Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

In his conclusion to "Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion  Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who'd Stop at Nothing to Win" (Crown Publishers, 304 pages, notes, index,  $26.00) Paul M. Barrett writes that "this is a tale with no shortage of knaves and villains."

BOOK REVIEW: 'Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who'd Stop at Nothing to Win'

That might be the understatement of the decade in a book detailing the legal maneuvers that American lawyer Steven R. Donziger  and other lawyers in Ecuador used to get monetary justice and environmental remediation for the mostly indigenous people of the oil fields of eastern Ecuador. For his efforts, Donziger faced RICO charges in a New York City federal court. The court ruled against Donziger and that ruling by Judge Lewis Kaplan is currently being appealed.

I said in my review of Barrett's previous book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun" that the characters in the book could have been created by the late, great novelist Elmore "Dutch" Leonard. The characters in "Law of the Jungle" are worthy of a Quentin Tarantino film -- and include celebrities like rock musician Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, documentary filmmaker Joseph Berlinger and a rogue's gallery of corporate types from Chevron and their lawyers.

Almost lost in the legal battle were the indigenous peoples and poor farmers of the South American country's Amazon rainforest, where Texaco -- later acquired by by oil megagiant Chevron had been granted permission to drill for oil. Texaco had been invited by the country to drill for oil in the Amazon region and -- along with Ecuador's national oil company -- committed ecological damage that resulted in polluted drinking water and allegedly contributed to cancers and other medical problems to the natives.

The central figure of the novel is Steven R. Donziger, born in 1961 and along with Barack Obama, his contemporary, a member of the Harvard Law School class of 1991. The 6-foot-four-inch Donziger played basketball with the future community organizer, Illinois senator and two-term president.

Florida native Donziger, a self-style social activist, signed on to a class action lawsuit against Texaco-Chevron, the third largest corporation in the U.S.

The suit sought reparations for the Ecuadorian peasants and tribes people whose lives were affected by decades of oil production near their villages and fields.  During twenty years of legal hostilities in federal courts in Manhattan and remote provincial tribunals in the Ecuadorian jungle, Donziger and Chevron’s lawyers followed fierce no-holds-barred rules. Donziger, a larger-than-life, loud-mouthed showman, proved himself a master orchestrator of the media, Hollywood, and public opinion. 

Donziger cajoled and coerced Ecuadorian judges on the theory that his noble ends justified any means of persuasion. And in the end, he won an unlikely victory, a $19 billion judgment against Chevon--the biggest environmental damages award in history.  But the company refused to surrender or compromise, instead targeting Donziger personally, and its counter-attack revealed damning evidence of his politicking and manipulation of evidence. Suddenly the verdict, and decades of Donziger’s single-minded pursuit of the case, began to unravel.   

Like Barrett's previous nonfiction books, "Law of the Jungle" reads like a novel, but it's written by a master journalist who is also a law school graduate. I recommend it without reservation.

Paul M. Barrett
Paul M. Barrett

About the Author

Paul M. Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek.  He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, and The Good Black:  A True Story of Race in AmericaBarrett is a graduate of Harvard Law School and holds an A.B. from Harvard College. He teaches as an adjunct professor at New York University Law School. He lives and works in New York City. His website:

Donziger's website: