David and Goliath
What does 15-year-old David Poritz have against ChevronTexaco, anyway?
photo by: Jerrey Roberts

David Poritz, a ninth-grader at Amherst Regional High School, has been assisting Amherst attorney Cristóbal Bonifaz in preparing a lawsuit against a subsidiary of Texaco. The suit claims the behemoth corporation left an environmental mess in Ecuador's Amazon region after drilling for oil there.


[ This story was published on Friday, March 12, 2004]

Last Oct. 21 ' which happened to be David Poritz's 15th birthday ' he and Amherst attorney Cristobal Bonifaz boarded a plane at Bradley International Airport, bound for Quito, Ecuador. Once there, they boarded another, smaller plane for a 45-minute journey northeast.

Their destination was a remote outpost near the Ecuadoran rain forest ' the city of Lago Agrio, and more specifically, its unassuming courthouse.   

Awaiting them was a shipment of boxes they had sent on ahead from Amherst, filled with spiral-bound documents ' 15,000 pages in all ' for a lawsuit that has attracted international attention. The Wall Street Journal has referred to it as ''the antiglobalization trial of the century.''

The lawsuit pits Indians in Ecuador's Amazon region against a corporate behemoth. It contends that a Texaco subsidiary, after drilling for oil there beginning in the 1960s, left behind an environmental mess, and that its efforts to address that mess, years later, were woefully inadequate. The result, the lawsuit goes on to say, has been environmental devastation, along with devastation with a more human side: cancers, miscarriages, birth defects.

Maria Aguinda et al. v. Texaco is specific to Ecuador's Oriente region, and asks this question: Can a parent company in the United States be held responsible for the wrongful acts of a subsidiary in a foreign country?

But it is being watched closely because of its bearing on an explosive issue in this time of globalization: the standards to which multinational corporations will be held in Third World countries.

Bonifaz, a native of Ecuador, is lead lawyer in the lawsuit. Working out of an office in Amherst, he has acquired a national reputation for his work on environmental and human-rights cases.

David Poritz, a ninth-grader at Amherst Regional High School, has assisted Bonifaz on the case, gathering much of the material that has been presented as evidence. People who know Poritz say they won't be surprised if, like Bonifaz, he too someday leaves his mark as an environmental crusader.

Margarita Bonifaz, Poritz's former teacher and Cristóbal Bonifaz's daughter, puts it this way: ''He's like my father ' very impassioned about the case, and the injustice of it.''

THE STORY of how David Poritz came to be in Lago Agrio, a bit player in a dramatic case that has been reported in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times as well as The Wall Street Journal, began two years ago, when he was in seventh grade at Amherst Regional Middle School and Margarita Bonifaz was one of his teachers.

Do you know somebody named Cristóbal Bonifaz? he asked her almost right away. An intense young man with a deep interest in the environment, Poritz had been following the Texaco case closely.

Yes, Margarita Bonifaz told him, Cristóbal is my father.

And so it began: Can I meet him? Poritz started asking. Can you introduce me?

Bonifaz remembers wondering, Who is this kid?

Her father, she says, is a busy man. She was reluctant to ask him to meet with one of her students.

But Poritz kept at her. He pumped her for updates on the case's progress. He showed her an impassioned letter he had written to Texaco, a letter echoing the argument that Cristóbal Bonifaz was making in court.

It was soon clear to Margarita Bonifaz that he had an exceptional level of knowledge about the case.

Bonifaz notes that she has many remarkable students. But Poritz was different. In him she saw ''a deep, unwavering devotion to the world.''

''This is not an ordinary teenager,'' she says.

On top of that, he wouldn't take no for an answer. ''He was persistent,'' Bonifaz says.

''Very persistent.''

PERSISTENT IS probably putting it nicely. Actually, David Poritz recalls, ''I was kind of like ? nagging. Asking and asking.''

Even if, as Margarita Bonifaz says, Poritz is not an ordinary teenager, in many ways he'd blend in anonymously with any adolescent herd. He's dark-haired, slim, athletic. He wears the trendy North Face vests, the eye-catching sneakers that are standard among his peers. And like many 15-year-olds, he's a little self-conscious.

Until he starts in about the issue that has consumed him for the past three years, the ChevronTexaco case. Then he seems not like a 15-year-old at all, but wise beyond his years, a phrase a teacher once used to describe him. His kindergarten teacher.

