In Law of the Jungle, author Paul M. Barrett tells the gripping story of one attorney’s obsession with holding a major oil company accountable for pollution in the Amazon rain forest—and how his ends-justify-the-means strategy came back to haunt him and his impoverished clients.
Q) You’ve been covering the Steven Donziger–Chevron case for years. What drew you to the story initially?
A) The scale of Donziger’s initial $19 billion victory made this 20-year court battle the most important environmental case in recent memory. It demanded scrutiny.
Q) In your previous book Glock, which told the story of how an obscure Austrian curtain rod maker stormed the U.S. gun market and became, in the space of a few years, an American icon, you interviewed former Glock executives, cops, gun owners and more. Did you employ that same level of investigative journalism to Law of the Jungle?
A) Absolutely. I piece together complicated tales by interviewing as many of the participants as possible, diving into the legal documents, and even reviewing personal diaries, notes, e-mails, and the like. I want to learn what characters in the drama said and did as the story unfolded in real time. In this case, I had access to a twenty-year court record and hundreds of hours of raw documentary field tape that became part of that public record.
Q) Who were some of the most interesting people that you met in your reporting?
A) This story had an abundance of novelistic characters: the human-rights crusader who does a deal with the devil to accomplish his goals, the poor farmers and tribe members fighting for clean water and medical care, the executives and lawyers for a powerful multinational oil company—not to mention Hollywood celebrities, federal judges, and bombastic Latin American politicians. I met and interviewed them all.
Q) How did the Donziger-Chevron case escalate into an international story widely covered by the mass media in the United States and other countries?
A) The legal combat began with a lawsuit filed in New York in 1993. It attracted the attention of environmental activists, movie stars, and rock musicians concerned about the fate of the rain forest. A lot of the media furor traces to the remarkable promotional skill of Steven Donziger, who succeeded in framing a David versus Goliath narrative that appealed to many journalists in print, television, and even documentary film. That narrative, of course, turned out to be far more complicated than the one that was commonly portrayed in the media.
Q) How did Steven Donziger, a Harvard-educated lawyer who set out to vindicate the oppressed residents of the Ecuadorian rain forest, end up crossing ethical lines in his fight for justice?
A) Years before his involvement in the Chevron controversy, Donziger had demonstrated a tendency to bend facts to suit the causes he embraced. He saw this as a tolerable form of compromise to accomplish what he considered to be righteous goals. In battling Chevron, he believed that the oil company fought dirty, so he had to answer in kind. Then he went too far.
Q) Donziger managed to gain the support of celebrities including Sting, his wife, Trudie Styler, Bianca Jagger, and others. Were they aware of his questionable tactics?
A) No, I don’t think the rich and famous concerned themselves with the details of the legal fight. The question is whether they took the trouble to understand fully the complicated social, economic, and legal issues behind the sexy-sounding cause of protecting the rain forest. In most cases, the answer was no.
Q) Does Law of the Jungle have villains and heroes in the conventional sense?
A) None of the influential or powerful actors in this tale rise to the heroic. The oil company should have conducted itself in a more responsible manner in the first place. The government of Ecuador and the business elite in Quito should have been looking out for the interests of the poor residents of the rain forest. And the American lawyers who arrived, purportedly to rescue the victims of contamination, let their clients down in the end by committing fraud on the judicial system. What the story does have is a group of victims: the farmers and tribe members of the Oriente, people who lived next door to the oil operations and gained very little from the revenue that oil brought to Ecuador.
Q) You’ve written dozens of articles for Bloomberg Businessweek and Businessweek.com about this case. Why a book?
A) This remarkable story has such complexity and deep meaning, I thought that only a full-length book could truly capture it all. To understand the clash over oil in the rain forest, one has to go back five hundred years in Ecuadorian history to grasp the nature of that country’s society and politics. One has to understand the development of the oil industry in Latin America, the role of Texaco (later Chevron), and the very active role of the Ecuadorian political and economic elites. And then one has to see all of that complexity filtered through American-style litigation, with its promise of justice but its tendency to cast shadows over the ever-elusive “truth.”
Q) As a result of a recent federal court ruling that the multibillion dollar pollution judgment against Chevron in 2011 in Ecuador was obtained by means of coercion and fraud, Donziger has been held liable under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. What does that mean for him personally and professionally, and for his clients?
A) First, Donziger will appeal. The fight will continue in the U.S. courts and could go on for years. In the meantime, though, Chevron will take the federal court decision holding Donziger liable as a “racketeer” and try to use that to discredit the Ecuadorian judgment when the rain forest residents try to enforce their home-court victory in courts in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. For Chevron, the U.S. judgment offers a measure of vindication, as the oil company has contended for years that Donziger was little more than a shakedown artist. In the bigger scheme of things, Judge Kaplan’s ruling means that the legal battle continues while none of the waste oil in the Oriente gets cleaned up.
Q) What larger implications does the recent ruling have for future class-action lawsuits or for those looking to use the courts to hold corporations accountable?
A) Two immediate effects: The Chevron case will embolden other large corporations to go after plaintiffs’ lawyers who file mass lawsuits seeking to remedy contamination or other misconduct blamed on the corporations. It will also discredit idealistic-sounding legal campaigns to hold companies accountable. Sadly, from the activists’ point of view, Donziger has undercut the notion that litigation offers an alternative to politics to vindicate the rights of the poor and oppressed.
Q) Who, if anyone, ended up benefitting from this drawn-out legal battle? Was there any positive effect for the Ecuadorian people—those whose plight inspired the case?
A) A lot of lawyers made a lot of money. Texaco and Chevron combined probably spent something approaching $1 billion trying to fend off liability for what happened in Ecuador, money that could have been put to better use if it were spent on pollution, cleanup, and medical care. Donziger and his allies made a living from the case as well, if not quite so lavish a living as the defenders of the oil company. Ecuador as a country has benefited economically from the presence of the oil industry, which helped create a middle class beginning in the early ‘70s. Beyond that, though, it’s difficult to identify anyone helped by the legal combat. Certainly it hasn’t improved conditions on the ground in the rain forest.
Q) Did you interact personally with Donziger during your research for this book? How does he feel about the book?
A) I spoke many times with Donziger, watched him in court, and observed his public and private conduct over many years by means of the documentary footage entered into the public court record and his own notes and diary. I also interviewed a number of people who worked closely with and against him. You’d have to ask him about his reaction to the book. I’m confident I have told this story in a very different way from his version.
Q) What are the most important things you hope readers take away from Law of the Jungle?
A) Industrial activity inevitably has costly side effects, often suffered by those benefiting the least from the economic proceeds. Governments must act boldly to protect their people from such side effects, even as politicians encourage economic development. Large corporations can conduct themselves responsibly even as they pursue profits—but they’re unlikely to do so in the absence of vigilant regulation. Attorneys who claim to act in the interests of “the people” may have other motives in mind. Lawsuits do not necessarily achieve justice—sometimes quite the opposite.
LAW OF THE JUNGLE by Paul M. Barrett
Crown Publishers • On sale: September 23, 2014
Price: $26.00 hardcover • Pages: 304 • ISBN: 978-0-7704-3634-6
Also available as an ebook and on audio from Penguin Random House