‘So That the World Can Know’: Amazonians Take On Chevron

November 2, 2009

Crude (2009), a documentary film by Joe Berlinger, 100 mins., distributed by First Run Features (crudethemovie.com)

The camera trains its focus on a woman we come to know as a Cofan Indian. “Most of our women no longer sing,” she says. “But today I will sing for you.” Her voice drifts into a tender melody. “We lived upon the river of rich clean waters. With the arrival of the company and their contamination, my brothers are now dead.” The camera soars over a mountainous sea of dense rainforest. Her song continues: “I am the only survivor of my family. The message of my song is to tell the world so that the world can know what has been done. I worry about the future. What will happen to the children? What will become of my people?” To the haunting sound of a reed panpipe, the word crude seeps through a sepia-tinged map of Ecuador.

Finally, a documentary that captures a story aching to be told cinematically. And Crude masters this task exquisitely. The film tells the story of a lawsuit against the Chevron Corporation now unfolding in the Ecuadoran rainforest. The cinematography, historical footage, and absorbing music are so skillfully edited (kudos to Alyse Ardell Spiegel) that the intricacies and intrigue of this legal case become simply engrossing. But Crude offers more than legal drama. It is a film about humility, fortitude, and idealism in the face of hopelessness, of human intimacy and wit in the midst of pain and sorrow, and of the folly of corporate intransigence and flat-footedness that not even the impressive wealth of the oil industry has been able to overcome. For these reasons, Crudeneeds to be seen.

The players in this lawsuit reflect socio-economic extremes on a global scale. The plaintiffs are among the most politically and economically marginalized inhabitants of the world, while the defendant is the world’s fourth-largest oil company. Hailed by the plaintiffs’ supporters as a David-and-Goliath story and derided by their opponents as a Shakespearean farce, the lawsuit has stayed alive against all odds since it was filed in 1993 in New York. The suit alleges, on behalf of 30,000 Amazonian residents, that Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, recklessly contaminated the environment and endangered the health of local inhabitants during its 30-odd years of operating in the northern Ecuadoran Amazon.

Alleged industrial neglect began in 1964, when Texaco gained rights to explore for and exploit oil in a 988,000-acre concession in the rainforest. Three years later, the company discovered oil, and by 1972, it had built a trans-Andean pipeline, connecting its Amazonian oil fields with a Pacific port. During the following 28 years, Texaco produced more than a billion barrels of crude oil.

In the process, the company indelibly transformed the environment with thousands of miles of seismic grids, more than 300 oil wells, about 900 open waste pits, 22 processing facilities, numerous pumping stations, and an oil refinery. The network of roads linking oil wells facilitated the homesteading of the region by more than 200,000 poor Spanish-speaking farmers or colonos (colonists). In 1992, Texaco’s rights to operate the oil concession ended, the company pulled out of Ecuador, and its operations reverted to the state petroleum company, PetroEcuador. Thirty-thousand colonos and indigenas make up the “class” of the class-action suit.

Although the lawsuit questions many of Texaco’s production practices, it contends that the company’s large, often soccer-field-size earth pits are of greatest concern. Texaco dug these pits alongside its wells and processing facilities, where it dumped wastes that surface during the drilling process—sludge, water, and unusable heavy crude—along with untreated chemical muds and industrial solvents essential for drilling. Unlined and open, these pits, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, have allowed toxic chemicals to seep and overflow into water and soil systems throughout the region, severely contaminating the environment and jeopardizing the lives of local people.

During Texaco’s Ecuadoran operations, it was standard industrial practice in the United States to re-inject the natural waste from drilling at least one mile underground, and to process chemical solvents until they were environmentally safe. Texaco intentionally did neither, the lawsuit alleges, in order to boost profits. For example, not re-injecting water back into the subterranean strata from which it emerged allegedly reduced the company’s per-barrel production costs by about $3 and saved the company some $5 billion over the course of its operations in Ecuador.

The litigation portrayed in Crude is unfolding in the Amazonian provincial capital of Lago Agrio because Texaco/Chevron won a legal motion in 2002 to have the case relocated to Ecuador after a 10-year legal battle in the U.S. federal court. In accordance with Ecuador’s civil law tradition, the court proceedings included a period of on-site judicial inspections (from January 2004 to March 2007). In contrast to the United States, where testimony and evidence would have been presented in the courtroom, in Ecuador the lawyers from both sides trampled with the judge (accompanied by the press, interested observers, and locals) through the rainforest to inspect 44 allegedly contaminated sites, including former Texaco oil wells, processing stations, and purportedly remediated waste pits.

