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November 11, 2014

Book Review: ‘Law of the Jungle’ by Paul M. Barrett


When one thinks of the Amazon, many probably picture it as a pristine, luscious rainforest teeming with biodiversity that hint at simpler times before human development and exploitation. But within the dense foliage of the Amazon rainforest lies one of the most complex, tangled 30-year-old tales in the making that’s undoubtedly one of the world’s biggest stories of environmental injustice.

In his fourth 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,” Bloomberg Businessweek assistant managing editor and senior writer Paul M. Barrett weaves through the complex spectacle of Texaco’s (acquired by Chevron in 2001) involvement in the Amazon rainforest and of one determined American lawyer who set out—arguably with good intentions—to serve justice to the local Cofán people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. After 30 years of environmental damage, seemingly endless court trials, and legal fabrications, what unfolds is a puzzling, astonishing story that finds Donziger in the judiciary hot-seat instead of Chevron. And in the end, there are still no winners—not even the native Cofáns at the helm of this spectacle.

Texaco began searching for oil in Ecuador a half-a-century-ago this year, and found luck several years later in a remote region of the rainforest known as the Oriente. The Ecuadorian government hailed Texaco’s involvement in oil exploration to such a high regard that when oil first started to flow from Lago Agrio, the small oil town that popped up around its production, the nation celebrated by marching a barrel of oil through the streets of Quito and sprinkled it with “holy water” from the city’s Catholic bishop. But, it wasn’t before long after Texaco’s arrival that the locals started having health issues: stomach ailments, bone pain, and skin rashes. Indeed, with the limited environmental protection and regulations offered back then, Texaco had dumped drilling waste into unlined earth pits, leaked contaminated water into local rivers, and sprayed petroleum onto dirt roads.  

Insert Steven Donzinger—a young, ambitious Harvard law school student who liked to play basketball with Barack Obama and was no stranger to South America or fighting for the underdog. He spent several years working as a journalist in Nicaragua before law school, and soon after, working in the juvenile court division in Washington D.C. standing up for young teenagers convicted of murder. Another Harvard friend connected Donziger to the situation in the Oriente, and Donziger was hooked.

Positioning himself as the voice of the native people, Donziger trekked native Cofáns in “traditional dress” to chilly New York City in 1993, and launched a billion-dollar lawsuit against one of the world’s biggest corporations. Undoubtedly, it was an ambitious move for such a young, new lawyer to take on one of the world’s largest corporations, but Donziger had a relentless passion for bringing justice to the Amazon. The 1993 suit kicked off over two decades of litigation that moved from New York to Ecuador, and ultimately resulted in a $19 billion judgment again Chevron in 2011. Chevron contested the finding by going after Donziger and his legal tactics, which led to a 2014 ruling in New York that found Donziger and Ecuadorian lawyers “corrupted the Lago Agrio case,” and that Donziger and his clients could not profit from it. Donziger and allies are contesting the ruling in the United States and trying to enforce the original judgment against Chevron elsewhere.

Barrett takes readers on a jaw-dropping journey through the Amazon, Quito, and New York. His detailed account of the fictional-like litigations enable readers to stay focused throughout the 264-page read, while still keeping them on their toes as he tactfully uncovers the endless layers to the mayhem. It’s bound to hook anyone with interests in legal affairs, environmental issues, oil exploration, and more, and make readers aware of how far-reaching consequences can be when it comes to man’s involvement with the environment. Undoubtedly, readers will conclude the book itching for real justice for the Cofáns. 

As Oceana supporters know, Oceana is a leader in working to stop oil contamination and the expansion of dirty offshore drilling operations around the world.  Oil spills in the Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico, coastal Chile, and elsewhere reinforce the message in Barrett’s book that oil drilling is a dirty practice that can lead to environmental, political, and socioeconomic consequences.

For that reason, Oceana advocates for clean energy sources like offshore wind that help to mitigate the severity of climate change, and actively campaigns to keep offshore oil exploration from reaching new areas, like the U.S. East Coast, where the Obama Administration recently approved seismic airgun blasting—a stepping stone to offshore drilling. Click here to learn more about Oceana’s campaign to create renewable energy and keep Big Oil from expanding.