The glorious Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, historic host to presidents and royals, was the improbable scene of a brawl this week. Squaring off beneath the cream-and-gilt ceilings and behind mahogany doors were oil behemoth Chevron Corp. and a pair of Ecuadorean environmental activists. It was not, however, a fair fight. Oil giant vs. environmentalists? In San Francisco? Chevron never had a chance.
The occasion for the face-off was the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. In green circles, the prize is huge -- sort of an environmental Nobel. (Indeed, a past Goldman winner, Kenyan tree planter Wangari Maathai, did go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.) Among this year’s recipients are lawyer Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and community organizer Luis Yanza, who represent a class of 30,000 indigenous people in a lawsuit filed in Ecuador alleging that, from 1964 to 1992, Texaco Inc., which was bought by Chevron in 2001, polluted their land and water, sickening their families, crops and animals.
Faced with the powerful condemnation implied by the award to its adversaries, Chevron did not flinch. It went after the activists, and the Goldman Prize too -- saying the selection committee had been misled and that it was about to tarnish the prize’s illustrious reputation by bestowing a bronze sculpture of Ouroboros and $150,000 on two charlatans. Learning that Fajardo and Yanza would hold a news conference at the Fairmont on Monday at 10 a.m., Chevron held one of its own one floor up, at 9.
The company’s PR offensive is understandable: A report by a court-appointed expert found that Chevron could have to pay up to $16 billion if it loses the case. So Chevron officials strove to get their points across in their counter-conference, maintaining that the company remediated any contamination that could have been laid at its door long ago -- and that the state-owned oil company, Petroecuador, is the real culprit for whatever pollution exists today.
But it’s hard for a liberal city to love an oil company, and the activists’ message was heart-rending. At the awards ceremony at the San Francisco Opera House later that night, the audience watched a film -- narrated by Robert Redford -- showing oil-soaked earth, physically disfigured people and the grave sites of Ecuadoreans stricken with cancer. Viewers were left pondering not legal distinctions but the fact that people in Ecuador are fighting for their lives. And never, ever, Fajardo told the audience, would he give up seeking justice for a humble people whose way of life had been destroyed by Chevron. The case in Ecuador may take years to resolve, but in the Opera House on Monday night, with the crowd on its feet for Fajardo, Yanza and the other prize winners, Ecuador could claim a victory.