Documentaries have the strength of presenting a story with real human impact, and when there is a conflict involved, presenting both sides can be difficult to do fairly. On some issues however, there is only one side that is the least bit palatable. For the past twelve years, a small group of American and Ecuadorian lawyers have been fighting a class-action lawsuit against Texaco-Chevron for decades of damage done to the rainforest of Ecuador, for contaminating the water and soil with cheaply built drilling and pumping equipment, for dumping toxic wastes into pits and covering them with dirt as a gesture toward ‘cleanup’, for causing obscenely high rates of cancer in the area’s adults and children, and for committing acts that may yet completely eradicate tribes of people whose ways of life are about to vanish forever due to the destruction of their ancestral lands. The other side of that argument from the Texaco-Chevron legal team is nothing but obfuscation, accusations of fraud against the plantiffs, judges, and any human involved, and finally threats by Chevron to lobby the U.S. government to cut off trade with Ecuador if the trial continues. And Pablo Fajardo, the lead lawyer in Ecuador, lost his brother at the beginning of the trial; his tortured body was found with the skull crushed. A military informer notified Fajardo that they killed the wrong brother, as the intent was to stop the trial. Fair to say that Chevron, which has annual profits in excess of $200 billion, is something less than the victim they claim to be.
The film covers the stories of the people who have been affected, the initial hearings and inspections of the contaminated lands, the clinical data regarding local rates of cancer, skin infections, and death rates, the official testing of the land, garnering support to pay the legal fees, attracting the attention of foundations and potential allies, and the long trial that continues to this day and is likely to continue for the next decade. Though the film clocks in at a brisk 85 minutes, you will feel beaten by the end of it; the documentary is effective at giving the viewer an idea of just how exhausting this process can be. Financially the plantiffs are sapped, having to ask for funding from a law firm; emotionally they are drained by constant travel and heading off Chevron’s attempts to manipulate judges or contaminate evidence; physically they age dramatically in front of you as the legal process drags on and on. With time, Chevron gets closer to winning as anyone involved either dies or runs out of money. After all, if the indigenous peoples of Ecuador whose lands lie in the toxic zone die out, then there will be nobody left to sue Chevron. Yet the legal team continues to fight on. Above all, this is a invigorating (though taxing) story about an impossible fight that keeps going despite the odds that are faced.
Director Joe Berlinger attempts to give equal time and voice to both sides of the party, allowing Chevron to dig its own hole. At first, some of their arguments sound valid enough. Chevron’s legal team blames Petro-Ecuador (state-owned company that took control of the pumping station in the 1980s) for all of the dumping, they note that the money has no use to the people who are affected, and that they comply with all international regulations. This falls apart rather quickly as the judge involved examines the sites to find massive pits filled with oil-slicked water, each ringed by pipes that help drain the water down to the nearby river; soil plugs reek of gasoline. The petroleum giant mobilizes its team to attempt to manipulate the judge into ignoring testing of the ground, pressuring the court-appointed scientist to test the ground far away from the dumping pits, and then demands that the U.S. government apply sanctions against Ecuador for allowing the lawsuit to continue. And lest we forget, the people on the receiving end of this man-made disaster are powerless and impoverished, forced off their land and working long hours to afford the chemotherapy for multiple family members. Really, once the information is in, Chevron has nothing to say except blanket accusations of lies by socialists.
Overall, Crude is a powerful, draining, and exacting documentary that gives a fair shake to misleading bullshit put forward by the defendants in the trial. One need not feel much sympathy for Chevron, which has allowed the case to be drawn out for years rather than clean up the sites, provide cleaner equipment for Petro-Ecuador to use (to cut the cycle of pollution), or even help pay for clean water or medical treatment for those affected. Not even the slightest gesture has been made. Even if Chevron loses the trial, it will refuse to pay and the people of Ecuador will have no recourse. What is at stake here is whether a transnational corporation is responsible for its business practices. They rarely are taken to task for any transgressions. It is a valid question as to whether the corporate model can even function in the global economy without exhibiting the nature of a sociopath. There are many responsible companies, but they are driven by the marketing value of appearing responsible. So what is the outcome if a company doesn’t give a shit? There must be a way to hold companies to the same laws to which people must adhere. Otherwise, sociopaths will tend to do what they wish to whom they wish, as there is nothing stopping them.
Go to www.crudethemovie.com for more information on the film and the people involved. If you visit a Chevron gas station, you are an asshole and deserve to drink oil-contaminated water and die of internal hemorrhage.