, while Chevron spokesman James Craig has been a fixture of local radio stations.
Chevron, which inherited the case when it bought Texaco in 2011, has argued that Texaco already dished out $40 million for clean-up efforts and was officially released from further responsibility by Ecuadorian officials.
It also says Ecuador’s state oil firm Petroecuador was the real creator of the toxic mess in the jungle.
Claiming that it was being unfairly represented on the Internet, Chevron created a dedicated YouTube channel to show videos that present its side of the story and that reveal the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ alleged plans to coerce local officials and judges.
The Financial Times reported that Chevron also hired former CNN journalist Gene Randall to shoot a 14-minute documentary which was published on the company’s website and on YouTube last April.
“Oil companies have long spent a fair amount of money on public relations,” said Daniel Litvin, director of Critical Resources, a company that advises oil and mining companies on corporate responsibility. “The reality is they are starting from a weak level of trust.”
The plaintiffs’ own PR offensive has indeed been aggressive and far-reaching. Websites like chevrontoxico.com and chevroninecuador.com are entirely devoted to attacking Chevron and presenting images of the destruction and pollution in the Amazon.
They also turned to Washington-based PR company Hinton Communications to get positive news coverage in national newspapers and television.
According to the Financial Times, Hinton Communications says it was only hired to respond to Chevron’s repeated attacks in the press and that it could not dream of competing with the half-dozen firms on Chevron’s payroll.
Plaintiffs also received a major PR boost from documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, whose 2010 award-winning film Crude highlighted the suffering of the native people whose ancestral lands have been contaminated.
The long road to justice
While Ecuadorian officials wrote off Texaco’s role after the initial $40 million disbursement, the plaintiffs filed a class action suit on behalf of the 30,000 Amazonian residents affected by the contamination.
The case was first brought against Texaco in 1993 and filed in New York. But in 2002, after repeated pleas from Chevron, the New York court allowed the case to be transferred to Ecuador.
Analysts have said that at that time Chevron viewed the political situation in Ecuador as favourable to its defence. But that all changed with the election to the presidency of Rafael Correa, a left-leaning former energy minister who has come down hard on foreign energy companies.
With both parties planning to challenge Monday’s ruling the case is likely to end up in the country’s supreme court in the capital of Quito. Experts agree that the historic ruling is not the end of the case, but only another stage in the drawn-out conflict.
But for Amazon Watch’s Koenig, activists don’t have to worry about competing against the best PR companies money can buy. “The cat is out of the hat,” Koenig says. “Regardless of Chevron’s PR budget, they’re not going to make these images go away.”
Date created : 2011-02-15