Chevron’s Oil Exploits in Ecuador

I recently watched the documentary, Crude, by filmmaker Joe Berlinger. It has received wide praise and awards including an official selection at Sundance, best documentary of the year from the National Board of Review, and an International Green Film Award from Cinema for Peace.

“A fascinating and important story. CRUDE does an extraordinary job of merging journalism and art.”Christiane Amanpour, CNN Chief International Correspondent

In short, Crude is about Chevron’s oil exploits in Ecuador, the consequent environmental damage caused by the oil extraction operations, and the adverse health effects on the local, indigenous culture. It has been cited as a ‘David versus Goliath’ landmark court case that involves profit over human rights, profit over environmental protection, and profit over freedom of speech. The plaintiffs are suing for 27 billion which is the estimate costs of the damage to the environment, the indigenous culture, and the health of thousands of Ecuadorians. This is set to be the most lucrative case involving the environment.

Crude Trailer



Quickly, the viewer becomes aware that it is a very complex case involving many parties and influencers. In addition, while the documentary overall favors the plaintiffs in the case, they do provide a balanced perspective on the evidence being presented that support each side. Both sides of the case are also using the internet very extensively in their pursuit to declaim the opposition including the site, ChevronToxico and Chevron’s own Ecuador Site. This documentary is largely a story about a court case and the complexity of the law system between the US and Ecuador. It also involves political affiliations and considerations between a more socialist Ecuador and capitalistic United States.

A Web of Influence (created by Chevron, so it is biased in favor of Chevron)

Trial timeline link (provided by ChevronToxico, the main website supporting the plaintiffs)

Brief Historic Timeline:
– 1964 to 1990 – Texaco drills for oil in Ecuador
– 1992 – Texaco hands over operations to Petroecuador
– 1993 – the lawsuit is filed in New York City
– 2001 – Chevron takes over Texaco and inherites all debts and liabilities
– 2008 – Damages estimated at 27 billion by court-appointed experts
– 2010 (a few days ago) – Chevron subpoenas the filmmaker, Joel Berlinger, for obtain over 600 hours of footage from Crude and wins.
(it is much, much more complicated than this simple timeline)

The Ecuadorian People are the plaintiffs and are represented by a group of lawyers from both Ecuador and the US with financing backing from a prominent law firm in the US. The law firm, Kohn, Swift & Graf PC, makes it clear that they are involved in this case because it is a “lucrative case for the firm” (Joe Kohn). Also involved, are several large environmental groups including Amazon Watch and Amazon Defense Front. While Amazon Watch is a US activist group involving many celebrity spokespeople such as Sting and James Cameron, Amazon Defense Front is a grassroots collection of Ecuadorian NGOs.

In this case, the ‘David’ is not as small as you might think, because the financing backing of a prominent US law firm. However, the head lawyer is the stereotypical ‘David’ and comes from a very humble background from the jungles of Ecuador, and the area of the jungle where the environmental dispute is occurring.

Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair.

Pablo Fajardo

Pablo Fajardo is the lead Ecuadorian lawyer involved in the litigation and has been fighting this case for almost 16 years. He was raised in the jungles where Chevron’s exploits took place. He also works at a human rights claims office in Ecuador that provides advice and guidance for the Ecuadorian people. He has been awarded with CNN’s Hero Award for his landmark work with the Ecuadorian People as well as being a feature in Vanity Fair’s acclaimed Green Issue. Pablo grew up in the jungles where Chevron has been operating for nearly three decades and has witnessed first hand the environmental damages taking place there. He has been personally touched by the dispute raging in the jungle including watching his friends die from cancer, as well as, his own brother being killed amongst the complexities of the dispute.

Chevron’s Strategy

As explained throughout the documentary, it is Chevron’s strategy to prolong the case for as long as possible to, essentially, bankrupt the plaintiffs. However, much of the evidence uncovered through the litigation process has been equal among Chevron and the plaintiffs. The documentary ends by stating that case is still on going and no final decisions have made yet. It now seems to be dependent on a PR campaign to oust Chevron for their activities and lack of responsibility in Ecuador.

