There's an arresting image about a third of the way into Joe Berlinger's new documentary, Crude, that sees a young Ecuadorian boy holding two dead chickens by the neck. The chickens have died because of contamination in the area's water and soil, and the boy, with look of defeat in his eyes, casually tosses the carcasses into a thicket of jungle brush. What's heart-wrenchingly ironic about the scene is that his mother had bought the chickens with the hope that they'd bring her a little extra money to support chemotherapy treatment—treatment for a cancer that was caused by the carcinogens in the water and soil.
The scene is but a glimpse into the world of Crude, which chronicles with harrowing detail the legal controversy and human rights disaster surrounding the "Amazon Chernobyl" case. On one side of the legal battle is the indigenous people of the Ecuadorian jungle, whose home has over the last three decades undergone a shift from bucolic to debased; what was one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet is now riddled with pollution, high rates of cancer, leukemia, and birth defects. These people, the plaintiffs, allege that Chevron should be held financially liable for systematically destroying their homeland and their way of life. On the other side is Chevron (which inherited the situation from Texaco), which alleges that the plaintiffs are "environmental conmen," and that there isn't a causal relationship between the oil production and the problems of the area.
The lead attorney for the plaintiffs is Pablo Fajardo, a young lawyer who grew up in a poor Amazonian village and attended law school through a grant from the Catholic Church. Considering that Fajardo, who was awarded the 2008 Goldman Environmental Award, had never tried a case before this one, you'd expect him to be rattled. Instead, while flipping through an English language study guide as he sits on a bus, the then 34-year-old attorney, whose first ever case is a lawsuit with a $27-billion price tag, utters the following line. "I've never felt inferior to any of the Texaco lawyers because, when I say something, they have to think 1,000 times as hard to come up with a lie in order to counter my truth."
What's fascinating about Crude is that the director—who gained fame for such excellent documentaries as Paradise Lost, Brother's Keeper, and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster—allows the story to unfold with the urgency of classic cinéma verité despite the fact that by the time he began filming, the case was already 13 years old.
"This was probably the hardest assignment I've ever had," says Berlinger. "You know: 120-degree heat in a Malaria zone in the middle of the jungle, about a mile and a half from the Colombian border where drug-running is rampant. Plus you have to deal with the heartache of all these people—people who have lived in harmony with their environment for millennia, and their means of sustenance have just been taken away. We've taken away their ability to hunt and fish, but we haven't given them the tools for a Western existence like health care or economic resources."
As the film unfolds, Berlinger allows both plaintiff and defendant ample screen time. And for their part, the scientists and lawyers speaking on behalf of Chevron seem to believe that the company should not be held responsible for the region's environmental degradation, which affords the film a sense of documentary integrity and underscores just how complex the legal situation is. It is clear, however, that the relationship between the industrialized West and indigenous peoples is in need of repair.
"Whether Chevron has wrapped itself up in enough legal arguments to not lose the case from a technical standpoint is up to other people to determine. I'm not a lawyer or a scientist or a judge," says Berlinger. "But clearly the moral responsibility lies at their door."
Photos by David Gilbert, courtesy of Radical Media.
Header photo: A flare is reflected in an oil waste put in the Amazon rain forest of Ecuador. Lower photo: Emergildo Criollo, a leader from the Cofán indigenous community, testifies at the trial against Chevron in the Amazon rain forest of Ecuador.