The TH Interview: David de Rothschild - Part 2

In Part 1 of this interview you read about how David was inspired to set up Adventure Ecology, how it works and what their mission is. In Part 2 you can read about the recent Adventure Ecology Toxico Mission to Ecuador. David, with Dustin Lynn interjecting now and again, tells us about the AE multidisciplinary creative team and how they hope to tell the story of the petroleum pollution in the Amazon. On the AE team with David are photographers Ollie Chanarin and Adam Broomberg of Chopped Liver, filmmaker Dustin Lynn the world-renowned artist Gabriel Orozco and the ethno biologist Maria Fadiman. During a visit to a Repsol oil drilling site they witnessed first hand the complex propaganda machine of petroleum industry, the impact it is having on the local environment and how it is affecting the local indigenous communities.Can you tell me how the idea for the Toxico Mission came about?
This is all part of a series called Articulate which is our in the field series. It's the first in the series, which is using art and creativity to put a different lens on the situation. This is a 'proof of concept', it will be the basis for an ongoing project. The initial idea was that we'd do different trips with different artists, but we've decided now to keep the same group for all the expeditions, because the group's worked incredibly well together, and the energy among the group has been phenomenal, which is very rare.

Can you tell us a bit about the team, who is who and how everyone got together?

Sure, there are basically six of us in the group. There's Maria Fadiman who's an ethno botanist, we know each other through National Geographic Emerging Explorer. The idea behind (getting her on the team) was to add to the scientific side of the quest. Dustin Lynn is making films. Then there's Ollie and Adam, two photographers who work together. They are phenomenal. I always laugh at them and ask, "Who presses the button". It's really amazing to watch, it's completely balanced, and they've got it down pat to work as one person. They are much more efficient because one person is setting the scene while the other one already knows where to place the camera. Then there's Gabriel who doesn't really need an introduction because he's a legend.

How did you get in touch with Gabriel Orozco?
I met him once at an event and I met him again through my Dad, who knows him well. So I was thinking we're going to South America, well Gabriel is from Central America, but I was thinking, who has that Latin feel, the cultural connection? It just so happened that I rang him up and left a message saying hey we're going to Ecuador on an expedition, and he replied saying yeah!

Has he ever been on an expedition before?
No never. This is the first time he's done a group project in this way. So I think it was really interesting for him. The beauty of him is that he has equal strength, you know sometimes you'll find a really good sculptor who's not such a good painter or a great painter who can't take photographs, but Gabriel is multidisciplinary, and this means he's fascinating to watch. I also think he learned a great deal from Ollie and Adam about how they set their photos up and I think Ollie and Adam learned a lot from Dustin in terms of how he was shooting film. There was a lot of, "Hey how are you doing that?" and "Can I look through your lens?" It was a really interesting interchange.

How did you choose Ecuador for this first mission?

It was all down to a friend of mine called Courtney Taylor; she really was the genesis behind picking this location. She's working with a guy called Steven Dozinger, who is one of the lead lawyers on the case against Chevron. About two and half, three years ago we were going to come down here and shoot some footage, but there were big riots in Quito and we were told it wasn't a good time to travel. So when I put together the AE mission series it was in my mind and I thought let's do it!

You are near the end of the expedition now, how did it start out?

It's been quite important I think to set the scene and get a richer picture, so we've tried to get everybody's view points, we've seen conservationists, we've seen oil companies, we seen the Mayor of Quito and three or four indigenous groups.

Then we went out in the field and did some site visits to see some damaged locations. Our first day in the jungle we flew into Block 16, Repsol, which is interesting because it's a foreign oil company. All the stories that we'd heard were that PetroEcuador is probably causing more damage than anyone. So they (Repsol) have to be much more aware, but still the propaganda was pretty interesting to see. It was interesting to hear their whole take on the situation.

For me personally I'd never been to a drilling site before. It's actually much more sterile than I thought it would be, which is a good thing, but to me it's only part of the footprint. What's really sad is that there's only probably 12 years left of oil in the ground and the damage they are doing is irreversible.

The oil is taken out of the jungle by enormous pipelines, which run for miles and miles and miles. You know trees fall on them and people sabotage stuff, it really is a complex situation. The bottom line is there's a lot of money to be made, and when there's a lot of money there's lots of opportunity for different parties to try and fight their corner and bend the rules slightly. Repsol, Texaco, Chevron and Shell and all those other guys are obviously on an international stage. The highest profile case is that which the 5 indigenous communities have brought against Chevron.

How did Repsol represent their side of the argument?
You know three quarters of the discussion we had with Repsol was based on ecology, it was, "Look at our findings" and "We are doing everything possible and in fact there's more damage being done by indigenous communities. Actually our impact is very small". Their way of looking at it was so out of balance. They complain that the communities hunt more now, well, they (Repsol) put in a road so that they (Huaorani) can catch lifts in their trucks or cars and they can suddenly go up to 40 km away to hunt rather than the 10 or 15km area they are used to. Then Repsol said, "Well we should teach them not to hunt."