Main issues:
– Chevron (under the name Texaco) operated in Ecuador from 1964 to 1990 until handing over operations to the state-run Petroecuador
– Petroecuador has a very poor record for environmental protection and has been blamed for part of the environmental degradation
– The plaintiffs have not been involving Petroecuador in the case because it changes the lawsuit against Chevron
– Chevron claims that because President Correa is in favor of the case against Chevron, the plaintiffs have not focused their efforts on Petroecuador. Chevron claims that they are the ones being sued because they are a US based company and have the money.
– Much evidence supports that there is indeed environmental degradation in the jungle because of oil exploits, but Chevron claims that it is not their responsibility because they haven’t operated there for the past 20 years
– The plaintiffs argue that Chevron (under the name Texaco) set up the oil operations in such a way that environmental degradation was inevitable and did not take proper precautions to protect the drinking water. Thus, Chevron needs to take financial responsibility for their part.
– Only in 2008 does Chevron announce to its shareholders that they are involved in a multi-billion dollar liability in Ecuador. This can be considered borderline illegal because Chevron has been misleading its shareholders over a very important issue in its financial stability.
– Chevron has conducted its own assessments on the health of the indigenous people and have determined that there is no substantial difference in the prevalence of cancer among its population compared to other similar socioeconomic populations. They claim that poor sanitization and sewage is to blame for the rates of cancer and diseases.
– However, the evidence (conceived by court-appinted experts) that there has been environmental damage caused by oil exploits is hard to ignore when considering the rates of cancer and diseases in the area.

Community Conversations: Taking Effective Action

I recently attended a forum called, Taking Effective Action. The forum was part of Opportunities Waterloo Region‘s Community Conversations Series. The forum gave some practical advise to develop a toolkit of steps to impact policy change. The presenter was Nancy Dubois. Nancy has been a consultant with The Health Communications Unit (THCU) since 1998. She works with groups across the province in areas of planning, evaluation, policy development, sustainability, health communication and comprehensive workplace health.

Opportunities Waterloo Region, or just Opportunities for short, acts as a regional convener – a community support organization – exclusively focused on facilitating poverty prevention and reduction strategies, providing opportunities for the community to generate ideas and take action, building on existing assets and increasing community strengths.

The organization is currently underway in a campaign to influence public policy at a regional level. That campaign is for the Living Wage. The Region of Waterloo is considering implementing a Living Wage Policy for its employees and contractors and Opportunities is hard at work to inform the councillors and the citizens of the region to support such a policy. Click here for a PDF of a report from the Social Services for the Living Wage.

Here are some notes on the Conversation:

What is Policy?

  • At a macro level, policy provides more equitable access to the determinants of health; determinants such as income, housing, etc. Nancy comes from a health promotion background, so many of her speaking points make reference to health related policies, however, she did drive the message that health is very closely related to other measures of the quality of life of an individual.

“Canada is extremely progressive in terms of health promotions.” – Nancy

  • Good for Canada. I was not aware of this and it made me proud. A number of times, Nancy made reference to anti-smoking campaigns in Canada and how successful they have been. I have noticed that compared to other countries, when I look around in a populated area in Canada, there is a noticeable lack of smokers. Good clean air for all!

Why take a policy approach?

  • This question makes sense considering the audience in the room. Many of the participants of the conversation were coming from the non-profit sector that are actively engaged in community building projects and campaigns to influence attitudes. Other approaches that these organizations may take to influence and inform populations of people are awareness campaigns (large scale events to inform people of an issue), and educational campaigns (for example, the anti-smoking campaigns that used advertisements to inform people of the ill effects of smoking).

“Good” Policy is…

  • economically feasible
  • politically acceptable
  • socially acceptable
  • administratively and technologically possible

What kinds of policy work is the Ontario Government doing in regards to poverty reduction?

  • Bill 152: Poverty Reduction Act (May, 2009)
  • Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy (Dec 2008)
  • Full-Time Kindergarden

Nancy provided everyone with a handout on how to do policy work. It is a short and clear step by step process to engage in policy change.

Click here to download a PDF of the full handout–it is a great resource.

Here is a really short version of it:

Policy Development OWR CCS<div style=”font-size:11px;font-family:tahoma,arial;height:26px;padding-top:2px;”>View more presentations from npetten.</div></div>