Justice in the Amazon

Last semester I was living and studying in Quito, Ecuador and I kind of stumbled across this lawsuit that’s currently playing out there and worldwide, including the U.S. In 1992, 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians living deep in the Amazon sued Chevron-Texaco for damages to the environment and their homes. Chevron operated in the region since the 1960s and throughout that time dumped crude oil in the rivers, streets, and other waterways all throughout the region that these people depended on for drinking and bathing. Part of my program was a social justice focus so we were able to see these damages personally and visit with the people directly affected by the oil spills. As an added bonus we were able to meet one of the main Ecuadorian lawyers working on this case and talk to him about the specifics. He actually grew up in this area of the Amazon and went to law school in order to be able to fight this case. He told us about how the case has been on going for about 20 years and in the spring 2013, they actually won against Chevron in the Ecuadorian supreme court. Chevron was sentenced to pay something like 18 billion for remediation of the jungle and these people’s homes. They haven’t paid.

When I got back to Quito after that weekend I stayed in touch with that lawyer and began working at this firm. Granted I was doing PR stuff and translating a lot but even being around that environment was insanely cool. I also got in touch with (the only) North American lawyer working on the case from New York. I’ll be interning with him this summer to further my experience and be around this case even more which I’m thrilled about.

Throughout this class I’ve really grown interested in that social aspect of law that we’ve talked a lot about, like who can access the law and who can actually play in that game, how does the ideology influence actual institutional changes if it does at all, etc. These questions and ideas could all be applied to the case and I’d be interested to hear some conversations about it!

Mostly, I am intrigued by the cultural differences and the role of the actual indigenous Ecuadorians affected by the actions of Chevron within the case. When we first began talking about law in this class, we saw how often times justice can be a game played by only a few people, well versed in the rules and guidelines; the layman may often times be left out. But with this specific case, not only do these Ecuadorians not know their rights or possible legal actions, but they did not even know what petroleum was when it began to poison their land. This case is so fascinating to me because it is so complex and there are so many layers to it. I can’t help but wonder: whose job is it to fight for these people if they don’t know how to fight for themselves? Is it wrong for a rich, white man to come in and say he can fight for them and their home without having lived in this culture, without a strong fundamental grounding in their way of life? Do these Ecuadorians even want to fight in this way? Do they want to play this game of justice when the rewards they receive may not be what they want?

Let me know your thoughts!

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3 thoughts on “Justice in the Amazon

  1. Your article reminded me of a reading I had for my lit theory class called “Can the Subaltern Speak”. This article talks about First World countries imposing their values on Third World countries in an effort to “save” them. However, this begs the question, are they really being saved? In this article, the author Spivak argues that by offering a third-world person to join first-world cultural norms, said third-world person is actually being silenced and thus oppressed. This is maybe because the privileged theorists are, in a way, claiming to know how Third World people think and feel, what they desire, and so on. European and American academics are often quick to try to save Third World people, when their idea of “saving” might not be what these people want at all. Spivak is arguing that that these people are not actually being saved, they are just being colonized into something they are not and getting their power consolidated once more.
    I think this relates nicely to your posed situation. On her grounds, a white man coming in to fight for these people is wrong because he does not truly understand their needs, desires and passions. However, I find it hard to argue this when they truly have no power whatsoever. If this white man doesn’t, who will?

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  2. Your questions are extremely intriguing as I believe that they relate to our conversation on “white privilege.” In class, we spoke about how the “transparency phenomenon.” Thus, whites have the privilege of not being aware of their whiteness. Therefore, I believe that many white men consider only the power dynamics of the situation rather than the social and moral questions that you have brought up. Whites also have the privilege of feeling superior (as we have seen through Ngai’s book, Impossible Subjects), which causes them to ignore these questions that you have brought up. In basic terms, the end result becomes more important than the process. Therefore, these questions are very important to consider.

    Now, to answer your question, we have learned a lot about how coercion is a less successful method than changing one’s ideology. While white men can force themselves into the situation and fix things, it would be better if they engaged into the process and worked with the people in Ecuador to alter their knowledge and ideology.

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    1. I really liked the advice you included at the end of your comment Allison but I did have one question about it! From what I can tell from observing Mr. Donziger’s work and the interactions between the victims and the lawyers, there are many good feelings! They seem genuinely happy that he is there fighting for them and believe that they will win out in the end. I guess my question is: how does a white man play the Western legal game as best he can, while still respecting ideologies and knowledge? I realize that that probably sounds really bad but from what I remember, many of these Ecuadorians have no idea about international law or even what their government can or cannot do for them…so how then do we respect their wishes knowing that they don’t know everything they need to know in order to win?
      I hope that made some semblance of sense haha

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