[ 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
Their destination was a remote outpost near the Ecuadoran rain
forest ' the city of Lago Agrio, and more specifically, its
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
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
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 Cristobal
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
Do you know somebody named Cristobal 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
Yes, Margarita Bonifaz told him, Cristobal is my father.
And so it began: Can I meet him? Poritz started asking. Can you
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 Cristobal 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
''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.
PERSISTENT IS probably putting it nicely. Actually, David
Poritz recalls, ''I was kind of like ? nagging. Asking and
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
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
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
''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, Cristobal 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
''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
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 Cristobal 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.
Cristobal 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
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,
''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
But that isn't necessarily a bad thing, he adds. ''It's
important to have some stress ' a little pressure is good.
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
''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
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
AFTER HIS success in locating the articles about the GE PCB
case, Poritz was itching for other assignments from Cristobal
Bonifaz ' particularly something to do with the ChevronTexaco
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
''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,
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 email@example.com.