It sounds very twisted?
Yes very twisted, but it's one of those situations where I just don't think you are going win over by pointing fingers, you just need to absorb it. My organisation (Adventure Ecology) is not about pointing fingers, it's very much a National Geographic model of just informing and letting people make their own decisions. It's so obvious who the bad guys are. As soon as you start to really ram stuff down people's throats, they find it very aggressive.

You know Repsol is not going to stop what it's doing. It will always have an answer; it will always have a viewpoint that will counter your viewpoint. It's almost like talking to someone who's in denial. It's like talking to somebody when you ask "Did you break that thing?" when you saw them break it, and they say "Well no actually it's the way it was placed on the mantel piece made it fall. I happened to be near it but " But it was fine, it'd been fine for 10 years and then you walked in. You know you just can't do that.

Dustin Lynn: There was something really interesting about that being our first stop though, because it was almost like entering the dark side, (Darth Vader impressions all round) and we were literally trapped in there, we couldn't do anything that we wanted to do, they put on a bus, took us on a tour, we were accompanied everywhere by armed guards.

How hard was it to get in there?

David: Well we turned up at their office here in Quito and they didn't want us to film, but then said, "You must come to our base and we'll show you around." This was interesting because I thought it would be the other way round. That they would prefer us to do an interview in Quito and keep us as far away as possible from the drilling, but actually the way we were shown around this place was so controlled that it makes much more sense for them. Because they can say, "Well we did everything, we were accommodating, we let them in, we showed them around and everything they saw was fine." I mean everything we saw was pristine!

Then it was "Oh come and see our Huaorani community that we support", all of ten of them. It was just horrific, it was really sad. It was like a zoo scenario, they were forced to where their traditional dress, show us their traditional handicrafts, and they were really uncomfortable and really unhappy. They had a community manager, who was a Goliath of a man, who looked like he would ring your neck if you said the wrong thing. His presence was very threatening. It almost felt like they'd picked up these people and dropped them in this environment. We arrived and there was this yellow warning sign around the whole of the area, which was really bizarre, caution tape.

It sounds really surreal?
Dustin: It was, it was disgusting. You could just see it in their eyes; they were just all very depressed. We're not sure what the deal was with Repsol, whether they took a piece of their land and so they gave another piece of land back to the community? I don't know.

David: It was very sad, but it was also a good thing to see because it gave a benchmark with which to compare with the Achuar community that we went to later. The difference in the mentality and the energy. You just got the feeling that these people (the Achuar) were very proud. They still have that, "We are warriors, this is my land, I am proud of my land, I've got this amazing resource and we're not going to let anyone touch this." These other people (the Huaorani) well, you know, their spirits were broken. They were almost hollow vessels, their eyes were all dead — it was sad.

Dustin:
Well my spirit was broken too — it was very hard for me to film anything there.

Did you feel intrusive?

David: Very intrusive! I don't think I really grasped the complexity of the relationships. You know you read a book and think well it can't be that bad. Or they must be exaggerating or this is just one person's point of view, and then you get down here and there's this underlying off putting energy. I mean Ecuador is beautiful as a country and the people are very embracing, it's a fantastic place, I couldn't speak more highly of it, but still there's this sense of deceit and lies around the money and the oil. You hear comments like well if it's here (the oil), it should be used and we need it, but if the system was fair if it allowed for the money to be distributed as it was being generated, but there seems to be a few blockages, manipulation, and corruption.

As far as I can see it is very difficult for indigenous people to resist the bribes and the manipulation and at some point they give in. They can't continue fighting anymore.
The Achuar said, "You know we're not afraid to spill blood over this, we will fight."

Which is what the Huaorani said when they wanted to fight the petrol companies.
I said to them, "You know they are powerful big determined companies, how are you going to fight them?" Five guys with guns against what will be an army.

But it's a virtual army, whereas they are prepared for a physical fight.

Yeah and it's about consistent pressure which just goes on and on and on and being under that pressure of having their territory encroached upon. They say, "We've seen our brothers and sisters to the north, we've seen the impact the oil's had and we don't want that." You know there is an amazing fighting spirit but you also wonder how long that is really possible?

Some of the group went up to Lago another oil town on the border with Colombia and what they found fascinating there was the sub footprint of the oil industry. All the oil money, the gambling, the sex trade, narcotics; the under layer that people don't think of. They think of oil and it being spilled on the ground and the destruction of trees, increase of roads. What they don't think of is what's happening lower down the food chain, the destruction, and the impact on people, the Wild West that goes on in these oil towns. People go there make a lot of money and leave, they are usually outsiders, people coming from the cities, it's a den of iniquity.

Dustin: Its twisted money.

So what was your lasting impression of the oil site?

