I have never felt inferior to any of the Texaco lawyers. Because when I say something, they have to think a thousand times to come up with a lie in order to counter my truth. ~Pablo Fajardo
In the village of San Carlos in Ecuador, a mother relates how she and her 5 year old daughter both have cancer, but can’t afford treatments. She buys some chickens to make money, but they die after drinking contaminated water from the river. That’s because the river is near one of Chevron’s oil pits, left behind in the 90’s. Some villagers even live on the pits and only discover there’s oil under their feet once they dig into the ground. And without Texaco’s logo on the oil, there isn’t a way to confirm where it’s from. You can’t date oil. You can’t know how long it’s been in the ground. Sounds like something a Texaco lawyer might say right?
Texaco (later bought by Chevron which inherited the lawsuit) left Ecuador in 1992, and handed the reigns over to PetroEcuador, a state run oil company that documented 11 oil spills in the area. Not a great track record. With locals outraged over health defects in their children and themselves, someone has to be blamed. Chevron or PetroEcuador?
From the outset there is no ambiguity that it’s Chevron’s fault. One of their 30 year old oil pits is visited by a local lawyer. He shows there’s been no clean up, and that the water run off from the pit travels into the streams where villagers drink and bathe from. This lawyer is Pablo Fajardo, who’s humble in his trademark white hat and short Ecuadorian height, and yet loud and angry about the cause. He took the case on with no litigation experience. So when Vanity Fair picks up on his story they immediately compare him to David versus Goliath. It’s a fitting role, and thankfully he’s young. His fight’s probably going to last for another decade.
But he isn’t alone. Pablo is shepherded by Steven, an activist from New York whose behind his cause with the help of a wealthy New York law firm. One of the interesting things that filmmaker Joe Berlinger doesn’t shy away from is showing their pragmatism. They’ve taken the lawsuit because it will give them a great payout and potentially open doors for similar class action suits in their future. Steven’s reasons for hanging around seem more to do with prestige than money. He attracts the attention of Vanity Fair to run the story. He brings the magazine article back to Ecuador and shows it to Pablo. It’s their Green Issue with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover. Steven’s proud of what he’s accomplished. Pablo smiles politely but seems disappointed there’s not a picture of the families with health problems. He tells him one of those images would have spoken more words than the ones in the article.
At the end of the day Steven returns to a posh lifestyle in the U.S. while Pablo sleeps in a hovel. Steven seems to enjoy the glamor his fight against Chevron brings, while Pablo is the one trudging through oil pits with stains up to his elbows. It shows how much effort is required to bring a class action lawsuit floundering in obscurity out into the public consciousness. Unfortunately it’s douchebags like Steven that help get the wheels in motion.
The documentary does a great job of visiting both sides of the lawsuit. We hear the cries of help from indigenous villagers and we see the PR gold-stamped and approved statements from Chevron’s top brass. There isn’t much insight into PuetroEcuador, which Chevron claims is responsible for the mess. But the legal ball’s been in Chevron’s court for 14 years as of the documentary’s release.
The poor little guy versus the big oil companies is somewhat of a cliche these days. But it’s a cliche for a reason. At the time Crude was originally released in limited theaters I had no interest in seeing it. But now, with the mess in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought it was ripe for a viewing and frankly it’s only increased my level of awareness as well as insight into what is about to happen.
The Exxon Valdez disaster wasn’t settled until 2008. This Chevron disaster is estimated to take another ten years and it’s already been in the courts for 14. Now with BP’s latest mess, is there any doubt it will be decades before justice is served?
We make fun of celebrity activism. I know I’m guilty of it. It seems like disasters like these are just flavors of the month for guys like Sting and his wife, Trudie. While these disasters are tangled up in courts for half our lifetimes, they’re putting on concerts, raising awareness and then deciding on plans of action. During this filming Trudie visited San Carlos and reached a conclusion that the villagers needed clean drinking water. So through the Rainforest Foundation that she and Sting founded, they delivered massive jugs of clean water for the families. Putting on a concert in one night probably did more for these people than a lawsuit could. And now with BP’s crisis making headlines, it seems as though Kevin Costner has better solutions to cleaning up the mess than either BP or our government.
This documentary isn’t called Crude just because it’s about a giant oil company that has enough height to step over a problem they started. It’s called Crude because somebody went about their job in a sloppy, half-assed way. They thought they could just cover up the problem with a little dirt and make it go away. Thankfully there’s guys like Pablo Fajardo out there fighting them to the very end.