He is articulate, knowledgeable, and ' the word that inevitably crops up when people are asked to describe him ' passionate.

The trip to Lago Agrio affected him even more than he had expected. When he got home, he wrote down what he had seen: ''I was devastated at the sight of burning oil pits, oil-filled swamps, and children sick from exposure to crude oil. ... These children's lives were impaired because of the careless actions of a large multinational corporation from my homeland, the United States.''

He brought a digital camera along on the five-day trip and recorded almost everything he saw, taking some 500 photos in all. He's distilled them to 60, and created a laptop presentation that he's eager to show to anyone who will watch.

His photos reveal an eye for the big picture ' scenes of families whose homes sit on land steeped in oil waste ' and the telling moment ' a weary but resolute Bonifaz, chin propped on one hand during a press conference. There are photos of swamps covered in oily scum, rickety pipelines slicing through countryside, and the ever-present Texaco star emblem. ''It's everywhere,'' Poritz says.

''I don't think drilling for oil is a bad thing,'' he says as he clicks through his presentation, Andean music in the background. ''If it's done responsibly.'' Texaco's subsidiary in Ecuador, Texaco Petroleum, failed to be responsible, he says. He gives an example: Instead of treating the drilling waste and then disposing of it properly by injecting it deep into the ground, ''they just put it in an unlined waste pit.'' From there it seeped out, with dire consequences, he says.

''Ecuador is at the head of the Amazon,'' he says. ''Whatever happens in Ecuador goes into the Amazon.''

In another photo, a little boy walks barefoot along a road. You can't see it in the photo, Poritz says, but the boy's feet are covered with sores ' a consequence of what he says was a half-hearted cleanup funded by Texaco, in which oily wastes were sprayed onto roads.

PORITZ'S INTEREST in rain forests began with an earlier trip, this one to Costa Rica with his father, Sidney Poritz, a local developer. He was only 8 at the time, but says he loved ''the lushness of it ' all the flowers, all the animals.''

In sixth grade a teacher assigned a report about an environmental issue. He chose rain forests as his subject.

His work on that sixth-grade report, however, revealed some unsettling information: Ecuador's rain forest was threatened by fallout from Texaco's oil exploration in the 1970s and 1980s. In his research, Cristóbal Bonifaz's name kept cropping up.

Bonifaz has been working on Maria Aguinda et al. v. Texaco since 1993, arguing that the corporation's Ecuadoran subsidiary was reckless, or at the very least, negligent, in the way it conducted its oil operations ' using a process so damaging that it had been banned in the United States since 1955.

The lawsuit deals in numbing figures ' billions of gallons of crude oil spilled, hundreds of waterways polluted, vast acres of rain forest decimated ' and indigenous peoples afflicted with life-threatening conditions.

''Fifteen thousand people are dying,'' Bonifaz says. ''This is really a tragedy.

''They are getting away with murder.''

On behalf of the 30,000 native Ecuadorans suing ChevronTexaco (Texaco merged with Chevron in 2001), Bonifaz is asking for the cleanup of contaminated swamps and rivers, plus cleanup of 350 manmade oil lakes.

ChevronTexaco is asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed, saying that there has been no scientific evidence to support the plaintiffs' claims.

It is a complex case, muddied not just by its multinational scope, but by Texaco's relationship to its subsidiaries, and the fact that after it paid for a cleanup in the 1990s the Ecuadoran government released it of further responsibility. (For more information on the lawsuit, see sidebar, Page 19.)

A judge is now reviewing the evidence.

DAVID PORITZ, investigating every Internet site he could find for his sixth-grade report, was intrigued by the notion of law being used for social change. He had always had an eye out for the underdog, notes his mother, Janet Strauss. Even in preschool, Strauss says, ''He was always the peacemaker, the one who would help kids having trouble.''

''It drew me in,'' Poritz says of the ChevronTexaco case. ''There's a moral issue to me that's like, blaring.''

And that's why he was so set on meeting Cristóbal Bonifaz. He wanted to learn more about the case. But what he really wanted was to be an intern for him, and somehow make a difference.

Won over by his knowledge and concern, Margarita Bonifaz finally asked her father if Poritz could get in touch with him.

Cristóbal Bonifaz, speaking from his Amherst office last month, recalled his first contact with Poritz. ''I got a call from David. He wanted to do some work for me.''

