It’s the biggest environmental lawsuit in history. The people of Lago Agrio, an oil-rich area in the Ecuadorean Amazon, are suing Chevron for $6 billion after decades of spills. The case has been underway since 1993.

In a forsaken little town in the Ecuadorean Amazon, an overgrown oil camp called Lago Agrio, the giant Chevron Corporation has been maneuvered into a makeshift courtroom and is being sued to answer for conditions in 1,700 square miles of rain forest said by environmentalists to be one of the world's most contaminated industrial sites. The pollution consists of huge quantities of crude oil and associated wastes, mixed in with the toxic compounds used for drilling operations—a noxious soup that for decades was dumped into leaky pits, or directly into the Amazonian watershed.

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The company that did much of this work was Texaco—an outfit with a swashbuckling reputation worldwide. It signed a contract with Ecuador in 1964, began full-scale production in 1972, and pulled out 20 years later. In 2001, Texaco was swallowed whole by Chevron, which by integrating its operations nearly doubled in size. The lawsuit against it in Lago Agrio was filed in 2003, though the legal antecedents go back much further. Having dragged on for four years, the suit may continue for half again as long.

Chevron is represented by high-priced firms of experienced lawyers in Quito and Washington, D.C., whose collective fees run to millions of dollars annually. Its antagonists are 30,000 Amazonian settlers and indigenous people, who call themselves Los Afectados—the Affected Ones. These plaintiffs are represented by a low-budget but serious team of North American and Ecuadorean attorneys, who are backed by a Philadelphia law firm that is known for class-action securities litigation and has gambled that this case, though risky, can actually be won.

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