What is it going to take for Americans to take action against environmentally-unfriendly U.S. companies doing business abroad? That's a question on the minds of many Ecuadorans who have been seeking environmental justice against Texaco, an oil company which turned their lush rainforest into a toxic cesspool.
According to Amazonian Indians, from 1964 to 1990 Texaco caused serious damage to human health and the environment by employing obsolete technology in drilling operations at hundreds of wells spread throughout the jungle. Unfortunately, Americans have shown scant interest in the story and it's unlikely that there will be a ruling in a pending legal case against Texaco for some time.
I know how difficult it can be to get any traction on the Ecuadoran Amazon story: in 1992, having just completed a reporting internship at local radio station in New York, I headed to the Ecuadoran capital of Quito. One tribe, the Huaorani, had just traveled from the eastern Oriente region to Quito where they carried out a militant protest to demand a halt to road construction furthering oil exploration on Indian lands. Powerful interests were at play: on one side was the pro-business government, the media establishment and Protestant North American missionaries. On the other were a handful of Ecuadoran and U.S. environmentalists.
I was intent on interviewing the Indians but U.S. missionary pilots who controlled air traffic in an out of the Amazon were suspicious of my motivations and I was obliged to haggle with them before they ultimately agreed to take me into the interior. Once in indigenous territory I spoke with the Indians who were living in deplorable health and sanitary conditions. Later in Quito I couldn't find a very suitable venue for my articles: the U.S. media was disinterested in the oil story and in the capital many Ecuadorans seemed unaware of what was happening in their own land.
Finally, one editor of a local glossy magazine agreed to publish some of my pieces. Though a conservative he had an avid interest in indigenous cultures and managed to persuade the business partners in the magazine to carry my work. I also published some of my material in a left-leaning daily newspaper though unfortunately the articles came out on the back page. In my pieces I dissected the oil companies' unconvincing propaganda and warned of imminent environmental problems in the future. As it turns out I wasn't far off target in my reporting: after I left Ecuador in 1993 social and environmental conflict intensified in the Oriente. Yet, the media establishment continued to ignore the story.
Fortunately, intrepid documentary film director Joel Berlinger has just released a new film called Crude which stands to raise awareness about the vital environmental stakes in tiny Ecuador. Shot in cinéma-vérité-style, Crude takes up the controversial issue of Texaco and the Indians' harrowing struggle to hold the company to account for its environmental crimes through a landmark historic lawsuit.
The plaintiffs allege that Texaco -- which merged with Chevron in 2001 -- spent three decades systematically polluting the rainforest while poisoning the water, air and land. Amazonian Indians sued Texaco in 1993 for $1 billion in U.S. Federal court in New York. In 2003 the case moved to Ecuador and four years later the amount of damages was increased to $27 billion based on an expert's report.
Indigenous peoples claim that contamination has created a virtual "death zone" in an area the same size of the state of Rhode Island. Within the area, they say, local people have suffered from increased rates of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, and a variety of other medical problems. Chevron ardently denies the claims, outrageously arguing that the case constitutes a fabrication spread by "environmental con men" seeking to enrich themselves by cutting into company profits.
But those claims are revealed as truthful when, early on during the film, a lawyer named Pablo Fajardo representing the Indians accompanies a fact-finding delegation to toxic pits deep in the Amazon. A young man with a sensitive and compassionate mien, Fajardo is the most compelling character in the movie. Indignantly, he denounces Texaco for its environmental disaster while the judge and onlookers take in the scene.
For Americans more accustomed to seeing their legal cases unfold in the cold stodginess of a court it's an unusual sight. As the delegation moves from one sludgy pit to the next a Chevron lawyer does his best to attempt the impossible. There's no evidence, he says, that the oil company is responsible for the mess that occurred long ago.
It's a claim so ridiculous as to be patently absurd, yet the wheels of justice in Ecuador turn slowly. In a country plagued with corruption and weak institutions including the judiciary, it's easy for the oil companies to get their way. Indeed, the Ecuadoran legal system as portrayed in the film would seem to be a free for all: in one memorable scene Steven Donziger, an American lawyer representing the Indians, confronts his Chevron counterpart in the offices of a Quito judge. "You are a corrupt Texaco lawyer!" screams Donziger. As the two lawyers trade barbs the aging judge sits at his desk, bewildered at the altercation.
To be sure it's a daunting legal milieu for the Indians and their allies who lack the financial resources of multinational corporations to carry on a prolonged legal battle. Unfortunately, the longer the case drags on the longer the Indians suffer from the prolonged effects of oil contamination on their lands.
The first half of Crude is riveting but psychologically difficult to take in: an Indian woman breaks down and cries as she talks about how her daughter has fallen ill with cancer. The mother can't afford to pay outstanding medical bills and in a desperate attempt to make ends meet she buys some livestock to supplement her income. However, the animals drink the oil-contaminated water nearby and get poisoned. The camera trails a young boy as he throws dead chickens into the forest. You don't need to hit the viewer over the head or resort to Michael Moore-style gimmickry to make the point about social injustice in the Amazon, and Berlinger's cinéma-vérité strategy is effective here.
However, in the second half of the film the director increasingly shoots the story from the perspective of Donziger as well as Trudie Stuyler, rock star Sting's wife who has taken a keen interest in the plight of Ecuador's Indians. Personally I wasn't nearly as interested in them as Fajardo, a humble lawyer from the Amazon. At one point he talks about how his brother was tortured by the security forces and killed. Fajardo is seen grieving at his brother's grave site but we don't learn very much about the mysterious incident.
Fajardo himself worked for the oil industry earlier in his life and it might have been interesting to tell the film's story more from his own perspective. In particular it would have been revealing to address the question of how the Texaco case changed Fajardo's life. In an effort to bring attention to the oil company's ecological crimes, environmentalists brought Fajardo to San Francisco. There is a telling scene in which Donziger talks about the need to promote Fajardo in the media as a kind of "naïve" Mr. Magoo personality who's traveled to the city for the first time.
As a result of Donziger's outreach, Vanity Fair ran a glossy profile on Fajardo which brought the Ecuadoran to U.S. attention. That in turn led to Fajardo receiving a CNN "Hero" award and the Goldman Award, the environmental equivalent of the Nobel Prize. What's more, Fajardo was invited to meet North American environmentalists during the Live Earth concert in 2007.
After the performance Sting presents Fajardo to the media. At one point an aghast environmentalist asks Fajardo "so you've really never heard of The Police?" It's an ironic moment in some ways and I was interested to learn more about Fajardo's perspective on the nature of environmental campaigning and public relations in the U.S. Sadly, it may take celebrity outreach to wake Americans up to environmental crimes committed in poor and neglected areas of the world.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left, which is being released in paperback by Palgrave in November. He is also author of the upcoming No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010).