Bonifaz didn't quite know what to do. Poritz was clearly unusual ' ''He's a very serious kid'' ' but still, he was a kid. Poritz kept calling, and Bonifaz kept putting him off.

Finally, he found a starter project. He needed someone to compile an exhaustive list of environmental groups, and he asked Poritz to gather them over the Internet.

Poritz threw himself into the assignment, working on the list after school each day, then putting in a few more hours after dinner. Every week or so he'd check in with Bonifaz. ''I was really eager,'' Poritz says. ''I really wanted to prove myself.''

Soon a meatier opportunity came along. Bonifaz was working on another high-profile case, involving PCB contamination near a General Electric plant in Pittsfield, and needed some articles from scientific journals. It was drudge work, he says ' ''not very nice to do'' ' and he actually felt a little bad about asking Poritz to take it on.

Bonifaz gave him a long list of articles, some from as far back as the 1930s, and told him to see what he could come up with at the University of Massachusetts library.

In short order, Poritz called to report that he'd found all the articles, Bonifaz recalls. ''I couldn't believe it.''

He adds, chuckling, ''He had driven the librarian totally out of her mind.''

''HE'S VERY inquisitive, very persistent'' ' there's that word again ' says Janet Strauss, an administrator at South Amherst Campus, a public alternative school. ''He won't accept a superficial response.''

He's always been focused, ''wanting to learn about everything,'' says his father, Sidney Poritz.

His older brother, Aaron, teases him about it, David Poritz says: ''I ask so many questions.''

''He asks questions that go deeper,'' says his stepfather, Leonard Strauss, a school principal in Connecticut.

Good qualities for a lawyer.

In fact, Poritz has had a longtime interest ' longtime, of course, being relative for a 15-year-old ' in law. ''Through law you can make change,'' he says.

Even as a fourth-grader, Sidney Poritz recalls, his son talked about being a lawyer. Actually, he was more focused than that: He wanted to be a corporate lawyer. By seventh grade, his interest had shifted to constitutional and environmental litigation ' his words. ''What I see is a much more social orientation,'' Sidney Poritz says. ''How do I help the world?''

Poritz is part of a blended family, dividing his time between the Amherst home of his mother and stepfather and his father's home in Leverett. He has two siblings, and two stepsiblings. ''David gets along with everyone,'' Janet Strauss says.

At his bar mitzvah, two years ago, he read a prayer which he had written himself.

I pray for everyone to have a place to go at night

Somewhere to rest their heads

Somewhere to call home.

I pray for everyone to have a shelter

A place to keep them warm and dry

A place where they feel safe.

BRIAN MCNAMARA, the teacher at the Wildwood School in Amherst who assigned the environmental report that jump-started Poritz's interest in the ChevronTexaco lawsuit, says he's not surprised where it has led.

''When he sets his mind to something,'' McNamara says, ''he's not backing off.''

In the classroom, McNamara sometimes found himself in the unusual position of having to say, ''Lighten up on yourself, David.''

''He puts a lot of pressure on himself,'' McNamara says.

True, Poritz says. He has a tendency to get stressed out, mostly over tests and other school work, even though he routinely gets good grades. ''I get really nervous. That's part of my nature.''

But that isn't necessarily a bad thing, he adds. ''It's important to have some stress ' a little pressure is good. Productive.''

He has lots of interests, not all of them serious. He enjoys the outdoors, going on hikes in the woods near his father's home. He is involved in cross-country, indoor track and lacrosse at Amherst Regional. He likes music, everything from Van Morrison to Bruce Springsteen to The Roots. He plays the guitar. He watches television ' the Discovery Channel is a favorite ' and goes to movies.

''Spellbound,'' a documentary about a group of youngsters feverishly prepping for the National Spelling Bee, is one film that especially interested him. ''That Indian boy ' his grandfather hired 5,000 people to pray,'' Poritz says, describing one memorable vignette from the movie. ''I liked his attitude.'' Still, he found the students' one-dimensional lives off-putting: ''I didn't think it was healthy.'' And in the end, what was the point: All that effort for ' spelling? ''The goal they were going for wasn't too impressive to me.''

It's not surprising, then, that at least one standby of the teenage social scene holds no appeal. ''I hate hanging out,'' he says. ''It's so unproductive.'' When his best friend calls to ask if he wants to come over, Poritz checks first to make sure there's a plan.

