Director Joe Berlinger on "Crude" and the Amazonian Chernobyl



The thing they call the "Amazonian Chernobyl" is deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest where decades of oil drilling have left a noxious trail of saturated soil, tainted water, and inky black pits of sludge. Crude, the latest documentary from acclaimed director Joe Berlinger, tells the tale of the brave lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, once an oil field worker himself, as he fights to make Chevron, the fifth largest corporation in the world, take responsibility.

For more, take a look at our interview with Pablo Fajardo and Luiz Yanza, who were awarded the 2008 Goldman Prize for their work on the case against Chevron.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download. Full text after the jump.

Music credit: DJ ShadowTreeHugger: Joe, give us a quick history of the oil industry in Ecuador and in the jungle, and the impacts that this has had on health and environment.

Berlinger Basically, there are a number of oil companies that have exploited the region. This film, "Crude," focuses almost exclusively on the activities of Texaco, so I'll just talk about that history. This is a 1,700 square mile swath of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Most people think the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil, and most of it is. But a little chunk of it is in Ecuador--in fact, all the headwaters, the rivers and streams that feed the Amazon River, actually begin in Ecuador.

The Ecuadorian rainforest is considered by many to be one of the few places on Earth that actually survived the last ice age. That has resulted in an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. But I'm not sure it's going to survive 40 years of oil production. I was absolutely blown away by some of the devastation and destruction that I witnessed.

The story goes back to the late '60s when oil is discovered. Texaco Petroleum Company drilled oil in that region for about 30 years until the early '90s. It is alleged by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit that I filmed that they used substandard practices, practices that were outmoded and not used in the United States.

Specifically, in the process of extracting oil, up from the ground also comes water, water that's been sitting in the environment for millions of years mixed in with this oil. That water--it's called formation water--is separated from the raw crude, and it's supposed to be reinjected back into the well cavities of dormant wells.

Instead, over a three-decade period, it was just released into the natural environment, into the rivers and streams which are the homes of five indigenous tribes. Actually, a sixth tribe, the Tetete, is now extinct. These tribespeople have relied on these waterways for millennia, and the water is now thoroughly polluted.

The other level of pollution involved creating these giant, unlined pits that are in some cases the size of football fields, where the jungle was carved out. When you first dig a well, there's all sorts of stuff that comes up, and this toxic sludge was dumped into these pits and left there. They continue, the plaintiffs allege, to leach into the environment.

Texaco left Ecuador in '92, handed over the concession to the state-run oil company, Petroecuador, and left town. A lawsuit was filed in the United States shortly after their departure in '93, and for nine years there was a battle as to what the jurisdiction should be.

In 2001, Chevron bought Texaco, and with that purchase they inherited the lawsuit. Chevron successfully argued that the case should be tried in Ecuador. It took a long time. It finally was sent to Ecuador, refiled in Ecuador in 2003, and I arrived in 2005 to actually film the trial itself. That's as short as I can make the history there for you.

TH: You saw some terrifying illness first-hand. What kind of health effects are people getting from exposure to petroleum?

Berlinger: One of the problems with the lawsuit is that Chevron has overwhelmed the court with mountains of data showing that there are no health effects. There are dueling statistical battles that would make your head spin. You can go to ChevronToxico.com, that's Amazon Watch's website that has their set of statistics. Then of course Chevron has its own set of statistics on Chevron.com. There is so much conflicting data that you want to bury your head under a table.

However, if you go down there (I believe in my eyeballs and my nose) and you walk around an area that was considered once pristine jungle, you just see dirty water everywhere. There's not clean drinking water anywhere to be found.

Of course Chevron will dispute that and say it meets WHO drinking water standards. I saw lots of dirty water. I saw polluted wells, and not just a few, everywhere I looked. Everywhere you stick a shovel in the ground, you come up with oily dirt. You see terrible skin lesions on children. You see a preponderance of childhood leukemia. I can't tell you how many people I spoke to who had a relative or a spouse who prematurely died.

Chevron claims that the cancer rate is no higher here than in other parts of the country, that some of the skin rashes and other ailments are due to poor sanitation. I'm not a lawyer or a judge or a scientist. I'm not smart enough to sort out the overwhelming amount of paper that has entered into this trial.

But even if what Texaco did was legal, the point of view of this film is that the moral responsibility lies at their door, them and the original government of Ecuador that allowed this catastrophe to happen.

The film opens with that beautiful song of the Cofan woman singing about her loss, and ends with the Cofan people going downriver to God knows what existence because, for me, the film is really about white man's mistreatment of indigenous people over the past six centuries. What multinational corporations have done in the late 20th century and early 21st century in the extractive industries is really just a continuation of what the Spanish conquistadors did in South America, what we did to our own American Indians.

We go into these places with the arrogance of an occupier--and even if it's legal (and I question whether it is, but I'm not smart enough to figure whether or not Chevron has wrapped itself up with enough legal arguments to prevail in this trial)--but even if what they did was legal, going into an environment where people live and dumping pollutants into the river for 30 years, creating tarry pits, and then leaving, to me is not acceptable.

TH: Close to the end of the film, there's a scene where Daryl Hannah's down there looking at the legal records that are associated with the case, and it looks like the Library of friggin' Congress. It's like 10 bookshelves in a row, all of them stacked floor-to-ceiling with three-ring binders of the documents from the case. It's more info than any human being could absorb.

Berlinger: And ironically, the judge who witnessed all of those two years of inspections going from pollution site to pollution site... In the film it's in a very dramatic: from a cinematic standpoint you have these lawyers in jungle gear arguing their respective sides, Chevron lawyers and plaintiff lawyers, literally in front of these pollution sites, arguing the case. The judge who presided over that process for a two-year period, which is really basically the evidentiary phase of the trial, this judge is no longer on the case. So the new judge has to read all of this documentation and wasn't even present.

To me, that's the other, larger theme of the film. The film really doesn't concern itself about who should win the lawsuit. From a moral standpoint, I'll let the audience decide that. I don't want to bang a message over their head. But from a larger viewpoint, to me another important theme of this film is just how inadequate the legal system is in addressing these environmental and human rights catastrophes.

This is a case that has dragged on for 17 years, and will probably go on for another 17 before there's any kind of resolution, unless there's a settlement out of court. Chevron has literally promised the plaintiffs a lifetime of litigation.

Right now, there's a recommendation by the independent court expert who we filmed. As you learn in the film, there's a $27 billion recommendation of a judgment against Chevron.

Now if you take that $27 billion, and just put it into the bank, and earn five percent interest on it (which anybody with $27 billion could do--that's a very easy way to make money) that savings per year buys multiple millions of dollars' worth of the best lawyers, PR people, and marketers to handle the situation.

The Exxon Valdez is another great example of how these things just take way too long. In that case, there was zero debate about responsibility. Exxon wasn't saying they didn't do it. In that case, the punitive phase of the judgment against them took almost 20 years to pay off. It was only paid late last year, and at the twelfth hour they were able to get the judgment reduced by 80 percent.

So if you were a villager up there waiting an entire lifetime for some kind of compensation for your lost livelihood, after waiting two decades, you get the final slap in the face that it was reduced by 80 percent. These legal structures are not adequately set up to deal with these kinds of cases.

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