We’ve certainly had cushier assignments. Bouncing along an unpaved Amazon road on the back of a bald-tired pick-up truck in blazing 120-degree heat can lead to reflection on how you wound up in your current situation. Making documentaries, we have filmed all over the world under a variety of conditions. Some places—Maui, Copenhagen, Vienna—have been beautiful and sometimes even luxurious. Others not so much, like this part of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. Once a pristine Eden, today this place bears numerous scars and open wounds, both literal and figurative, left by 40 years of oil extraction.
“Let’s make the next film be about the Paris Opera House or something,” we joke, as we pass a sun-warmed flask of rum around the back of the truck in an attempt to dispatch our splitting headaches. For the past eight or 10 hours we’ve been breathing noxious petroleum fumes while filming at some of the oil pollution sites that contaminate 1,700 square miles of the rainforest here. The physical effects of even very short-term exposure to the pollution are palpable and unpleasant.
Crude, the film we are shooting, tells the story of the largest environmental lawsuit on the planet. 30,000 indigenous people and poverty-stricken campesinos (peasant farmers) are suing Chevron for $27 billion, claiming that Texaco—which was purchased by Chevron in 2001—destroyed their rainforest home and created a “cancer death zone” the size of Rhode Island in one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on Earth. Known as the “Amazon Chernobyl” case, the suit has been going on since a year after Texaco left the country in 1992, when the local people charged that the American oil company used outdated technology and irresponsible practices in order to save money on their operations in a place they knew no one was paying any attention. We spent three years documenting the case, during the most exciting and dramatic period of what has now stretched to 17 years of epic conflict.
All day and over the course of the past two years, we’ve heard stories from indigenous people about the health problems they and their families say they face on a daily basis. They’ve told us about losing their land, their culture, their loved ones and their dignity. Village elders have described this place as a former paradise, before the fish, animals and plants that allowed them to live in harmony with nature were destroyed by oil production. The voices and faces of these people echo in our minds as the breeze on the back of the moving pick-up cools the sweat that seeps through our layers of DEET-soaked jungle clothing, providing a respite from the extreme equatorial heat and the mosquitoes that the CDC label as carriers of malaria.
More than 40 years ago, Texaco began exploring for oil here. Back then, the company made a deal with Ecuador’s government, and the first place they struck black gold was underneath territory that belonged to the Cofán indigenous group. “A tremendous noise came from the sky,” says Cofán leader Emergildo Criollo, remembering the sound of Texaco’s helicopters descending on his village. “We wondered, ‘What kind of animal is this?'” He laughs, with more bemusement than bitterness, at his own naïveté. Emergildo was just a boy when Texaco arrived, but his recollections of that first contact are vivid. His stories have the same combination of confusion, indignation and sad resignation as those of the Iraqi civilians we saw while watching CNN International back in Quito just a few days before arriving in the jungle. Later, Criollo tells us that two of his sons died from the effects of oil contamination.
To the Cofán and a number of other indigenous groups in Ecuador, Texaco’s arrival was both an attack and an occupation. The native people tell us about their ancestral territories being invaded first by missionaries, then by heavy machinery, explosives, bulldozers, drills, riggers, strange white men and other people from various parts of Ecuador, who came here in search of work. The fertile land once named in the Cofán language of A’ingae was re-christened “Lago Agrio,” meaning “Sour Lake,” after Sour Lake, Texas—birthplace of the Texaco Petroleum Company.
The villagers recount stories of beatings, humiliation and even murders of indigenous people at the hands of the oil workers. Some of the female elders speak of being raped, and one woman tells us she became a prostitute after being violated, abandoning her community in shame for several years.
The heartbreaking story of indigenous people in this region of Ecuador is not a new one. The treatment of native people in both of the Americas by the “white man” is one of the most shameful chapters in human history. Back home we tend to think that similar atrocities in our own country occurred so long ago that they have lost any real significance. Although this legacy is a continuing thread in our ongoing American narrative and its effects still reverberate powerfully, we pretend it doesn’t matter because it happened so long ago.