Each party collected soil and water samples and later submitted expert reports to the judge assessing each site for toxic material. The reports map each site and its position relative to waterways, human habitation, and other Texaco instillations, methodically detailing the geomorphic and chemical composition of the samples. These inspections form the bulk of the trial’s evidentiary phase, and the resulting scientific reports analyze the objective phenomena upon which the judge must rule. Yet as Crude vividly shows, the judicial inspections produced more than scientific facts. Being highly public events, they served as platforms from which the lawyers for the plaintiffs and defendant passionately voiced their arguments. They were also the spaces where local inhabitants narrated wrenching testimony and colono and indigena plaintiffs bore silent witness with their handwritten placards and photos of ailing relatives.

These judicial inspections form the axis from which Crude develops key characters and themes central to the lawsuit. On the plaintiffs’ side, we meet the humbly heroic Ecuadoran lawyer, Pablo Fajardo; the endearingly open U.S.-based legal adviser, Steven Donziger; the steady leader of the Cofan, one of the indigenous groups most detrimentally affected by Texaco operations, Emergildo Criollo; the destitute colono mother, Maria Garofalo, determined to treat her 18-year-old daughter’s cancer; and the elegant and eloquent celebrity-activist Trudie Styler, wife of Sting.

On the defendant’s side: Chevron’s dignified chief Ecuadoran lawyer, Adolfo Callejas; the vaguely aloof corporate counsel, Ricardo Reis-Vega; and the polite, but mildly robotic, chief environmental scientist, Sara McMillen. Although Crude seeks to portray the both sides in this legal battle in a balanced way, the filmmakers had virtually limitless access to the plaintiffs and especially their legal team. As such, a handful of characters representing the plaintiffs’ cause are richly developed, while representatives of the corporation are more distant and less sympathetic.

In one telling scene, during the judicial visit to a Texaco processing station, Callejas argues that the oil operations being inspected are essential features of the oil industry. These technologies, which the plaintiffs argue were substandard and contributed to the contamination, are pervasive throughout the world, in the past and present, he says. Only in Ecuador have they been demonized by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Fajardo passionately retorts, arguing that it is a lie to suggest that these oil operations reflect global standard practices.

“More than a billion gallons of toxic waters, of poison waters, were dumped in rivers, streams, and swamps in the area,” Fajardo says. “What the people demand is the complete remediation of the area that Texaco contaminated.”

Callejas rejoins: “What they want, Your Honor, is not environmental remediation or cleanup. It’s not to improve the quality of life [for local people]. What they want are two checks: one to the Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia [a key grassroots organization that has mobilized plaintiffs] and one for judicial expense—meaning for the lawyers.”

Herein lie the core debates in the suit. The plaintiffs’ lawyers strive to show not only that Texaco contaminated the area of its operations, but that the waste strewn into the environment beginning in 1964 still contaminates the region today—despite the fact that PetroEcuador has operated Texaco’s former oil instillations since 1992. The defendant’s lawyers claim both that no such contamination exists, and that if it does, it is the result of PetroEcuador’s operations and is not Chevron’s responsibility. The lawsuit, they claim, is the fabrication and manipulation of predatory lawyers seeking to get rich.

We soon learn, however, that Fajardo, the plaintiffs’ lead on-site lawyer, is anything but greedy. Rather, he has an almost beatified aura about him. Having grown up poor in Shushufindi (a rainforest refinery town with the highest murder rate in Ecuador), Fajardo began working in the oil fields at age 14. He lives in two poorly lit, sparsely furnished rooms in his mother’s house in Shushufindi, and he travels the seven hours between Lago Agrio to Quito (where the plaintiffs’ lawyers maintain their legal offices) by bus. Influenced by liberation theology, Fajardo is the Saint Francis of social justice in the Upper Amazon.

This is not to say that money is of no significance in this venture. It is. The plaintiffs’ advising counsel, Steve Donziger, clearly lays that out as the filmmakers follow him and members of the Ecuadoran legal team on a trip to the office of Kohn, Swift, and Graf, the law firm that has paid for litigating this case since it began. Clearly the Philadelphia-based firm is not suing Chevron on humanitarian grounds; it stands to gain 30% in legal fees of a potential $27 billion liability. And Manhattan-based lawyer Donziger does earn a salary and charge expenses, as does every member of the legal team; were things otherwise, it would be impossible to even dream of mounting a legal case against the third-largest corporation in the United States.

