As the true tale of a citizens' lawsuit against industrial polluters - "A Civil Action" - tops bestseller and movie box-office lists, an even more dramatic case is quietly wending its way through US federal courts in New York. This one also stars a maverick lawyer who exposes environmental crimes by a major corporation. If the case ever caught Hollywood's eye, its screenplay might look like this:
Act I: March 1999, a corporate boardroom. Executives from a powerful multinational - Texaco Inc. - anxiously await a decision in the most recent legal threat to the company's good name. This one is particularly galling - it's not blacks or women protesting discrimination, as in the past, but a group of indigenous people from a tiny South American country challenging the company's overseas practices.
Act II: 1967, Ecuador. Texaco discovers oil in the Ecuadorean Amazon, the most biologically diverse area on Earth, and home to eight indigenous groups. Ecua-dor's government gives the company free rein to exploit the oil in return for a share of the profits. Texaco builds roads, pipelines, and oil refineries throughout the rain forest. Operating free from any oversight, Texaco cuts costs by dumping its toxic wastes directly into unlined pits that drain directly into the surrounding rain forest.
Act III: Late 1980s, the Ecuadorean Amazon. A series of squalid oil towns have sprung up with no running water or sanitation. Regular oil spills dump more crude into the environment than the Exxon Valdez. Texaco's toxic wastes have poisoned the local streams. Crops fail, cows die, fish and game disappear, and people suffer health problems. Indigenous groups are driven deeper into the jungle and one group, the Tetetes, disappears.
Act IV: Early 1990s, Ecuador. Amazon communities begin to resist the devastation taking place around them. But with close ties to the military and government leaders, the support of the US Embassy, and annual earnings three times larger than Ecuador's GNP, Texaco has little concern for their complaints.
Act V: 1993, New York. After netting an estimated $5 billion over 20 years, Texaco turns its operations over to Ecuador's government, leaving behind billions of gallons of toxic wastes and some 600 open waste pits. Texaco proposes a superficial clean-up, but thousands of people affected by the contamination have no remedy. With no legal presence in Ecuador, the company is immune to local lawsuit. An American lawyer launches a $1.5 billion class-action suit against Texaco in federal court, arguing the critical decisions about operations and wastes were made in Texaco's New York headquarters.
Act VI: 1998, New York. A federal judge dismisses the case after accepting Texaco's argument that New York is an "inconvenient forum" for the corporation, with headquarters 15 minutes from the courtroom. On appeal, Texaco argues that there is no law "that says that a plaintiff automatically has a right to sue anybody they want." But in a rare reversal, the US Court of Appeals insists that even poor Ecuadoreans deserve their day in court and orders the judge to reconsider the dismissal. A final decision on whether to accept the case is pending.
Like its predecessor, "A Civil Action, Part 2" raises troubling questions. What chance do the environment and human well-being stand against the overwhelming economic, political, and legal forces arrayed to defend corporations like Texaco from accountability abroad? Of the 100 largest economies in the world, more than half are multinational corporations. These companies economically dwarf most developing countries and enjoy virtual impunity for their actions overseas.
The much abused legal doctrine forum non conveniens - inconvenient forum - provides a final defense, allowing US companies to reap profits and direct foreign operations from home, shielded from lawsuits in the US. No American company has ever been held accountable in a US court for environmental destruction abroad. Studies show that only 4 percent of cases dismissed on grounds of forum non conveniens are ever re-litigated.
The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development gives governments "the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States."
The US government has turned a blind eye to the abuses of its corporations abroad.
It remains to be seen what New York's federal courts will do with one particularly egregious case.
Final act and movie pending.
*Chris Jochnick, a lawyer based in Ecuador, is the advocacy director for the Center for Economic and Social Rights, an international human rights organization with New York offices.