In 1993, Yanza, working with a team of US-based lawyers, filed a class-action lawsuit against Texaco. Plaintiffs included a coalition of residents brought together by Yanza’s organization, including 80 villages and five different indigenous peoples. The initial case against Texaco (acquired by Chevron in 2001) was filed in 1993 in a New York district court, near Texaco’s headquarters. In 1996, a superior court judge dismissed the case, but the plaintiffs filed an appeal and won a reversal of the decision. In 2002, the US Court of Appeals agreed with Chevron’s request to send the case to Ecuador. However, the court warned Chevron that US courts would intervene if the company tried to avoid a judgment imposed by the Ecuadorian courts.
In May 2003, the 30,000 plaintiffs, led by Fajardo’s legal team, filed a lawsuit in Ecuador’s northern Amazon, demanding that Chevron pay for a complete cleanup, including removal of all formation waters, debris and equipment; remediation of all contaminated water bodies and lands; recuperation of fauna, flora and aqueous life; and monitoring and improvement of the health of the inhabitants.
Chevron does not deny dumping formation waters or oil in the region, but says the resulting contamination has not harmed the inhabitants and it is not responsible for any cleanup. In March 2007, the plaintiffs, with the abundant evidence collected from 45 field inspections, had already proven the existence of extensive contamination, and that further delay was not necessary. The judge issued an order to begin an assessment of the damages, which was carried out by an independent expert, culminating in a report released in April 2008 citing $8.3 – $16 billion in damages. Fajardo and Yanza toured the country relentlessly, making the trial an issue of national dignity and sovereignty.
The impact of Yanza and Fajardo’s efforts on Ecuador’s oil industry has been far-reaching. They have publicized the long-term effects on the environment and people, leading the government of Ecuador to pass stronger environmental protection laws. Texaco and Chevron’s legacy in Ecuador is now part of the national collective consciousness. Fajardo and Yanza also hosted the president of Ecuador on a tour of Texaco’s former operations, leading to a pledge by the government to relocate several contaminated communities.
Their work entails significant risk, as well. Yanza, Fajardo, their families and a number of their colleagues have been targets of death threats, harassment and intimidation. In December 2005, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States issued precautionary measures for Yanza and Fajardo in an effort to protect their lives. Fajardo’s brother was killed just months after he joined the legal team; no investigation took place and no one was arrested for the homicide. Fajardo has been forced to vary his daily routine, often sleeping in a different place each night.
In 2012, Yanza and Fajardo celebrated a major victory with an appeals court ordering Chevron to pay $18 billion in damages to 30,000 indigenous plaintiffs as a result of their historic class action lawsuit. Chevron refused to pay and is fighting the decision in court.