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10 September 2009 

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30,000 Indigenous People Battle for Environmental Justice in Amazon


09 September 2009

Members of the Cofan indigenous community travel the once-pristine Aguarico River in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador
Members of the Cofan indigenous community travel the once-pristine Aguarico River in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger was shocked when he traveled to the rainforest of Ecuador and saw the native Cofan native peoples eating canned tuna. "Here we were, in what is supposed to be paradise, in one of the most bio-diverse places on earth, and people who have lived off the water for years can no longer sustain themselves because the fish are dead!"

With that, Berlinger had the subject for his latest documentary film, "Crude." It's the story of an on-going lawsuit filed by 30,000 indigenous people against oil giant Texaco, who they say is responsible for dangerously polluting their land and water for more than three decades.

A "David versus Goliath" legal battle

Plaintiffs' attorney Pablo Fajardo argues his case against Chevron in the Ecuadorean Amazon
Plaintiffs' attorney Pablo Fajardo argues his case against Chevron in the Ecuadorean Amazon
Berlinger and crew come on the scene 12 years into the litigation. The drama is set in motion by Pablo Fajardo, the charismatic 35-year-old lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "Here's someone who had a very impoverished childhood, worked in the oil fields as a young man, saw the devastation, environmental degradation, humiliation of the workers and the poor treatment of people around them," Berlinger says. "And, he just had a fire in his belly! There were seeds of drama there."

One of the hundreds of oil waste pits that dot the landscape in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador
One of the hundreds of oil waste pits that dot the landscape in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador
Fajardo is up against a Goliath of a multi-national corporation. Chevron had acquired Texaco in 2001. In a dramatic scene set in the former oil fields, Fajardo argues that Texaco — and its current owner — are responsible for dumping toxic waste in the Amazon rainforest. "More than a billion gallons of poisonous toxic water were dumped into marshes and rivers of this area," he says, adding, "what the people demand is the complete remediation of the area Texaco contaminated."

"Crude" follows the Ecuadoran natives to a 2007 Chevron shareholders meeting in San Francisco, joins Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa on a visit to the affected region, and records a heated debate between Fajardo and Chevron attorney Adolfo Callejas before a judge at a site where samples of toxic soil have just been collected. Fajardo says they are typical of what's buried everywhere.

Hearing from both sides

Cancer victim Maria Garofalo reflected in the stream behind her home in the Ecuadorean Amazon
Cancer victim Maria Garofalo reflected in the stream behind her home in the Ecuadorean Amazon
"Today, dozens of men and women are suffering from cancer and dying because of this," Fajardo tells the judge, "although the defense doesn't want to recognize it as toxic and even though they claim that this doesn't kill people. Well, that is completely false, because it does!"

Callejas responds that it is impossible to date the sample and link it to Texaco, noting that an Ecuadorian company took over when Texaco left and that Texaco already paid for remediation in a settlement with the Ecuadorian government. "Your honor," he says, "these are false accusations, and it cannot be assumed that because Texaco built the station that they should be eternally liable for anything that goes wrong."

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger
The film gives ample room for both sides to state their case. But for Berlinger the movie is about much more than the legal arguments. "For me it's the story of the plight of these indigenous people." "Ultimately," he says, "I wanted to make a film about what has befallen these people as a result of industrialization."

Getting support from stars

The case grabs the attention of Trudie Styler, wife of the rock star Sting and co-founder of the Rainforest Foundation, a group dedicated to helping indigenous people in the Amazon. Following a trip to Ecuador, Styler promotes a clean water campaign with Pablo Fajardo at the 2007 Live Earth concert, a global environmental event broadcast from Giants Stadium in New York.

Crude premiered at the 2009 Sun Dance Film Festival and has since received honors and accolades at more than two dozen film festivals in the United States and across the globe
Crude premiered at the 2009 Sun Dance Film Festival and has since received honors and accolades at more than two dozen film festivals in the United States and across the globe
While the case drags on in court, the documentary debuted at the renowned Sundance Film Festival in early 2009. Since then, it has been shown at more than two dozen movie festivals in the United States and was released commercially in early September.

Berlinger says the most emotionally-charged screening was in Quito, Ecuador, where 1,300 people jammed into a 1,200-seat university auditorium. "The reaction was incredible and everyone involved with the case was there. Pablo was the last for me to bring up on stage, and it was like a hero's welcome."

And, it's there that Pablo Fajardo advised citizens to stay informed and to put pressure on Chevron and the Ecuadorian government to act responsibly. For its part, Chevron has accused the plaintiffs of trying to bribe Ecuadorian officials. The $27-billion lawsuit is far from being settled.


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