He reads the front page of The New York Times each morning at breakfast, but doesn't stop there. ''The best stuff'' ' the OpEd page, the foreign news ' ''is in the back,'' he says.

He leaves for school a little after 7, and always sits in the front row of the school bus.

The bus driver, it turns out, listens to the news on WFCR, the public radio station. ''He puts it really quiet. I've always wanted to tell him ' can you turn it up? I like to know what's going on.''

AFTER HIS success in locating the articles about the GE PCB case, Poritz was itching for other assignments from Cristóbal Bonifaz ' particularly something to do with the ChevronTexaco case.

Last year the company, under a U.S. court order, delivered 70,000 pages of documents to Bonifaz's office in Amherst ' in no particular order. ''They shuffle them first,'' he says dryly, ''so you don't know where anything is.'' The documents had the potential to be one of the linchpins of the lawsuit, establishing who had been calling the shots during the oil operations in Ecuador ' Texaco, here in the United States, or its subsidiary in Ecuador, Texaco Petroleum.

But someone needed to go through all those documents.

Bonifaz thought of Poritz, then had second thoughts. ''The work is boring ' I didn't think a kid would want to do it. It's a little bit of a mean job.'' He certainly didn't want to do it himself, Bonifaz says.

But Poritz was so eager to get involved that Bonifaz reconsidered. ''I said, ?David, I've got 14 boxes of stuff here. ?. It's going to be up to you.' ''

He gave Poritz the keys to his office, and set him loose. His mother would bring him lunch, and sometimes dinner.

''It was really meaningful to me,'' Poritz says. ''It was the first time I was directly impacting the case.''

His job was tedious to the nth degree: sorting through reams and reams of often deadly dull correspondence between Texaco Petroleum and Texaco's executive committee to cull anything that would show that Texaco's U.S. decision makers were responsible for overseeing how Texaco Petroleum did business. According to Poritz, unless that link could be shown, Texaco would simply say, ''We did not pollute in the rain forest ' they did.''

''God, I spent every day,'' he says of his work at Bonifaz's office. ''I was there hours.'' At first the task was overwhelming. But Bonifaz coached him, and Poritz says he eventually developed an instinct for what he was looking for. The paperwork was mundane stuff ' letters from 30 years ago, purchase orders ' but it provided proof, he says, of the relationship Bonifaz was looking for. ''To me it seemed like so obvious ? if Texaco Petroleum needed to get their carpets cleaned they had to ask Texaco Inc.''

Once he'd found the documents, they had to be copied, then organized, then readied for presentation to the court. In the end, he assembled 5,000 pages of documents that the judge would read as evidence.

''I would have had to hire a lawyer for the summer,'' Bonifaz says of the chore of plowing through the boxes. ''And David did it.'' He probably did a better job than many lawyers would have, Bonifaz adds.

MEANWHILE, BONIFAZ began wondering what he could do to acknowledge all of Poritz's work, which was unpaid.

Poritz, in fact, had something in mind: ''All I want to do is go to the trial,'' he remembers thinking last summer.

And that is how, last October, he found himself heading to Ecuador. The experience there ' going on a so-called ''Toxic Tour'' of contaminated sites, meeting people whose health and livelihoods have been affected, plus the lawyers and journalists who had traveled there for the case's opening phase in the Superior Court of Lago Agrio ' has left him more convinced than ever that an injustice was done. ''My compassion for the people of Ecuador has grown since my visit,'' he wrote in an essay afterward. ''I have now been directly exposed to the damage for which ChevronTexaco is allegedly responsible.''

PORITZ WOULD like to do more work with Bonifaz. He admires his commitment to the underclass. And he admires the way the lawyer comports himself. ''He is extremely dignified.''

Last fall Bonifaz was invited to a dinner at which the Housatonic River Initiative, an environmental group, would be honoring him for his work on the GE case. Bonifaz thought Poritz would enjoy the occasion ' ''He likes to be part of the legal process'' ' and invited him to go along.

Afterward, on the way home, Poritz told Bonifaz his long-range plan: Go to law school, then, he hoped, work with Bonifaz.

The lawyer mentally totted up the years and had to laugh, he says. Here was this young man, just out of middle school, with high school, college, law school all ahead of him. ''David,'' he says he told him, ''I'm going to be dead by then!''

Then Bonifaz becomes serious. He would welcome Poritz's collaboration at any time, he says.

''He loves to use the law for good things. And he will.''

Margot Cleary can be reached at




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