Amazonian Quagmire

Big Oil, the rainforest, and sticky legal issues are stuck in a San Francisco courtroom

With governmental relations already frayed by the litigation in New York, the company may also be wary of the anti-American, socialist sentiment on the rise throughout South America — what commentators have taken to calling the "pink tide" that has swept leftist leaders into power across the continent. "Ecuador just kicked Occidental Petroleum out, and the government is starting to make populist noises," says Terry Collingsworth, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. "Chevron is damn nervous."

These macro forces mean little to Judge Alsup, however, as he wades through the muddy legal waters of this case that has its roots in a South American rainforest. In October, he spent a long day hearing testimony from experts flown up from Ecuador. The next day he would have to discuss how the Ecuadorian plaintiffs would be deposed, and whether they could appear for trial; there was some concern that the impoverished Indians wouldn't be able to get visas to enter the United States. It was the end of the afternoon, and the judge finally let his irritation show. "I just don't understand why a case that involves Ecuador is up here!" he burst out. "Now you want a lowly district judge in San Francisco to resolve it! It's all topsy-turvy."

The judge sighed, resigned. "But that's what I've got to do. See you tomorrow," he said, standing up. Chevron's lawyers stayed quiet.

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