2007 Judith Kimerling

Judith Kimerling

Judith Kimerling is an Associate Professor of Law and Political Science at The City University of New York, with a joint appointment at CUNY Law School and Queens College. After graduating from University of Michigan and Yale Law School, she worked for seven years as an environmental litigator, including five years as an Assistant Attorney General for New York State, where she worked on the Love Canal litigation and other hazardous waste cleanup litigation and negotiations.

In 1989, Kimerling moved to Ecuador, where she learned that oil exploration and production was the primary engine of rainforest destruction in the Amazon region of Ecuador. She also learned how oil development had violently disrupted the lives of many communities. Spills from the main pipeline alone dumped more than 19 million gallons of crude oil into the environment, nearly twice as much as the Exxon Valdez; millions of gallons of toxic wastes were discharged every day, without treatment or monitoring; natural gas was burned as a 'waste'; and colonization along roads built by Texaco and other oil companies was the leading cause of deforestation in the region. This environmental degradation was creating poverty among forest peoples by reducing their territories and damaging natural resources that provided people with secure, self-reliant and sustainable sources of food, water, medicine and shelter. Kimerling immediately began working with indigenous organizations and communities to document the environmental and social impacts of oil development in their territories, and to help them assert their rights and protect remaining forests from destructive development. Her findings and photographs were later published in her book, Amazon Crude, which has been called "the Silent Spring of Ecuador" by The New York Times.

Through Kimerling's pioneering and courageous work, the impact of oil extraction on indigenous peoples and tropical forests entered the international environmental and human rights agendas for the first time. In 1993, Kimerling's book prompted U.S.-based lawyers to file a class-action lawsuit against Texaco in federal court in New York, on behalf of the indigenous communities and settlers in the affected areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon.  Two years later, the Ecuadorian government negotiated an agreement with Texaco behind closed doors that purported to remedy the company's environmental legacy. However, the agreement favored Texaco and did not require a serious cleanup, andin 1998, the government and national oil company relinquished all further claims against the company. In 2002, the court in New York ruled that the private lawsuit against Texaco had "nothing to do with the United States," and dismissed the case in favor of litigation in Ecuador without giving the plaintiffs a day in court. The plaintiffs' lawyers filed a new lawsuit against ChevronTexaco in Ecuador, but the outcome of the case remains uncertain. (Texaco is now part of Chevron Corp.)

Despite these legal setbacks, Kimerling remains committed to the indigenous communities' persistent efforts to assert their rights and remedy environmental, social and cultural injuries caused by Texaco's operations in Ecuador.  She writes and lectures extensively in English and Spanish, in addition to carrying out legal literacy and community education activities in indigenous communities in the Amazon. Shehas served as an advisor to a number of indigenous organizations, and is currently the international representative ofMakarik Ñihua, an alliance of 28 Huaorani and Lower Napo Kichwa communities who came together in wake of the dismissal of the New York lawsuit to speak for themselves and become protagonists in the struggle to vindicate their rights. In a recent development, she is helping communities who are beginning to undertake remedial measures themselves, after waiting so long for others to act.

In one remedial initiative, Professor Kimerling is working with a group of Huaorani communities to protect a 758,051-heactare area of rainforest (nearly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined) known as the "Intangible Zone." Before Texaco discovered oil in the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador, most Huaorani did not have contact with outsiders. Texaco collaborated with Ecuador and U.S.-based missionaries to pressure and trick Huaorani clans into leaving areas where the company wanted to work, pacify the tribe, and exterminate their culture and way of life. The Intangible Zone is home to the last known group of uncontacted Huaorani, the Tagaeri-Taromenane, as well as three communities of contacted Huaorani, and has been designated by the government as a conservation area, off-limits to oil extraction, mining and logging. The Tagaeri-Taromenane are the last known group of people still living in voluntary isolation in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but are threatened by encroaching oil development and violent encounters with illegal loggers who use the road that Texaco build after the Huaorani were dislocated, to enter and remove wood from the area. The initiative is led by contacted Huaorani in the Intangible Zone who are working to defend their culture and rainforest environment, which go hand-in-hand. The communities came together, with Kimerling's support, to put an end to the logging in the Intangible Zone, defend Huaorani land rights and the right of their uncontacted neighbors to live in voluntary isolation, and support community-based alternatives to logging and oil extraction, including tourism and sales of sustainable products.

In the United States, Professor Kimerling serves on the Technical Advisory Committee of REDOIL, a network of Alaska Natives who joined forces to address the human and ecological impacts of the fossil fuel industry in Alaska, and promote sustainable development She has consulted for many organizations, including Amnesty International, Burma Lawyers Council, The Field Museum, The Polisario Front, United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations, and Women's Environment and Development Organization. In addition, Professor Kimerling has been a Visiting Scholar at Yale Law School, and received a Special Achievement Award from Rainforest Action Network and a Feliks Gross Endowment Award for Outstanding Scholarly Achievement from the CUNY Academy for Humanities and Sciences.

The Field Museum is honored to present Ms. Kimerling with the 2007 Parker-Gentry Award to acknowledge her courageous and relentless accomplishments on behalf of indigenous peoples, riverine communities, and vast, intact forests in the headwaters of the Amazon. Her work to establish independent verification of transnational corporations' claims of best practice is also noteworthy, and is fundamental in a world that is increasingly dominated by oil concessions.