David: There was this one funny episode, which Gabriel called "Dumb and Dumber go camping." We arrived at this oil field, it's really bizarre, there's this flare going, burning off all the oil impurities and natural gas and we get to this football sized thick block of oil.

Does it look like a lake?

Well no because it's so thick it almost looks more like they've just burnt a patch of land. Ollie and Adam were on one side and we were messing around with this tree on the other side, there were branches just dipping in the oil that we trying to pull it out. I see Adam walking along the other side and suddenly he just disappears and we hear, "Help! I am drowning!" He'd fallen in the wastewater, which was seeping out, and he was sinking, so we ran round. Ollie managed to pull him out and then the next day he was covered in a rash all over. That was really interesting because a lot of indigenous communities complain of rashes. Repsol told us that this water was clean enough to drink and here within 20 minutes of him falling in we were beginning to see red blotches appear on his skin, by the next day his whole body was covered.

Well that was kind of Adam to prove the point!

Oh it was (laughs), and we got a lot of laughs out of that, until he came up in the rash.

How does the team work together given that they are all using different media?

Lots of what we were doing was everyone was documenting everyone else, so Dustin would be filming Gabriel and then Ollie and Adam would be taking a shot of Dustin maybe and so there's that story telling and then there's the end product of the story itself. So there's a lot of conversation and idea going on. It's been phenomenal, it's amazing how it worked. Our strongest day was yesterday when the whole group was out doing their stuff.

Where were you yesterday?

We were in Sheramentsa an Achuar community on the border of Peru that's four hours canoe ride down the river from the tourist lodge, it's a long way! They are an amazing people full of spirit. It was amazing the flow of it all, as there were portraits going and art going and interviews going. the whole thing just really bonded. For me, for the first one in this series, it could not have gone any better and we're all really excited now about where it will go from here. I've got a feeling that it will just roll.

Have you planned how many expedition's you will do?
No I think it will just take its natural form. I mean we have China in September/October time this year. We were lucky to have a sponsor for this expedition of IWC, the watch company. They are an interesting company to work with, it's very difficult to find sponsors who are ecologically minded, I mean there are a lot of people who want to give us money, but they are not the right people. A watch company is different to a car company and to a fast food company, IWC's expedition roots are very strong, they've been a long time sponsor of the Cousteau society, so they have that affiliation and then they also over the last two years have taken on this green stance. They are reducing their Co2 output and should become carbon neutral fairly soon. They really want to support us because of the education side of things.

How do you think you will show all this work as an end product?

We've still got to get together as a group and figure out how we want to present this. In terms of how does this come across? There's talk of presenting it at the Frieze art fair. Neville Wakefield, who is curating Frieze this year, sits on the art committee of Adventure Ecology, so we think that it could be a nice forum for our work. But then we also have The Gallery, but the question is would our gallery be the right space? We also have relationships with the Hayward gallery, White Cube and PS1 in New York, so we'll see.

People say is the expedition the tough bit, but often it's not, it's how do you actually communicate what you are doing. Coming back is when it becomes exciting, the expedition really starts with the storytelling. So there's a lot of follow up, there are film festivals that we've already been asked to go to like Banff film festival and Jules Verne. So we'll see how it goes, this one is just a proof of concept, but we hope to end up with maybe 6 different DVDs and a book.

What is the ecological image that has summed up this expedition for you?

I am used to the endless white horizon, but here we were looking down on the endless green horizon, it was like hovering above a massive piece of broccoli! I felt like a little bug crawling over the top of this broccoli - this amazing sea of green. Then when you get into it and you look at these 300, 400 year old trees, and you look at the eco systems evolved in these trees, the leaf cutter ants, the conga ants, the butterflies, the larvae, and see that everything has it's process. A lot of times it looks like decay but actually it's life. It's regeneration. So looking through the rainforest and looking through this combination of death and life all working in harmony to create life, to support our life was really impactful.

It's been a fascinating and enlightening experience. There are serious issues to be dealt with and it's not just Ecuador, it's this whole region, Brazil, Peru, the whole of Amazonia has similar issues.

Whenever you immerse yourself in massive areas of natural beauty you realise we really are in trouble if we get this wrong. It's our capacity to live here. These systems support us. There's a false dichotomy of nature and us, actually we are part of the same system, that system supports life for us and if you remove a pin, if you remove one of the screws the whole things starts to break down. It's our ability to survive, it's not the planet's ability, the planet will still be here, nature will continue, it may take on a different form or shape, but that shape may not support life as we know it. So it's about our ability to understand that and our ability to engage people back into the system. We are part of the food chain, we might be top of the food chain, but those are always the things that go first in the time of mass extinction and right now we are in a time of mass extinction like never before. We have to look at that and say engage and enlighten and inspire, and I hope what we do with Adventure Ecology creates inspiration. :: Adventure Ecology

Tags: Ecuador | London | TH Interview