August 25, 2014
In the 1970s and 1980s, Texaco extracted more than a billion barrels of oil from the Ecuadorean rainforest but spilled an estimated 400,000. In 1993, locals filed a class action against the company. That case is ongoing—it’s a legal version of the Amazon, serpentine and vast, with the company still fighting an Ecuadoran judge’s record-setting $19 billion verdict—and is the subject of Paul M. Barrett’s serious but uneven book Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who’d Stop at Nothing to Win It.
Barrett, a senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek and author of the bestselling book Glock, focuses on the activist lawyer, Steven Donziger, who turned the case into a no-holds-barred crusade against Chevron, which acquired Texaco in 2001. Donziger is an abrasive attorney (I wrote about him for Outside in 2007), and Barrett exhaustively describes his errors: coaching experts and cajoling judges and carrying on like a guerrilla with a law degree. Last March, a federal judge ruled that Donziger had used coercion and bribery in Ecuador, which would keep him from profiting from the Ecuadorean case if and when it’s resolved. (Donziger is appealing the decision.)
As a protagonist, Donziger is Shakespearean in his tragic dimensions and a natural magnet for a writer’s pen. But the odd thing about Barrett’s book is that Donziger is its nearly exclusive target. Barrett describes him as behaving like a “mob boss” with an ego on “an Olympian scale.” That may be true, but some of Barrett’s critiques are petty. Donziger is chided for being married to a woman who works for a glossy-magazine publisher and for living in a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with “high-end appliances” while his clients in Ecuador live in shacks. But if that’s hypocrisy, every public-interest lawyer with an espresso machine or a successful spouse is a scoundrel.
Barrett does dip into Chevron’s chicanery—the firm paid private investigators to follow Donziger and tried to persuade a freelance journalist to collect information about his Ecuadoran clients on a phony reporting trip—but the oil company gets far less scrutiny than its adversary. This seems lopsided, because the worst culprit in this case isn’t a quixotic lawyer who misplayed the bad hand dealt to him but the company that almost everyone agrees acted in a reprehensible way for decades. Barrett traveled to Ecuador, as I did, saw the pits of years-old oil that still dot the landscape, and heard the stories of people dying from cancers that their survivors blame on oil. Even he concluded that the region is “no place I’d want to live.” But Barrett moves on too quickly from the environmental crime scene. Much can be said about Donziger, but despite his many flaws, he did not spill a drop of oil in the Amazon.