Paying the price of injustice

Recently, oil giant Chevron (formerly Texaco) made international headlines when it was ordered to pay nearly $9 billion in damages (a ruling that saddled Chevron with the burden of paying one of the largest environmental awards in history) on the grounds that it contributed to pollution and environmental degradation in Ecuador [Ecuador Judge Orders Chevron to Pay $9 Billion].  Five billion dollars–the majority of the $8.6 billion awarded–has been designated for soil restoration and conservation efforts, with two billion dollars allocated for healthcare.  But despite their victory, the plaintiffs claim that the amount still fails to reflect the injustice done.  The ruling claimed that Chevron deliberately made operational decisions that were in violation of existing environmental laws and industry standards, which included using substandard technology in order to cut costs.  Billions of gallons of toxic crude were systematically dumped during drilling operations over the span of nearly 30 years, leading to the  contamination of lakes, rivers and soil, and even more importantly, the subsequent disruption of health and life.  The Amazon Defense Coalition, representing villagers and members of indigenous tribes hailing from northern Ecuador, is seeking over $113 billion for oil pollution that it claims is causing disease in the affected populations.  The sheer amount raises new questions regarding the moral importance of health and how victims should be compensated for their losses–is $9 billion too much or too little?  What about $113 billion?  The amounts awarded and demanded seem almost arbitrary–perhaps the appropriate amount for compensation can be better understood by framing the situation according to the dimensions of well-being set forth by Powers and Faden.  Prior to Chevron’s presence of the area, many of the indigenous cultures had been untouched by modern civilization and had little knowledge of the potential effects it could have upon the preservation of their way of life.  However, the systematic pollution of the rainforest region led to the contamination of vital lakes, rivers and other bodies of water, which the indigenous people depended upon for fishing, bathing, drinking and cooking purposes.  The victims’ health complaints range from constant headaches (due in part to the lingering smell of petroleum in the air) to higher incidence of skin disease, birth defects and cancer.  An elevated rate of pregnancies terminating in miscarriages has also been attributed to the oil contamination in the area.  In summary, it can reasonably be inferred that the affected populations would not choose such a fate for themselves; rather, it seems clear that the indigenous natives had little to no say over the decision to drill for oil in the area.  The Ecuadorian government had had little experience with the oil industry; yet, it entrusted Chevron with its development and expected the oil giant to employ modern techniques and technology that were already common practice in other countries.  However, Chevron’s practices clearly reflected that it valued the reduction of costs over the trust and health of the Ecuadorian people, which could be perceived as a lack of respect and a clear violation of personal security.  And although the Ecuadorian government had little knowledge of the damaging effects that Chevron would inflict upon the entire country, the government’s decision to allow drilling in the rainforest was perceived by many as a betrayal of its people.  How much money will it take to restore health in these rainforest communities?  To restore a sense of trust in one’s government?  To prove that the voices of the indigenous people can be heard?

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