But the late 20th-century equivalent of the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee and countless other crimes of and against humanity are the kinds of industrial practices that have occurred in places like the Ecuadorean Amazon, whether “legal” or not. Working in concert with local governments, private corporations have destroyed the lives and cultures of native people and the environments they thrived in as caretakers and stewards for generations. As in previous eras, the conquest of native lands continues to be rooted in claiming and conquering territory. But in recent years, the invaders have focused primarily on commoditizing natural resources so that people like us can have the cheap gasoline and petroleum products we’ve grown used to demanding.
In response to the charges of cultural genocide, murder and other abuses the indigenous people have leveled against his company, Chevron spokesperson James Craig recently told the LA Times, “Where are the evidence and witnesses? Where were the police? If you’re going to make these types of accusations, you should back them up with something.”
While some may view Mr. Craig’s statements as callous evasions by a corporate mouthpiece, they also perfectly illustrate a disconnection that lies at the heart of the conflict portrayed in Crude. While Chevron’s detractors accuse the oil giant of hiding behind impossibly unrealistic and improvable technicalities, in adhering to contemporary legal standards Craig makes a fair point. Without specific standards and concrete evidence, anyone can be accused of any type wrongdoing regardless of whether the claims have any merit. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say they can prove Chevron’s legal responsibility when it comes to the pollution, but Chevron claims the opposite. In its PR campaign to win hearts and minds in this case, the fifth largest corporation in the world portrays itself as the victim of a shakedown by a group of “environmental con men.”
While it is clear to us where the moral responsibility lies for the irreparable damage to native cultures and human life, it is up to a judge to decide who will win the legal case. We are moviemakers, not lawyers, and Crude attempts to tell both sides of the story and allow audiences to make up their own minds about the lawsuit. But while we can’t say which side is correct from a legal standpoint, Craig’s comments make us wonder whether he has ever actually been to this place.
After a couple of hours in the back of the pick-up, we pull up to our “hotel” on the outskirts of the town of Shushufindi. Not far from the Colombian border, this area is a known “R&R” destination for members of the FARC paramilitary group (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas). It’s a sketchy locale that feels a bit like the Wild West. Given the current state of law and order here—the town of approximately 15,000 clocks roughly 10 murders per week, most of them unsolved—one can only imagine the level of lawlessness that must have existed here 40 even 10 years ago. Although the hotel we’ve chosen is the most expensive in town and we’re on a tight budget (it costs a few dollars more per night than the others in the area, but the price includes an in-room fan!), the peace of mind provided by the walled-in compound of bungalows guarded by a guy with a machine gun seems worth the extra dough.
Exhausted from our long days of shooting and travel, we retire to the hotel’s makeshift patio restaurant. The only guests here appear to be our small crew, but before we’re able to order a second cold beer the waitress asks us to leave. In an apologetic tone, she explains that someone was shot and killed right in front of the hotel last night, and she and the other employees need to get home before it gets too dark and too dangerous to walk outside. ‘Of course,’ we say. ‘Do you know why they shot him?’ The waitress replies with a shrug. “Because he had a watch.”
With the safety of the hotel staff and ourselves, as well as the thousands of dollars worth of filming equipment sitting in our rickety bungalows now at the forefront of our minds, we call it a night.
As the sun dips below the jungle canopy, it’s easy to appreciate all that has been lost in this part of the Amazon. Squinting toward the empty spaces between the gas flares that spew toxic filth into the air, one can imagine how this place—one of the only locations on Earth to survive the last ice age—must have looked before it was decimated in pursuit of economic “progress.”
In a couple of days we’ll be on a plane home to New York. Tonight we’ll try to sleep, with the week’s footage tucked under our pillows, knowing that a few weeks from now we’ll be back here again.
We have certainly had easier assignments, but in shedding light on a story that has been swept under the rug for decades, we remember why we got into this business in the first place.
Joe Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) is the producer and director of Crude. Michael Bonfiglio is the film’s producer and 2nd unit director.
Crude in available on DVD.