By Nathalie Cely
Ambassador of Ecuador to the United States
The people of Midland, Texas will get an unexpected boost to tourism in the next few weeks when Chevron hosts its annual shareholder meeting there on May 28. It’s a highly unusual move for the company; they typically hold these events at their California-based headquarters, which is easily accessible for shareholders invited from around the world. But this year, Chevron’s senior executives will slip into Midland on private jets for a small gathering largely out of the public eye.
However, Chevron’s elaborate move has not gone unnoticed, at least by those who are concerned about the plight of the poor indigenous communities and farmers living in the Ecuadorean Amazon where the company dumped its toxic waste. Despite a $9.5 billion judgment rendered against it in Ecuador, Chevron has refused to accept responsibility for the contamination.
That’s where Midland fits in. Midland has a proud history in the petroleum industry, preserved and celebrated in the very museum where the Chevron shareholder meeting will be held. The people of Ecuador understand and support the oil industry. Many international oil companies operate freely and profitably in Ecuador. Even as we diversify our energy matrix, we acknowledge that oil has helped us build our modern nation. That’s why we can’t begrudge the hospitable people of Midland for playing host to Chevron; however we do realize Chevron is attempting to duck further public scrutiny for its contemptible behavior in the Amazon.
Chevron insisted that the original case against them by indigenous communities be held in Ecuador, not the U.S. Ecuadorian and U.S. courts complied, and the result was possibly the largest court judgment in the history of environmental law. Since then, the company’s strategy has been to denigrate Ecuador’s judicial system, deny and ignore the heath and ecological effects of the contamination, make repeated attempts to upend U.S.-Ecuador commerce (which is some $19 billion annually, affecting thousands of jobs in Texas), abuse the international trade and investment system to undermine Ecuador’s sovereignty, and dance feverishly to keep the case out of the limelight.
While the government of Ecuador is not a party to the litigation against Chevron — it’s a private matter — we do zealously protect our sovereignty. Chevron has dragged the government of Ecuador into the matter by bringing a complaint about our legal system to an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague. As a result, Ecuador conducted its own independent environmental studies, and also has secured through U.S. courts for the first time ever the in-depth studies conducted by Chevron’s own experts. These reports reveal that oil buried in the jungle and spilled in the streams more than 20 years ago has not degraded like Chevron claims, that the toxic components of the contamination have been significantly underestimated by Chevron, and that these toxic components have caused and continue to cause very significant human health and environmental impacts.
Chevron is coming to Midland precisely because its shareholders are now demanding answers on Ecuador. Among the items on the agenda at the May 28 meeting, Chevron shareholders are voting on three resolutions that criticize Chevron’s CEO and other senior executives for their mishandling of the Ecuador litigation. One shareholder resolution, citing the Ecuador liability, calls for the company to appoint a board member with environmental expertise. And another would make it easier for shareholders to call special meetings to address urgent issues such as the Ecuador case.
Among the prominent Chevron shareholders backing the Ecuador-related shareholder resolutions are the New York State Common Retirement Fund, Trillium Asset Management, and the Swedish insurer Folksam, which has $32 billion under management. The New York fund alone owns about $800 million of Chevron stock.
Unfortunately, Chevron wants sensitive topics like lawsuits and environmental spoilage to be raised behind closed doors, if at all. In 2010, the company had five dissident shareholders forcibly removed (and later arrested) at an annual meeting, and has reacted belligerently to protests and proxy challenges year after year. Now, Chevron is encamping to Midland to shirk its responsibilities and any reminder of them altogether.
In Ecuador, we are all for international investment in our country, including responsible resource extraction, but we cannot tolerate actions that harm our people and our environment with impunity. We continue to urge all the parties, for the sake of the victims of the contamination, to find a fair and just resolution to the dispute. The alternative is that the moral and legal cloud that has gathered over Chevron will follow them for decades to come. Even to Midland, Texas.
Nathalie Cely is ambassador of Ecuador to the United States