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Issue #1474      29 September 2010

Crude: Documenting the real price of crude

Directed by Joe Berlinger, Entrende Films production

Texaco discovered oil in Ecuador’s leafy rain forest during the 1960s. As Joe Berlinger’s documentary, Crude, reveals, Texaco created a death zone in this fragile ecosystem as it developed the oil fields, inhabited by indigenous people and wildlife.

While Texaco and the Ecuadorian government profited, the rain forest’s occupants did not. The company dumped 18 billion gallons of untreated toxic residue and 18 million gallons of oil and waste water into the forest that stretches 440 kilometres. Today, 1,000 waste ponds continue leaking toxic chemicals and oil residues into streams and rivers. Gas flared off during oil extraction has created black rain, further contaminating local drinking water. Sickness and death from cancer, poisoning and other illnesses are common. Many children are born with birth defects.

In 1993, 30,000 people in the rainforest sued Texaco (now Chevron, which purchased the company in 2001) in the US courts, demanding that the company pay for medical bills and remove waste pits and toxic chemicals from the jungle. Chevron denies guilt and instead blames state-owned PetroEcuador, which took over the oil fields during the 1990s, for causing the mess.

Company scientists deny that Texaco had caused sickness and death by dumping toxic waste and oil. Instead, they blame elevated bacteria levels in the water. Berlinger exposes this lie by showing local streams and wells streaked with the bright purplish sheen of oil and petrochemicals. In another scene, scientists remove oil-soaked samples of soil from shallow holes. Each new rainfall washes this black poison into local water sources.

An independent environmental assessment estimated clean up costs and medical compensation at US$27 billion, exceeding the US$20 billion fund that British Petroleum has to establish to clean up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Berlinger’s camera follows three men who are leading the fight against Chevron: attorney Pablo Fajado, community leader Luis Yanza and US lawyer Steven Donziger. Fajado reveals that the army kidnapped and tortured his brother to death in the 1970s for speaking out against Texaco. Chevron has called the two Ecuadorian leaders “con men” who are out for financial gain.

The country’s left-wing president Rafael Correa supports the court case against Chevron. The case also has the support of rock star Sting and his wife, who have used their celebrity status to raise public awareness about the rainforest disaster.

After nine years, Chevron succeeded in having the lawsuit moved to the Ecuadorian court system. However, the court has still not ruled on the case. The current judge has to first wade through a room full of technical reports, which is expected to take several years. To avoid paying for the clean-up, Chevron’s strategy is to keep the case tied up in the courts.

The latest news is that Chevron has gone after Berlinger. A US court ruling last May ordered the filmmaker to hand over 600 minutes of unseen documentary film footage to Chevron, to help it win the court case in Ecuador. Backed by US news organizations and actors such Robert Redford, Berlinger is appealing the ruling. He and his supporters argue that free speech is at stake and that the court ruling casts a chill over independent probes into the activities of multinational corporations.

Crude is a powerful exposure of corporate abuse and greed, with important parallels to the environmental destruction involved in the northern Alberta tar sands extraction.

People’s Voice, Communist Party of Canada 

Next article – Australia’s first astronaut in space visits Perth

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