But the lawsuit is about much, much more than money. Crude forcefully makes this point with sounds and images—a dying duck lies on its back, legs trembling, while we hear the voice of a mother distraught over how she will treat her daughter’s cancer. A three-week-old infant, her body covered with welts, quietly cries as we hear a nurse noting that 15 out of 20 children in the region are afflicted with skin problems. An auger pierces the soil, retrieving soil glistening and black. People bathe and children play in a river with oil shimmering on its surface, as we hear the voice of Chevron’s McMillen explain that “enormous numbers of fecal bacteria in the water” are what really cause rashes among local inhabitants.

The film also demonstrates that this fight is not taking place only in a court of law. The film depicts the international media as a central forum in which the case for the plaintiffs is being made, as Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa visits allegedly contaminated sites with camera crews in tow, as Vanity Fair publishes an in-depth exposé on the case, as Fajardo receives the 2008 CNN Heroes Honor.

And, largely through following Donziger in all his networking and strategizing, Crude shows us how the need to address oil contamination is being forcefully advocated in civil society by Ecuadoran organizations, by globally networked NGOs (especially Amazon Watch, a California-based environmental and indigenous rights organization), and by celebrity activists (as Styler uses her conjugal clout to compel UNICEF to fund a small-scale water filtration system). To Sting singing, “Sending out an SOS,” the camera alternates between Styler, Fajardo, Donziger, and Yanza watching the Police onstage at the 2007 Live Earth concert in New York and Amazonian children drinking sparkling rainwater from newly installed UNICEF-funded tanks.

Interspersed between these scenes of plaintiffs and their various allies, we learn important scientific facts from McMillen, Chevron’s voice of methodical and systematic reason. For example: that “people [everywhere] encounter hydrocarbons on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean those hydrocarbons are going to make you sick”; that “there is absolutely no evidence that there is an increase in the cancer death rate [in the Ecuadoran Amazon] . . . and there is absolutely no evidence that that [i.e., sickness in the region] is linked to oil production”; that “99% of [Chevron’s water] samples [at allegedly contaminated sites] meets EPA and WHO drinking water standards. And we don’t find any heavy metals or hydrocarbons at concentrations that would be of concern to health or the environment.” A subtle down-turning of the mouth and gentle gulp follow the last statement, the kind of facial movements one might make after having managed a stressful task.

For each of Chevron’s claims about the non-existence of contamination, the plaintiffs’ environmental and epidemiological experts have counter-arguments to demonstrate the very existence and consequence of crude toxins. Perhaps wisely, Crude does not delve into the complexity of this. It would take another film (or book) to unravel how the two parties can use the science of toxicology to both prove and disprove the presence of harmful chemical and compounds in the environment associated with Texaco’s former oil operations.

In short, crude oil is a soup composed of thousands of hydrocarbons, that is, chemicals or compounds composed of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Of those, only 24 have been sufficiently studied and characterized for their toxicity. And among the 24, two clusters of similarly acting hydrocarbons—called BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethlybenzene, and xylene) and PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)—are known to cause cancer or neurotoxicity, or to impair cellular development.

Both the plaintiffs’ and defendant’s experts found that BTEX and PAH were only minimally present at most of the sites sampled, an unsurprising result given that these compounds are volatile and dissipate quickly into the environment. Yet their absence is, perhaps, what emboldens Chevron’s counsel, Reis-Vega, to state outright that the plaintiffs’ allegations of contamination are “false and wrong.” Were it not for the fact that, as Crude notes, the Ecuadoran government indicted Reis-Vega (and seven former government officials) for fraud, one might take his statement at face value.

One thing is clear with respect to the science: All the technical reports submitted to the Ecuadoran Superior Court indicate that in the vast majority of the soil and water samples analyzed during the judicial inspections, the levels of hydrocarbons far exceed—in some cases by more than 250 times—the levels permissible under Ecuadoran law. For the plaintiffs and their lawyers, this alone proves their case; Texaco contaminated the area of its operations, and Chevron needs to clean it up.

Much is at stake in this legal battle, not the least being a potential liability slightly more than Chevron’s $24 billion net profits in 2008. Which makes it all the more surprising that a corporation of such economic power would be so flat-footed time and again—from the evidence that led to Reis-Vega’s indictment in August 2008 to the dubious videos Chevron placed on its webpage in September purportedly documenting corruption within the Ecuadoran judiciary. But then, when have we ever had reason to doubt the integrity of corporate America?

Crude closes with McMillen’s reassuring words: “As a scientist, if I knew that people were being exposed to anything that would affect their health or there was any evidence of increased cancer, I would raise the red flag. . . . I have on other occasions said, we have a problem here and we need to fix it. I wouldn’t work for Chevron if I couldn’t pick up the phone and do that.”

I’m waiting for her to make that call.

Suzana Sawyer teaches anthropology at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador (Duke University Press, 2004).


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