A Filmmaker’s Wake-Up Call

Village elders describe this place as a former paradise, before the fish and animals that for millennia have lived in harmony with nature were destroyed by oil production.

Last Updated: September 10, 2009 @ 3:21 PM

 

We’ve certainly had cushier assignments.
 
Bouncing along an unpaved Amazon road on the back of a bald-tired pick-up truck in blazing 120-degree equatorial heat can lead to reflection on how you wound up in your current situation.
 
As documentary filmmakers, we have filmed all over the world under a variety of conditions. Some places — Maui, Copenhagen, Vienna — have been beautiful and sometimes even luxurious. Others not so much, like this part of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. Once a pristine Eden, today this place bears numerous scars and open wounds, both literal and figurative, left by 40 years of oil extraction.
 
For the past eight or 10 hours we’ve been breathing noxious petroleum fumes while filming at some of the oil pollution sites that contaminate 1,700 square miles of the rainforest here. The physical effects of even very short-term exposure to the pollution are palpable and unpleasant. 
 
"Crude," the film we are shooting, tells the story of the largest environmental lawsuit on the planet. 30,000 indigenous people and poverty-stricken campesinos (peasant farmers) are suing Chevron for $27 billion, claiming that Texaco — which was purchased by Chevron in 2001 — destroyed their rainforest home and created a “cancer death zone” the size of Rhode Island in one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on Earth.
 
Known as the “Amazon Chernobyl” case, the suit has been going on since a year after Texaco left the country in 1992, when the local people charged that the American oil company used outdated technology and irresponsible practices in order to save money on their operations in a place they knew no one was paying any attention.
 
We spent three years documenting the case, during the most exciting and dramatic period of what has now stretched to 17 years of epic conflict.
 
All day and over the course of the past two years, we’ve heard stories from indigenous people about the health problems they and their families say they face on a daily basis. They’ve told us about losing their land, their culture, their loved ones, and their dignity.
 
Village elders have described this place as a former paradise, before the fish, animals and plants that for millennia allowed them to live in harmony with nature were destroyed by oil production.
 
The voices and faces of these people echo in our minds as the breeze on the back of the moving pick-up cools the sweat that seeps through our layers of DEET-soaked jungle clothing, providing a respite from the extreme equatorial heat and the mosquitoes that the CDC label as carriers of malaria.
 
In the early 1960s, Texaco began exploring for oil here. Back then, the company made a deal with Ecuador’s government, and the first place they struck black gold was underneath territory that belonged to the Cofán indigenous group. “A tremendous noise came from the sky,” says Cofán leader Emergildo Criollo, remembering the sound of Texaco’s helicopters descending on his village. “We wondered, ‘What kind of animal is this?’”
 
He laughs, with more bemusement than bitterness, at his own naïveté. Emergildo was just a boy when Texaco arrived, and now his two sons have died from what he believes were the effects of oil contamination.
 
To the Cofán and a number of other indigenous groups in Ecuador, Texaco’s arrival was both an attack and an occupation. The native people tell us about their ancestral territories being invaded first by missionaries, then by heavy machinery, explosives, bulldozers, drills, riggers, strange white men, and other people from various parts of Ecuador, who came here in search of work.
 
The fertile land once named in the Cofán language of A’ingae was re-christened “Lago Agrio,” meaning “Sour Lake,” after Sour Lake, Texas — birthplace of Texaco.
 
For me, the making of this film was a wake-up call. The treatment of native people in both of the Americas by the “white man” over the past six centuries is one of the most disturbing chapters in human history. The behavior of profit-driven multinational companies, particularly in the extractive industries, is just the modern-day continuation of this shameful trend.
 
As the sun dips below the jungle canopy, it’s easy to appreciate all that has been lost in this part of the Amazon. Squinting toward the empty spaces between the gas flares that spew toxic filth into the air, one can imagine how this place — one of the only locations on Earth to survive the last ice age — must have looked before it was decimated in pursuit of economic “progress.” 
 
As I mentioned at the outset, we have certainly had easier assignments.
 
In making this film, we endured oppressive heat, nasty toxic fumes, numerous bouts of chiggers (tiny insects that burrow under your skin to lay eggs), and even a case of hepatitis A.
 
But in shedding light on a story that has been swept under the rug for decades, we remember why we got into this business in the first place.
 

 

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s body of work includes “Paradise Lost,” Brother’s Keeper” and “Some Kind of Monster,” featuring Metallica. His latest is “Crude,” the story of a lawsuit by tens of thousands of Ecuadorans against Chevron over contamination of the Ecuadorean Amazon.